-- These are the things Chad Pennington does not do precisely: take out his trash; call for an electrician; look after his dog.
Pretty much everything else, though, is fair game to Pennington's relentless exactitude.
"Chad just makes a habit of doing things the right way," says New York Jets tight end Anthony Becht, and while he is not talking specifically about how every strand of Pennington's blond hair seems to curl just so, he could be. There is something painstakingly faultless about the Jets' young quarterback, from the tip of his cleanly scrubbed locks to the bottom of his always-tied, size-16 shoes.
This is the man who keeps a filing cabinet of all the plays he has run since college, who cannot only recite the mechanics of a particular screen pass but also, from memory, recall its page number in the team playbook. This is the man who prepared for his rookie year by locking himself in the Jets' film room and diagramming every play from the team's previous two seasons. So when Coach Herman Edwards talks about Pennington's fastidiousness being a prime reason the once hapless Jets are headed to Oakland this weekend for a second-round playoff game against the Raiders, it is not hard to believe.
If Pennington hasn't quite figured out how to find time to call an electrician to look at a fixture in his Long Island home, it's not for lack of organization. It is only for a lack of hours in the day, and Pennington, 26, is working on that, too.
"What I'm going through now is the greatest balancing act you could ever imagine, but I'm learning how to control it," he says, with a slight southern drawl and a look that leaves no room for doubt.
If Atlanta's Michael Vick dazzles with his creativity, then Pennington is the beautiful mind of this NFL season. Since taking over from Vinny Testaverde in Week 5, he has been all about precision, lifting the Jets out of a 1-4 record and into the playoffs with an uncanny accuracy that has left even Joe Namath stunned. "I don't know how you could grade him any higher," the paragon of Jet-ness has said, and the annals of history have agreed.
Pennington's 104.2 passer rating this season was a franchise record and the best in the NFL. Pennington's 68.9 completion percentage was also a club record, the sixth-best mark in league history and not far off Joe Montana's career-best mark of 70.2. In his last 10 games, Pennington has thrown 20 touchdown passes and two interceptions, with three of those touchdowns coming in last week's first-round playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts, a 41-0 steamrolling.
By now, his correctness with a football is nearly unassailable. "I've just never seen him throw into double coverage," said Todd Husak, the third-string quarterback who drills with Pennington every day.
And while Husak, like several of Pennington's teammates, is quick to stress that Pennington is not a robot, noting "he's just nice and laid-back," it's clear that laid-back is not the reason every player in the Jets locker room now appears ready to follow Pennington to the ends of the earth, or at least across the country to Network Associates Coliseum.
Rather, it is Pennington's enthusiasm for diligence that has become contagious. The players who at the beginning of his tenure weren't sure whether the yes-ma'am Knoxville, Tenn., native was real or a cutout from a Wheaties box have been converted to his ball-protecting, play-diagramming ways.
"I don't know that it's even something verbal or just the way he handles himself," said offensive coordinator Paul Hackett, but "whether it be a handoff, whether it be ball-faking, he takes that job very seriously. He's obsessed with turnovers, and he makes that a priority for the rest of the team."
It is hard to tell how exactly Pennington got this way. Perhaps he is like this because he is a high school football coach's son, and coaches' sons learn the near-mathematical language of X's and O's before they are ever exposed to the more freewheeling aspects of the game. Perhaps he is like this because he is an oldest child, or because he is head-shakingly smart, or because he was taught good Tennessee manners by a mother who likes to say the family is "more common than dirt."
More likely, he just is.
"Chadwick's just always been Chadwick," Denise Pennington says as she smiles at the memory of her only son watching football games as a kindergartner. When the players on television gathered into a huddle, the towheaded little boy would huddle up, too, and after each down, he would jump into the clear space in the living room to "execute" the play, mimicking precisely how the quarterback tilted back his head when he threw.
