Chad Pennington doesn't remember the drive. It has been a mere 14 months since he was hit with the double whammy that sidetracked his journey toward football fulfillment, yet the New York Jets quarterback gets a faraway look in his eyes as he attempts to recall the details. He knows the specifics of the injury--taking the hit from New York Giants linebacker Brandon Short in an August 2003 preseason game, attempting to break his fall with his nonthrowing hand, then wincing as his left wrist snapped. He knows he had surgery and checked out of the hospital the following day, still hopped up on painkillers, and that at some point during the next few hours he got the call that his father-in-law had succumbed to leukemia in a hospital a few miles away. "All in all," says Chad's wife, Robin, "the most horrific 24 hours of our lives."
Two days later, unable to fly so soon after surgery, Pennington was with Robin in the backseat of a rented SUV while his father, Elwood, drove the 10 1/2 hours to Madison, W.Va., where Bob Hampton's funeral was held. Or so Chad has been told.
"Did we drive?" he wonders during a break on a Tuesday in early October at the Jets' practice facility in Hempstead, N.Y. "I can't remember." He pauses and cracks his knuckles, then adds, "It's all a blur. That was definitely the lowest point. The rug had been pulled out from under me."
One thing Pennington does recall, though, is the phone conversation he had with Jets coach Herman Edwards shortly before leaving for West Virginia. The two men have an almost telepathic connection, one that has been instrumental in the Jets' resurrection this season (New York improved to 5-0 on Sunday with a 22-14 win over the San Francisco 49ers), and their shared disappointment over Pennington's injury was palpable. "You have all these things you want to accomplish together," says Pennington, "and it's like someone had kicked you in the stomach. It was almost hard to talk to each other."
Edwards, in fact, couldn't even bring himself to look Pennington in the eye after the game and had put off calling his quarterback for more than a day. Certainly he had his own reasons to be sad. Without Pennington, who had led the Jets to the 2002 AFC East title and a 41-0 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts in a wild-card playoff game, Edwards's highly regarded team would be facing difficult times. Yet what sets him apart in his profession is his empathy, and that was why it was so hard for him to pick up the phone. Edwards felt Pennington's pain; the coach knew his quarterback would be tormented by the irrational notion that he was letting down his team.
"We've got to help each other through this," Edwards told Pennington after an awkward silence at the call's outset. "We will get through it, and the experience will make us stronger. I don't want you even thinking about blaming yourself for this." Both men choked up; tears were shed. "Your family is first," Edwards said. "Be the husband you need to be. Take as much time as you need. We'll wait for you."
For a franchise in a state of perpetual anticipation--it has been more than 3 1/2 decades since Joe Namath led the upstart Jets to their landmark Super Bowl III victory--the wait may finally be over. With a healthy Pennington back throwing pinpoint passes and Edwards working his motivational magic, New York is abuzz as the Jets head into this Sunday's showdown with their AFC East rivals, the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (5-0) at Gillette Stadium. Against San Francisco, Pennington (20 of 30, 222 yards, no interceptions) brought the Jets back from a 14-0 first-half deficit and continued to display the patience and composure that helped him win an NFL passing crown in 2002 but were largely missing in the final 10 games of the '03 season, after he returned from his injury.
Having endured disastrous starts in each of his first three seasons, Edwards has the Jets at 5-0 for the first time in franchise history and believes he has a quarterback who can play Namath to his Weeb Ewbank. "This is not known as a winning organization, and we're trying to change that perception," says Pennington, who ranks sixth in the league with a 97.8 passer rating. "With Coach Edwards's leadership, we're very capable of winning a championship, and that's why he and I talk about it all the time. Sometimes we can just look at each other and know that the other is thinking about it."
As psychic partners, Edwards and Pennington seem to have been plucked from the buddy-flick wing of central casting. Edwards, 50, who was raised by an African-American father and a German mother, grew up in Seaside, Calif., a working-class beach town five miles east of Monterey. He earned a football scholarship to Cal, where he was exposed to the vibrant politics and culture of Berkeley before launching an unlikely 10-year NFL career. Pennington, 28, is a high school coach's son from Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains who starred at mid-major Marshall, says the film Sweet Home Alabama speaks to his essence and would rather eat at Cracker Barrel than any of Manhattan's finest restaurants. "There's nothing better," says Pennington, "than rolling into Cracker Barrel before fishing and getting the Old Timer's Breakfast [grits, biscuits and gravy, two eggs, and bacon or sausage] with a vanilla milk shake."
Broadway Joe, meet Cracker Barrel Chad.
But whatever their differences, the two men are competitive soul mates. "Herm and Chad have the same type of character," Jets running back Curtis Martin says. "To see their shared focus, commitment and passion is to understand who they both are."
