As the Jets and Chiefs trudged through yesterday’s season finale amid freezing rain and a sparsely populated crowd, Chad Pennington stood stoically on the sideline, donning a team-issued raincoat and watching his heir apparent, Kellen Clemens, struggle to muster 13 points against a Kansas City team that entered yesterday’s contest having lost eight consecutive games.
And so it had come full circle for Pennington, whose star-crossed tenure as the Jets’ starting quarterback began in the fourth game of the 2002 season, when he faced the same Chiefs team at Giants Stadium. The Jets lost that game, but Pennington shined, completing 22 of 29 attempts for 237 yards, two touchdowns, and a thin ray of hope in what appeared to be another lost season. What followed was an 11-game stretch wherein Pennington played about as well as any NFL quarterback ever has, completing nearly 69 percent of his passes for 22 TDs, 6 INTs, and a staggering 104.2 QB rating. Pennington rescued that Jet team from certain oblivion, propelling a 1-4 club beset by injuries and infighting to one of the more unlikely playoff runs in franchise history. He was the toast of New York then.
But it wouldn’t last. After a broken wrist abbreviated his 2003 campaign, a crushing hit from Buffalo’s London Fletcher in 2004 would tear Pennington’s rotator cuff, altering his career forever. Clearly impaired, Pennington soldiered through the remainder of the 2004 season, taking the Jets to the doorstep of a victory over a vastly superior Steelers team in Pittsburgh. But it wasn’t to be. Doug Brien missed two makeable field goals, costing the Jets a trip to the AFC Championship game. When Pennington emerged from offseason shoulder surgery to begin the 2005 season some five months in advance of the recommended rehabilitation period for a rotator-cuff tear, he found himself once again facing the Chiefs, this time at Arrowhead Stadium. And after Pennington received the news that his surgically repaired shoulder had been wrecked once again in the third game of the 2005 season, he was consoled by current Chief head coach Herman Edwards.
By most accounts, yesterday will prove to be Pennington’s last in a Jets uniform. If it does, you can understand why.
His right arm, never blessed with prodigious strength, has been further sapped by two crippling shoulder injuries. What remains is a mere shadow of what stoked so many hopes five years ago. Next June, the fair-haired golden boy of 2002 will turn a sobering 32. His all-important salary-cap figure will almost certainly be too high to warrant keeping him on as a backup, and he seems a distant longshot to reclaim his starting job.
Pennington never matched Joe Namath’s miracle in Superbowl III. No one could. But what he managed in the face of an avalanche of adversity has been nearly as remarkable. Sadly, he’s ever been properly acknowledged for it. Indeed, the only standing ovation he’s received from Jet fans since 2002 came in mockery, as thousands of booze-addled half-wits cheered while he writhed in agony on the Meadowlands turf, his ankle having being severely sprained in ugly pile-up against the Patriots on opening day of this season.
The criticism of Pennington’s game wasn’t without merit. He has struggled to get the ball more than 20 yards downfield, allowing defenses to pinch the line of scrimmage. His decision-making, once his strong suit, has also regressed. The inescapable conclusion is that this Chad Pennington isn’t good enough anymore.
But whatever may be said of Pennington’s limitations, it should also be said that he was always one of the goodguys. His perseverance in the face of towering obstacles and his team-first attitude, as well as his squeaky-clean reputation as a family man and all-around nice person, has made him that rarest of commodities in today’s NFL: a true role model.
And no matter what becomes of Pennington from this day forward, that aspect of his legacy deserves to be acknowledged. Jet fans owe him that much.