Jets quarterback Chad Pennington didn't need a strong performance in last Friday's 28-21 preseason win over Minnesota to confirm that his surgically repaired right shoulder was in good shape. He had reached that conclusion after a two-hour practice on Aug. 10, when he walked into the locker room at the Jets' Hofstra University training facility and noticed that his arm wasn't aching. "It was the first time I didn't feel sore during or after practice--I just felt normal again," says Pennington, who practiced only once a day for the first two weeks of camp. "That's when I really started to feel better about what we were doing to get my flexibility back."
Normal doesn't aptly describe Pennington's performance against the Vikings. For a quarterback who underwent rotator cuff surgery last Feb. 8 and was making his first preseason start, he was impressive. Playing less than two quarters, Pennington completed nine of 10 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown. He threw safe, short passes to start, then hit his stride midway through the second quarter. After missing an open Justin McCareins on a post pattern on the first play of the drive, he connected on six straight throws, including four to Laveranues Coles, the last one for a 20-yard touchdown. "Chad had a nice touch out there," said Vikings defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. "He had a strong rhythm to his game, and he was sharp on his short passes and the ones he threw into the seams."
Of all the passes that Pennington threw, the one that most excited Jets coach Herm Edwards was the heave that McCareins couldn't catch up to. As soon as the pass fell incomplete, Edwards glanced back at Pennington, who didn't grimace after firing the ball nearly 45 yards. "I knew my quarterback was fine then," Edwards says. In fact, Pennington shocked himself with the throw. "That's the first time in two years that I've been able to throw a deep ball," he says. "And it felt great."
After playing with shoulder pain in the last five regular season games and two playoff games last year, Pennington has to be comfortable throwing the ball downfield this season. New offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger has installed a more aggressive attack than the West Coast offense of his conservative predecessor, Paul Hackett, and there have been questions about how Pennington will fare in a scheme that requires him to do more than dink and dunk. Pennington didn't have a strong arm before his injury, and he struggled with deep throws early in camp.
Rest has allowed Pennington to recover much of his old strength and flexibility, and he has improved steadily as he has taken on more work in camp. In the week leading up to the Vikings game, the Jets had allowed him to practice in as many as six straight sessions. He'll need all the snaps he can get, as he continues cramming to master an offense that he couldn't run during the off-season when he was recovering from surgery. "There are still frustrating practices when I'm unable to execute and see things like I want," Pennington says. "Out of about 30 practices I've only had half of them. That's why it's important from here on out that I get every rep I can get. That's the only way I'll be ready for the opener."
Four Quarterbacks on the Hot Seat
Chad Pennington isn't the only quarterback the critics are closely watching. Here are four others whose maturity and consistency will be scrutinized well into the fall.
JOEY HARRINGTON, Lions. He has a rising star at running back (KEVIN JONES), an improving offensive line and three supersized, athletic wide receivers (ROY WILLIAMS, CHARLES ROGERS AND MIKE WILLIAMS) to make his job easier. And behind Harrington (right) is veteran JEFF GARCIA, ready and waiting to take over if he can't deliver.
JAKE PLUMMER, Broncos. It doesn't matter that he has a 19-8 record as Denver's starter over the last two seasons, or that he threw for a franchise-record 4,089 yards in 2004. Plummer still forces too many passes that lead to costly interceptions.
DREW BLEDSOE, Cowboys. The 33-year-old vet still holds the ball too long and his lack of mobility will always be a concern. JULIUS JONES and the other Dallas backs will be counted on to take much of the load off Bledsoe.
AARON BROOKS, Saints. New Orleans fans are losing patience with Brooks, who continues to play erratically despite a strong arm, nimble feet and game-breaking potential.