As Pennington grew older, his ambitions expanded. In addition to football, he played basketball, ran track and fished avidly. There was the brief dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer, as well as a notion of becoming a concert pianist. "He took lessons," Denise reports, "but now he says he wishes we would have pushed him harder." And when his younger sister, Andrea, got a bad grade on a test, it was a teenage Chad who, clearly worried, sat his parents down and explained, "Andrea doesn't understand that this isn't okay."
So it was not exactly a surprise that when Pennington realized his future was in football, he began nightly quizzes of his father, an assistant high school coach. The two spent hours breaking down plays, and it showed on the field, even though Pennington's arm could hardly shatter glass.
"I've always had to find facets of the game that I could use to my advantage instead of my arm," Pennington allows, and when he wasn't highly recruited out of high school, he showed that one of those facets was perseverance, simply regrouping and accepting a scholarship to Division I-AA Marshall. He did the same when he was redshirted there as a sophomore after starting a handful of games his freshman year.
"Competitively, you're ready to fight, no doubt about it, but that's where my experience when I was younger helped me," he says. "You have to understand that I would see my father coach on Sundays, and on Mondays he would be mowing the field. So you see those types of sacrifices, you learn early."
Instead of pouting, Pennington focused on improving, and by the following year, he was back on the field and turning Randy Moss into the Thundering Herd's own version of Pac-Man, gobbling up pass after pass on his way to the end zone. There was speculation that the success was all because of the athletic Moss, but even after Moss left for the Minnesota Vikings, Pennington ran through opponents and school records, earning a spot as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
He was also a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship that year, based on a 3.8 grade-point average, and when Bill Parcells, running the Jets' football operation, and then-coach Al Groh saw the combination of smarts, skill and studiousness still available in the late part of the first round of the 2000 draft, they jumped. The Jets used one of the four picks they had in the first round, two earned from Tampa Bay in the trade for Keyshawn Johnson. By the summer, Hackett had his hands on Pennington, and from their first conversation was convinced the kid had a future in his complicated West Coast offense.
Hackett also knew there was time to teach it to him, with Testaverde comfortable in the starting role. So while other teams were throwing their early-round quarterback picks straight onto the field, Pennington spent his days under the practice bubble and in the film room, devouring footwork drills and play-calling exercises like only a statistics nerd could.
Pennington worked so hard in one practice he had to be taken to the emergency room for dehydration. He became so obsessed with the Jets' film technology that he filched the security code of a team employee so he could get into the practice facility in the early-morning hours. He took the team playbook on his honeymoon, poring over slant patterns on the deck of a Caribbean cruise ship while his bride, his college sweetheart, Robin, sunbathed a few yards away.
"Since Day One when he arrived with the Jets, he prepared like he was the starter all along; he learned as much as he could," Testaverde said. Testaverde leaves out that his own class in yielding the starting job to Pennington was another key factor in the young quarterback's success; in fact, it was Testaverde who sat Pennington down the day the switch was made and gave his advice on how Pennington could best win teammates' support.
Even now, Testaverde tries to give Pennington advice on how to handle all the pressure that comes with fame, although Pennington is doing exactly what he always does, which is break down the situation to its precise parts and deal neatly with each one.
"I think the hardest part is losing your privacy; I used to go on the Long Island Railroad or to the mall, no problem, but now you can't do that, so you just have to get used to people," he says. "Then the other thing is finding the right balance at home. My wife is on me all the time, saying if I would concentrate on house chores the way I do on football, it would be good.
"I think a lot of times, when you play a game where you have to perform under pressure, you can't really do what you're supposed to do unless there's a deadline. Maybe it'll have to be like that."
Maybe, although for now, turning taking out the trash into a two-minute drill can wait. At the moment, Pennington's microscope of a mind is trained on the Raiders and what it will be like Sunday when he gathers the offense for the Jets' opening drive. Of course, this is Pennington, so it's not the noise of the crowd or the romance of the perfect spiral that he is envisioning.
It's all of New York's players perfectly coordinated, precisely, neatly.
"It's that intensity when you step into the huddle, that focus and when everyone claps and says, 'ready, break,' " he says. "It's one heartbeat going to the line of scrimmage. To me, that's sweetest of all."