Power Punk: Chad Pennington

Namath without the nightlife; smooth-faced Jet QB; precise, rhythmic command; poised and articulate, may just win a Super Bowl ring for Woody.

It took one juke for Chad Pennington of the New York Jets to become the king. Well, it was a stutterstep, really, near the goal line on fourth down with the Jets ahead of the Buffalo Bills 24-3 in November 2002. Sprinting to the end zone on a bootleg play, the pre-teen-faced Jet quarterback hip-faked Bills linebacker Eddie Robinson soooooo bad that Robinson plopped to the ground. And when the kid scored, he spiked the ball something fierce.

“I did not know Chad had so many moves,” Jets coach Herm Edwards said afterward. “He looked like Elvis Presley.”

Yeah, Chad Pennington’s full of surprises. In two seasons as the Jets’ starting quarterback-the second of which was put on hold by a wrist injury-the 27-year-old Pennington has become what three decades of New York Jets and Giants could not: iconic. A brilliant player at the game’s most glitzy position. A quarterback, a leader, who can not only bring the Jets a championship, but also transcend the Meadowlands to become a face that’s pinned up on bedroom walls in Tacoma and Cleveland.

Yes, we’ve had our share of stars. Phil Simms and Jeff Hostetler won championships. But while they did it, their robotic, slogging offense put a nation-not to mention a city-to sleep. Lawrence Taylor might have redefined his position, but he scared little kids. Certainly the rippled Mark Gastineau was good for some laughs. So, too, is Jeremy Shockey. But the kid ….

“He’s like Joe Namath,” Newsday sports columnist Sean Powell said, “except without the nightlife and everything else. He’s the anti-Namath. He doesn’t have a fur coat or mirror over the bed. He’s married. He’s got a bad haircut.

“Maybe his appeal is that way-as a throwback,” Mr. Powell continued. “If class counts for charisma, I definitely see that. He’s as close to Namath as any player in a New York football uniform today.”

It took us all a couple of years to find that out. A Rhodes finalist, the prep-school football coach’s son from Knoxville came to us thanks to two draft picks that former Jets coach and general manger Bill Parcells acquired when he traded the surly wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson to Tampa Bay in 2000. And it wasn’t until five games into the 2002 season that we got a glimpse of Pennington’s moxie. With the Jets’ record at 1-3, he led them to eight more wins and a playoff berth, showing the kind of precise, rhythmic command that Joe Montana once held running the same offense a generation ago.

“I’ll tell you what impressed me,” said New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson, the dean of New York sportswriting. “It wasn’t so much with him on the field. I remember the first time he played well, and I saw him in a post-game press conference: He was the most poised and articulate quarterback in a post-game press conference I had ever seen. You knew this kid was smarter, sharper.”

All the smarts in the world couldn’t save Pennington from a wrist injury in the Jets’ final pre-season game. But in coming back with brilliant play-albeit for a team out of contention-he’s shown that he may be giving polished, studied answers to a Super Bowl press corps sometime soon.

“Some got it and some don’t,” as Mr. Powell put it. “He just has it.”

– Sridhar Pappu