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The Season of Renewal

Sept. 15, 2008
Sept. 15, 2008

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Sept. 15, 2008

SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
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  • Defying reports that his years of tennis greatness are over, Roger Federer redeemed a disappointing season by beating two of his top young rivals to win his fifth straight U.S. Open

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The Season of Renewal

The stellar Jets debut of Brett Favre was one of many fresh starts on the NFL's opening weekend. But while hope was in ample supply, Tom Brady's injury cast a long shadow over the race for the Super Bowl

THERE ARE only somany quiet moments in the life of a quarterback—an active quarterback—when theheart isn't pounding and the feet aren't moving and the mind isn't juggling X'sand O's in the face of an all-out blitz. The night before taking the field forthe first time with the New York Jets, Brett Favre sat in his room at theWestin Fort Lauderdale writing down formations from a playbook that he stillhadn't mastered. After scrawling a play, Favre repeated the call over and overagain, a soliloquy on the eve of his return to the National Football League. ¬∂When Favre arrived at Dolphin Stadium on Sunday morning and walked onto thefield for warmups, his new teammates and coaches approached him in smallclusters, wondering why he was so quiet.

This is an article from the Sept. 15, 2008 issue

"I'm justtrying to conserve energy," the 38-year-old Favre told them, and theexplanation seemed sufficient, especially once he began to race around thefield, leading New York to a 20--14 victory. After that, any memory of hisbrief retirement gave way to the image of a quarterback reborn.

Favre movedgingerly across the visitors' locker room when the game was over, first to aninterview area and then to the showers. He dressed slowly, slung a computer bagover his shoulder and grabbed two small boxes of pizza before heading to theteam buses, which by then were surrounded by hundreds of fans.

At the edge ofthe tunnel, however, Favre decided to buy some extra time. He took a seat on agolf cart and, as several of his family members formed a makeshift offensiveline, scarfed down his pizza and recharged his batteries. After 15 minutes hestood up, leaned over to his wife, Deanna, and kissed her goodbye. When heresumed his walk toward the buses, the fans erupted in cheers for Favre'ssuccessful start—a soundtrack that has been a part of his life for nearly twodecades now.

IT'S THEcompetition," Tony Sparano, the first-year Dolphins coach, was saying lastweek about the motivation that drives NFL players to squeeze every snap out oftheir bodies, and why teams are eager to open their doors to anyone who canhelp them win—from running backs Warrick Dunn in Tampa Bay and Julius Jones inSeattle to cornerback Adam (Pacman) Jones in Dallas. The Dolphins' roster isfilled with men claiming third, fourth and even fifth chances. Executive vicepresident Bill Parcells molds a new team while evidence of his previous work isvisible in both conferences, in New York and New England and Dallas. Parcellshas been on the job in Miami for only nine months, but Jets coach Eric Manginican already see his influence up and down the Dolphins' roster.

"One thingthat stands out, and this is typical of Bill's fingerprints on any team he'sbeen with, is that it is a physical team, a big team and a tough team,"says Mangini, who was a defensive assistant under Parcells with the Jets in the'90s. "That's very consistent."

Among the newparts is quarterback Chad Pennington, trying to find a home for histwice-surgically-repaired right shoulder, and running back Ricky Williams, whoat age 31 is attempting to salvage a spotty career. Each of them, in his ownway, embodies renewal—and provides a happier counterweight to the grim image ofleague MVP Tom Brady hobbling off the field in New England on Sunday, hisseason lost to a knee injury. If baseball's Opening Day represents freshnessand the onset of spring, in the NFL, it's battered parts assembled for apunishing five-month slog to the Super Bowl. The league's creed is stark andutilitarian: If you have talent you can play, regardless of your past.

Few exemplifythat creed better than Williams, who rushed for 3,225 yards over the 2002 and'03 seasons before he failed drug tests and abruptly retired in '04. Aftertraveling to Australia, India and northern California, where he studied theIndian medical system called Ayurveda, Williams returned to Miami in '05, onlyto violate the league's drug policy the following year. He spent the '06 seasonwith the CFL's Toronto Argonauts before NFL commissioner Roger Goodellreinstated him last year. Six carries into his '07 comeback, he tore a pectoralmuscle that sidelined him for the rest of the season. Now, starting and sharingcarries with Ronnie Brown, Williams reflects on his younger self—a person hehas come to see as emotionally unprepared for the rigors of the NFL.

"There is noway to have experience and wisdom unless you go through things," Williamssays. "I know it's easy to say that everything happens for a reason, butyou can't really embrace that until you've gone down to a lower plane and youclimb back up to the upper plane. I have a contract extension [through 2009],and things are going well. I think I had to go through what I went through tohave this appreciation."

Even if some fanspin Miami's recent struggles on Williams's long absences, he believes he can bepart of the solution. "One of the things I'm learning about myself and thereason I love playing this game is that I'm good at it," says Williams."Part of it is the relationship I've developed with Bill Parcells and thecoaching staff. They are very big on details. I've never been coached ondetails the way I am now. I think the success I had before was all talent andluck."

Says Sparano,"He might be 31 years old, but he takes tremendous care of his body and healways has. I think you're seeing a guy who still has a bunch in his tank."Williams is taking night classes twice a week at Nova Southeastern Universityin preparation to become a doctor of osteopathy after football. He envisionsplaying three more seasons in the NFL, then dedicating himself to practicingmedicine.

