The New York Jets and agent Tom Condon are working on a contract extension for quarterback Chad Pennington, hoping to complete a deal by the Sept. 1 deadline established by Pennington's camp to cut off the negotiations until after the season if an agreement isn't in place.
Pennington, 28, is entering the final season of a contract that pays him a salary of $4.574 million this year. He is eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring.
A source familiar with deliberations, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the talks are at a sensitive stage with the deadline looming, said this morning there was optimism on both sides that a deal could be completed but that there were still some hurdles.
Pennington has established himself as one of the league's top quarterbacks and the Jets' most indispensable player since the club used the third of its four first-round draft picks in 2000 to select him out of Marshall. He became the Jets' starter in the fifth game of the 2002 season and led the NFL with a 68.9 completion percentage and a passer rating of 104.2 that year, when he threw for 3,120 yards and 22 touchdowns, with only six interceptions.
The Jets' 2003 season was undone when Pennington broke his left wrist during in a preseason game and missed the first six regular-season games. The team went 0-4 and was 2-5 by the time Pennington made his first start. Pennington started the final nine games and led the Jets to a 4-5 record but showed the effects of his late beginning, throwing 12 interceptions to offset his 13 touchdowns while completing 63.6 percent of his passes and compiling a passer rating of 82.9
Over the past two seasons, the Jets are 12-9 when Pennington starts, 3-8 when he doesn't.
Condon apparently is seeking more than $20 million in bonus money as part of a long-term contract extension for Pennington. The Jets could use their franchise-player tag to keep Pennington off the free agent market next year, but that would mean a costly one-year contract that would be cumbersome against the salary cap. This year's franchise-player number for a quarterback was $9.958 million.
The Indianapolis Colts used their franchise-player tag to keep quarterback Peyton Manning, another Condon client, off the free-agent market, then were left with little leverage in negotiations on a more cap-friendly multi-year deal for the reigning NFL co-most valuable player. Condon secured a league-record $34.5-million signing bonus for Manning as part of a seven-year, $98-million deal signed in March.
Condon also negotiated the six-year, $45-million contract (including $20 million in bonus money) that Peyton's younger brother, top overall draft choice Eli Manning, signed with the New York Giants last month, and the four-year, $19.074-million deal (including a $9 million signing bonus) that quarterback Marc Bulger signed with the St. Louis Rams in May.
The Jets also are attempting to negotiate a contract extension with defensive end Shaun Ellis, another of their 2000 first-rounders eligible for unrestricted free agency following this season. Ellis, 27, had had 121/2 sacks and reached the Pro Bowl last season and apparently has become a higher negotiating priority for the Jets than John Abraham, who also is a defensive end taken in the first round of the 2000 draft and a two-time Pro Bowler. Abraham, too, will be eligible for free agency.
Abraham did not attend his hearing before NFL officials Wednesday but reportedly was represented by his attorney. Abraham is appealing an approximately $340,000 fine by the league -- equal to four regular-season game checks -- for testing positive for alcohol. Abraham is barred from consuming alcohol under the league's substance-abuse policy after pleading guilty to driving while impaired following an arrest last year. He reportedly submitted the results of a polygraph test to the league to support his claim that he did not consume alcohol before this test result.
Franchise players reporting
It's the time of the year for disgruntled franchise players to end their contract-related protests and report to their teams to get ready for the season.
Linebacker Julian Peterson signed his one-year, $6.073 million contract tender (adjusted upward during the offseason after originally being set at $5.834 million) and joined the San Francisco 49ers on Wednesday. Cornerback Charles Woodson appears set to sign his one-year, $8.7824 million tender and report to the Oakland Raiders next week. Both players continue to seek long-term deals.
That leaves three franchise players -- Rams left tackle Orlando Pace, Seattle Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister -- still keeping their clubs on hold. All three appear likely to show up before the regular season, though. In truth, teams don't want to admit it publicly but generally fret little about such absences by established, veteran players, knowing that the players will be ready for the season and actually are reducing their chances of getting hurt by staying away from training camp and preseason games.
Westbrook could sit as precaution
Brian Westbrook is healthy, but Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid likely will give him a very limited role or withhold him entirely from tonight's preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field, just to be safe. Correll Buckhalter, slated to split the workload at tailback with Westbrook this season, suffered a season-ending knee injury during the Eagles' win at home over the Ravens on Friday, and Reid might use tonight's game to look at his young, untested runners -- Reno Mahe, Eric McCoo and Thomas Tapeh.
