His initial pass was a little wobbly and not quite true, but it more than ably signaled its intent. After spending the better part of last week listening to harsh criticism about his inability to complete passes downfield or win a big football game -- and smack in the middle of a potentially ugly spat with the New York media -- Jets quarterback Chad Pennington came out throwing in the first round of the AFC playoffs last weekend.
In the Jets' first playoff appearance since the 2002 season, Pennington led New York to an upset, a 20-17 win over the San Diego Chargers in overtime last Saturday, and silenced, if only for a while, questions about the health of his shoulder.
New York's success on Saturday against Pittsburgh will depend on the play of Chad Pennington. The same can be said of Atlanta's Michael Vick as the Vikings face the Rams.
Pennington's reward for that gutsy display comes today, with the Jets in Pittsburgh to face the top-seeded Steelers in an AFC second-round playoff game, during which he will again be the focal point of scrutiny. New York is a decided underdog and Pennington must try to find holes in the NFL's top-ranked defense. Pittsburgh has won 14 straight games, has the league's best overall record (15-1) and a rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who has never lost an NFL game (14-0). The Steelers did not lose all season at Heinz Field and beat the Jets there, 17-6, on Dec. 12, an outing that was particularly miserable for Pennington.
So it was not surprising that minutes after the dramatic win in San Diego -- and a full day before the other AFC first-round game had been played -- Pennington was already sizing up the Steelers. He assumed that Denver would lose Sunday to Indianapolis -- the Broncos did -- to set up this rematch, and began bracing for another series of inquiries into his health and effectiveness. After all, Pennington went just 17 for 31 for 189 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions against the Steelers (for a paltry 33.6 passer rating) last month -- the second-worst start of his career -- results that would be chewed over relentlessly in New York.
"Obviously, we didn't play well, and I didn't play well the last time we played Pittsburgh," Pennington said, remnants of grass and mud from the Qualcomm Stadium turf still on his uniform pants and undershirt. "So those questions will be asked once again, and we'll handle those things and take care of business and go up there and play. We're playing the best team in the AFC, so we'll deal with that situation."
The atmosphere around the Jets has been combustible, with some in the media suggesting the club had no right to be in the playoffs after losing the last two regular season games, and Pennington the point-man for the angst. NFL observers suggested he lacked the moxie and aggressiveness to throw the ball deep -- theorizing that the rotator cuff injury that kept him out of three regular season games caused him to finesse everything -- and doubted he could prove them wrong against San Diego last Saturday under such pressure-filled circumstances. But a brilliant 47-yard touchdown strike to Santana Moss early in the second half silenced much of that talk, and Pennington later engineered a game-winning overtime drive. He finished the game 23 for 33 for 279 yards with two touchdowns and a sparkling 115.6 rating.
"Chad is a stand-up guy in every sense of the word," said New York's Pro Bowl running back, Curtis Martin. "Not just on the field, but off the field, also. He's a leader. He knows the game as well as anyone in the entire Jets organization. I take my hat off to him, because he's not the oldest guy, but he put up with the adversity that has been going on, and stood strong through it and overcame it."
One could argue that Pennington, 28, who was drafted in the first round from Marshall in 2000, brought some of the negative attention upon himself. Things got dicey when he was reluctant to speak to the media following a win over Seattle last month, and then his once-amicable relationship with the press soured at his news conference. Pennington, a journalism major, opined that reporters should feel "privileged" to speak with athletes.
Couple those incidents with the coverage of team's spiraling play, and Pennington's struggles in New York's previous playoff game -- a 30-10 loss at Oakland in a 2002 divisional playoff -- and a full-fledged media feud loomed as the Jets traveled to California. Pennington's performance against the Chargers eased the tension, and should he overcome the Steelers he will undoubtedly become the toast of the New York press and the prince of the Big Apple.
"I'm a confident guy," Pennington said, "and I believe in my teammates and I believe in myself, and with the preparation we put in I just felt like as long as we kept working hard it was just a matter of time before things kind of went our way. That's just the way it is, that's the nature of the beast and the nature of the game at this position; when you're the quarterback you get criticized when you play bad, and congratulated when you play well."
Jets offensive coordinator Paul Hackett has been under heat because of his conservative game plans, and Pennington was not sharp at the end of the season, particularly on longer passing plays. The Jets had to diversify their offense to defeat the Chargers, and while no one rushed for more yards than Martin this season, he was mostly a passenger against San Diego, with Pennington taking the lead.
New York's second play from scrimmage was a 30-yard pass, and, although incomplete, the Jets were determined to force the Chargers to focus on both the pass and run. The fifth-year pro carved up the Chargers' 31st-ranked pass defense, slinging the ball to all areas of the field. There was a swagger to the way Pennington operated, an abandon missing in the latter stages of the season.
"I saw it during the course of the week," Coach Herm Edwards said Sunday. "His confidence, his air about what he wanted to do and not trying to be so perfect. Just throw it and don't worry about it, and just go have fun. I had a feeling he was going to play well."
It resulted in New York's first road playoff win since the 1982 season, and the Jets head to Pittsburgh looking like a more capable football team. They will likely have to go pass the ball effectively again to win, as Pittsburgh allowed just 81.2 rushing yards per game, best in the NFL. Pennington is already the sixth-leading passer in Jets history, throwing nearly twice as many touchdowns as interceptions (53-27), with a franchise-best 65.9 completion percentage and 93.7 rating.
"With a guy like Chad, as competitive as he is, he's going to be all right," said Moss, whose touchdown reception against San Diego on New York's first possession of the third quarter gave the Jets their first lead. "Regardless of what you say or what we do, he's going to be all right. He has enough confidence in himself to go out there and do what he did [Saturday], and that's all we need. I'm confident in him every time I step in the huddle with him, because I know what he's done and what he's going to bring to the table. Regardless of what situations he's dealing with or what he's going through, I know he's going to come out there and leave it all on the field."