Edwards often shares life lessons with the quarterback he inherited after taking over as the Jets' coach in January 2001. The 18th pick in the 2000 draft, Pennington had spent his first season on the bench as the third-stringer and watched as Vinny Testaverde led the Jets to the postseason in '01. He gave new meaning to the term hanging chad as he became the only quarterback picked in the first round since 1982 to fail to start a game in his first two seasons. Replacing an injured Testaverde after a 1-3 start in 2002, Pennington finished with the league's best passer rating (104.2) and completion percentage (68.9) as he rallied the team from a 2-5 hole to a division title.
"I look at coach Edwards as a second father figure," Pennington says. "With his experience as a player and a coach, I'd be ignorant not to ask his advice. To me, the head coach and the quarterback are the two leaders of the team, and you can't have two agendas if the team is to be successful."
Pennington might get some arguments from Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and John Elway, each of whom clashed with his coach while guiding his team to the Super Bowl. But those who know Edwards, a charismatic leader who does not sugarcoat his opinions, believe that, in his case, such a bond with the franchise quarterback (Pennington signed a seven-year, $64 million extension before this season) is a necessity. "Herm's going to have a great relationship with all of his players, but especially with his quarterback, because he's going to want him to think like he does," says Colts coach Tony Dungy, who, after he was named coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996, persuaded Edwards to leave his job as a Kansas City Chiefs scout to become the Bucs' assistant head coach and secondary coach.
Edwards traces his discipline, integrity, humility and organizational skills back to his late father, Herman, an army sergeant who later worked as a construction foreman. Though a self-described loner, the younger Edwards expanded his horizons at Cal, where he starred at cornerback for two seasons before a personality clash with his position coach led him to transfer to San Diego State. "You learned a lot about life in Berserkeley," Edwards says. "I'd sit on the steps of Sproul Plaza and listen to speakers like Huey Newton, Cesar Chavez and Angela Davis. Whether you agreed with them or not, they were people who were willing to fight for what they believed in. You'd see streakers, people smoking dope on campus; and you had choices to make every day."
Edwards was no one's choice in the 1977 draft, despite the fact that there were 12 rounds back then, and he signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles, whose second-year coach, Dick Vermeil, was attempting to reverse a legacy of losing. The training-camp roster included 20 defensive backs, but Edwards made the team. He played the first nine of his 10 NFL seasons in Philly, starting 135 consecutive games, intercepting 33 passes and famously scoring in '78 on the Fumble to give the Eagles a stunning victory over the Giants--the Miracle in the Meadowlands. Says Edwards, "I learned from Coach Vermeil that you could have a relationship with a player, and it's not a bad thing." In Tampa, Edwards grew so close to strong safety John Lynch that he asked the hard-hitting All-Pro to be the godfather of his son. "People say he's a player's coach, but that sucker's as intense as they come," says Lynch, who's now with the Denver Broncos. "Tony brought him in to be the hammer [in Tampa], the guy who would set an attitude."
Edwards's success there paved the way for his move to New York, where even in the media glare he makes no attempt to hide his intensity, often enlivening press conferences with his amped-up riffs. Yet on game day Edwards is supremely composed. Says Pennington, "You'll never see coach Edwards tight or nervous on the sideline. He has confidence in our preparation and enjoys watching his players perform. That's why he's so calm."
If there's a touch of envy in Pennington's voice, it's only because the quarterback is still striving for similar emotional restraint. Known for head-butting his linemen, Pennington was such a hyperkinetic mess during a 30-10 divisional playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders in 2002 that he says reproachfully, "I should've suited up as a linebacker." He has learned to tone things down on the field, as evidenced by the cool drive he directed to set up Doug Brien's last-minute, game-winning field goal in a 16-14 win over the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 10. Off the field, however, he still has work to do. During a baby shower last January, Robin went into labor with the couple's first child--she was six weeks early, but son Cole still weighed more than six pounds at birth--and Chad made a spectacle of himself in the delivery room. "He had a towel around his neck, like we were in the middle of a game, and as I got close to giving birth, he was screaming, 'Come on, honey, we're in the red zone! It's fourth-and-one!' He had the doctors and nurses cracking up, but I was ready to kill him."
Now that he's a father, Pennington has even more in common with his coach. Each man spends the bulk of his time outside of football hanging out with his wife; conveniently, Lia Edwards and Robin Pennington are friends, and the two couples socialize occasionally. "One thing about me and Chad, our priorities in life are simple," Edwards says. "We don't have a lot of hobbies."
As hard as the 2003 season was for both men as the Jets sputtered to a 6-10 finish, they believe their bond was strengthened and valuable lessons were learned. The coach placed a renewed emphasis on discipline (no cellphones or DVD players in the locker room) and made strategic adjustments, replacing defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell with the aggressive Donnie Henderson. The quarterback learned not to force the ball downfield and to trust his instincts.
"I think Coach Edwards is slowly constructing the team he envisions, a team that plays with energy and passion and that takes pride in its performance," Pennington says. "We can't cut corners or rush the process, but we are going to win big, in our opinion, and he and I can't wait for that to happen."