OF COURSE, ifWilliams changes his mind later and wants to keep playing through his mid-30s,he'll probably find a suitor somewhere. "In my experience there's alwaysanother 31 teams out there," says nosetackle Jason Ferguson, 33, who's inhis first season in Miami after three with Dallas and eight with the Jets."In this league we're always going to have chances. If you get dropped by ateam and you've played at least 15 games, you are circled as a guy who can doit."

Says defensivelineman Vonnie Holliday, the 11-year veteran who spent five seasons in GreenBay and two in Kansas City before coming to Miami, "You can get a secondchance no matter what you're going through. That was the case in Dallas withPacman [Jones] and, certainly here, with Chad. It's not like Chad was doingterrible in New York. He was welcomed here with open arms because on paper he'sthe best quarterback in Miami since Dan Marino."

While Favre wasrecalling to the media the finer points of his two-touchdown passes—includingone to receiver Chansi Stuckey resulting from a classic Favre escape and jumpball on fourth down—Pennington, who had taken four sacks, was being asked whichbody part hurt most. The Dolphins' new quarterback pointed to his chest."My heart," he said. "My pride is hurt."

Pennington was onthe bitter end of the Favre saga last month, when the Jets quietly released the32-year-old veteran after eight seasons and he signed with Miami. While Favreis famed for his rocket throws and iron-man stamina, Pennington has exhibited asofter toss and a tendency to get hurt. Benched last year in favor of KellenClemens, he began working out full time in the off-season with Charles Petrone,a trainer he's known since he was a high school sophomore in Tennessee.

"He was thisskinny, broke country kid with big feet and big hands," Petrone says."He walked up to me at the gym and said, 'I'd like to train with you.' Iwas like, 'Who the hell are you?'"

As a teenager,Pennington would leave his house at 4 a.m. to travel to Petrone's gym, morethan an hour away, in a 1985 maroon Oldsmobile, its radio locked in to countrymusic. He continued the workout program at Marshall and all the way through hisrookie year in New York, where he became the most accurate passer in leaguehistory but also endured constant questions about his arm strength in theswirling winds at the Meadowlands.

The goal of theoff-season program was for Pennington to reclaim the Jets' starting job."Watching him hold a clipboard, that isn't going to be Chad in thisleague," Petrone says. "They had him pegged as a guy who can't push theball down the field. I told him, 'Let me incorporate the exercises that had youthrowing the ball 64 yards.' It's ironic that he's going to be doing it for anew team."

Says Pennington,"I think as human beings and as athletes, all we can ask for is a chanceand a glimmer of hope. You can look at [moving to a new team] as a challenge oran obstacle. To me there's no greater feeling than walking into that huddle,looking your teammates in the eyes, calling a play and walking to the line ofscrimmage together, ready to execute."

After a listlessfirst quarter in which he heard boos, Pennington nearly helped Miami equal its2007 win total. Working in the no-huddle offense with less than two minutesremaining, Pennington connected on five straight passes—short, precise,perfectly weighted—to four targets to move the Dolphins to the Jets' 18. With10 seconds left and Miami facing a third and 10, Pennington, under a heavyrush, lofted a pass into coverage in the end zone. Jets cornerback DarrelleRevis pulled it down for an interception. Moments later Pennington and Favreembraced at midfield after the latest, and most unusual twist, in a long AFCEast rivalry.

With Bradysidelined, the Jets, the Bills and even the Dolphins can dream a little dreamabout a division title. The Jets get first licks at New England this Sunday atthe Meadowlands. A week later Pennington, Williams and the Dolphins head up toFoxborough.

AS IF their joustin Miami as second-chance quarterbacks wasn't enough, Favre and Pennington haveone more thing in common. On Sept. 3, the Dolphins named Pennington a teamcaptain. That same day, the Jets announced the results of their vote for thecaptaincies. Although he didn't yet know his way around the team's playbook(let alone New Jersey's highways), Favre was chosen to serve as one of theoffense's captains, along with left guard Alan Faneca, himself a newcomer.

So it was atelling moment on Sunday, when Favre, for 16 seasons the leader in name and inspirit in Green Bay, glanced up at the scoreboard at one point and saw, listedamong the Week 1 matchups, VIKINGS AT PACKERS. It would have beenunderstandable if he'd had a moment of puzzlement or of lost concentration—likeso many others around the league who found themselves in new surroundings. ButFavre wasn't shaken.

"It wasn'tlike, 'I'm supposed to be there,'" Favre said. "I'm a Jet. I had agreat career in Green Bay, but the only thing that matters is what happens now.We're 1--0."

"There's no greater feeling," says Pennington,"than walking into that huddle, looking your teammates IN THE EYE andcalling a play."

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PHOTOPhotograph by David BergmanAUTOPILOT Though he's still learning the playbook, Favre looked in total command during the 20--14 win over Miami.PHOTODAVID BERGMANEASY BEING GREEN Favre fans new and old saw some familiar magic on his second-quarter Houdini-Hail Mary TD pass (left).PHOTOBOB ROSATO[See caption above]PHOTODAVID BERGMANFRIENDLY GREETING Past acquaintance was set aside when linebacker Bryan Thomas went after Pennington, a Jet until a month ago.PHOTODAVID BERGMANWISED-UP Williams says his rocky path helped him mature.PHOTOBOB ROSATODIVISIONARY Revis's end-zone pick sealed the win—and put the Jets in a good spot in the East.