Tapeh, a fifth-round pick in April, was drafted by the Eagles to play fullback but played in some one-back formations in college at Minnesota and perhaps could emerge as Philadelphia's short-yardage runner this season. He rushed for 1,957 yards and 24 touchdowns in 43 collegiate games. Westbrook is slated to be the Eagles' featured back but is more of a darting, elusive runner whose specialty is not grinding out the tough yards with defenses stacked at the line of scrimmage on third and fourth downs.
Veteran tailback Dorsey Levens, signed by the Eagles on Monday, is not scheduled to play tonight. Philadelphia still could try to obtain another running back but likely would be looking for a player to complement Westbrook rather than replace him.
Tonight's game brings the return of running back Duce Staley, who shared playing time with Westbrook and Buckhalter last season but signed with the Steelers as a free agent in the offseason, to Philadelphia.
The Ricky report
Reports that tailback Ricky Williams contacted the Miami Dolphins this week and discussed a possible return to the team at some point from his sudden retirement undoubtedly set off alarm bells in South Florida and around the league. But there was little to get excited about in the short term, even before Williams told the Miami Herald that he had no immediate plans to come back and merely was talking to the Dolphins at the behest of agent Leigh Steinberg after the club informed him of its intention to seek reimbursement of $8.6 million.
Williams has filed retirement papers with the league and, although they're not binding, they virtually ensure that Williams can't play this season. He reportedly has had three violations of the league's substance-abuse policy, mandating a four-game suspension when he comes back, if he comes back. League rules say that if he returns from his retirement within a year, that would count as a fourth violation of the policy, bringing a likely one-year suspension. So Williams would have to receive an exemption from the league to play this season, and that seems unlikely even if he wanted to play.
Still, the contact between Williams and the Dolphins supports the notion that he will return at some point. Steinberg left open that possibility virtually from the moment that Williams walked away from the sport just before training camp. Williams has begun to set up conditions for a comeback -- a renegotiation of his contract and assurances that he won't be overworked and abused by coaches.
Bulger to play
Marc Bulger bruised his knee during Monday's 24-7 loss at Kansas City, but an MRI exam revealed no structural damage and he is scheduled to play Friday against the Washington Redskins. The Rams need to work out the offensive kinks after Bulger, playing behind a line that has been decimated by Pace's absence and injuries to right tackle Kyle Turley and center Dave Wohlabaugh, was sacked three times Monday and had an interception returned 60 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Shawn Barber while Kansas City was building a 24-0 lead.
The Rams likely will place Turley on the injured reserve list soon, officially ending his season, as he contemplates whether to undergo further surgery for a career-threatening back condition. Wohlabaugh was released after offseason hip surgery. Guard Tom Nutten, lured out of retirement by the Rams, could play Friday. He was practicing with the starting offense this week, underscoring how shorthanded the unit is.
Tailback Marshall Faulk emerged with some knee soreness after his six-carry appearance Monday but, barring a setback, probably will get some playing time against the Redskins. Rookie Steven Jackson likely will be the Rams' most active runner again, however.
Friday's game will give the Rams their first chance to look at second-year cornerbacks Kevin Garrett and DeJuan Groce in expanded roles. One of them is likely to be the starter opposite Jerametrius Butler after Travis Fisher broke his arm Monday. Butler signed a six-year, $15.04 million offer sheet with the Redskins as a restricted free agent during the offseason, but the Rams matched it to keep him.
Odds and ends
Quarterback Quincy Carter, signed by the Jets on Tuesday to back up Pennington, isn't scheduled to play Friday against the Giants but likely will get into the preseason finale against the Eagles next week. . . . Second overall draft choice Robert Gallery likely will play at left guard as well as left tackle for the Raiders on Saturday at Arizona. Gallery never has played guard, moving from tight end to tackle in college at Iowa but could spend this season there. The Raiders point out that Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection who was the fourth overall pick in the 1996 draft, spent his rookie season at left guard before moving back to left tackle, his natural position, in '97. Gallery perhaps could follow the same career path. . . .
Veteran offensive lineman Solomon Page signed with the Giants on Wednesday after being told he could compete for a starting job. He practiced Wednesday as the backup left guard, the spot at which Barry Stokes is the Giants' starter. Page was playing right tackle for Detroit before being released Monday. The Giants' starter at that position is David Diehl. . . . Quarterback Tim Couch's sore arm kept him out of the Green Bay Packers' practice again Wednesday.