Chad Pennington parks his gray pickup truck by an exit gate here at Weeb Ewbank Hall. You see it in the early morning hours alongside his teammates' automobiles before the workday commences. When evening rolls around and practice and meetings are complete, Penny's modest truck still remains amongst a sparse lot.
You wonder what Pennington's doing. Is he reviewing film from today's practice? Is he talking with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer about the Colts' cover-two defense? Perhaps the seventh-year passer is going through a couple of strengthening exercises. The only thing you are sure of is the 30-year old Pennington is looking to improve as darkness pervades.
After three weeks of this 2006 season, Pennington has led the Green & White to two victories. His 103.4 passer rating is ranked fourth-best in all of football, close to seven percentage points ahead of Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning. Pennington, a career 65.3% passer entering the season, has completed 65.7% of his 99 passes while throwing for five touchdowns against only one interception. His comeback is well on track after undergoing two shoulder surgeries in 2005.
"It's great to see. It's great for him; it's great for the team," says Jets head coach Eric Mangini of Pennington. "It's especially important because of the way that he is, the way that he works, the consistency that he has, and the type of professional he is.
"He's such a good example for everybody else because of his approach," continued Mangini. "I'm obviously very happy for him. We have a lot of things collectively we have to work on. It's a tribute to him."
Playing behind a talented but young offensive line, Pennington has been able to make a number of plays down the field to his receivers. Laveranues Coles, who was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month on Wednesday, has registered an NFL-high 24 receptions and is second in the league with 331 yards receiving. Another Pennington target is the blossoming Jerricho Cotchery, a third-year player from N.C. State who has averaged 14.6 yards on his 15 receptions. Credit must be given to all of the Jets' targets for making yards after the catch, but Pennington has displayed more than adequate arm strength.
"The way that he is throwing the ball is impressive," said Colts coach Tony Dungy of Pennington. "You knew that he was going to manage the team well and be poised and be accurate and get them in the right plays and do all of those things, but he really is throwing the ball well. He is a big reason why they have those two wins."
In fact, Pennington may be throwing the ball better now than at any point in his career. Each week he talks of the changes he has made in his mechanics, becoming more than just an arm thrower. He is physically stronger now and he credits his lifelong coach for the transition.
"My dad helped me look at that. He's seen me throw for 30 years," Pennington said of Elwood Pennington, the former head coach at the Webb School in Knoxville. "We tried to incorporate as many people as possible to help increase my core strength and increase my hip strength, which would in turn increase my velocity with my arm."
When critics wrote him off in the offseason, Pennington unleashed a flurry of punches. Always looking for an edge, the 6'3", 225-pound quarterback signed up for karate.
"What karate has done for me is show me how important a good base and a good foundation are and how to incorporate those hips and your core to throwing the football," he said. "Throwing a punch is similar to throwing a football. When you really break it down and you really look at it, it's really similar."
In the season-opening win at Tennessee, Pennington was brilliant in leading the Jets to a road triumph. He faced great adversity against the Titans, playing in his home state while his dad stayed home to recover from a physical ailment. People around the league took notice including this week's counterpart – Peyton Manning.
"I watched it as a fan, but Chad played really well in that game and made some huge plays," Manning said. "I certainly know he has been through a lot with injuries and his father has been ill. I am just glad that he is back and playing well."
After throwing for 319 yards in week one, Pennington passed for 306 yards against the Patriots. But stats won't ever tell the story with this signal caller and last week's win over Buffalo was a perfect example.
It was a tale of two quarterbacks in Western New York as J.P. Losman, the Bills' third-year passer, threw for 328 yards and accounted for two touchdowns while Pennington threw for 183 yards and one scoring pass. An athletic Losman turned the ball over three times and held onto the ball too long at times. And then there was a decisive Pennington, playing a turnover free game and neutralizing a good Bills defense with quick passes. Not surprisingly the Jets came away with a 28-20 divisional win on the road and are now 2-1. Pennington is thoroughly enjoying his time behind center.
"Satisfaction is not even the word. I have a feeling of happiness to be out on the field," he says. "I mean, that's what it's about. You miss playing the game when you're injured. I've played this game for quite a while now. This is my passion."
Pennington is soaking it all in right now. He knows nothing is promised and savors each opportunity. When you hear him talk, you think of Wayne Chrebet. Late in his career, Chrebet would look you in the eyes and make it clear that he loved the big moment, he loved his teammates, he loved running out of the tunnel at the Meadowlands, and he loved the game.
"I'm just trying to take that all in: enjoy every down, every distance, every play, because you never know what it's going to end," Pennington says. "Last year really showed me that. This game - there is a finality to it. It doesn't last forever. The hard part is you never know when that finality is going to come. You never know when your last play is going to be."
So he prepares diligently for the next play. Practice has ended here in Hempstead, but a lot of work is still in the cards for Pennington. There was no true magic formula for this comeback.
"Hard, hard work," Mangini responds when he is asked of Pennington's comeback. "He is here all the time anyways. I mean - whether it was lifting, the rehab, the running, strengthening exercises - he did it all. He did it all the way that Chad does it, which is all day, every day."
When Pennington steps on the field Sunday against the Colts, he says he'll feel as good as new.
"I don't feel like I've come back from two shoulder surgeries," he said this week. "I don't feel like I've been injured before. I feel normal and feeling normal feels good to me because it's been a while."
But Chad Pennington is anything but normal and there is that one striking reminder. When you leave the Jets' practice facility, you will pass by the quarterback's gray pickup truck.
Thursday Injury ReportJets*Questionable: CB David Barrett (thigh), WR Laveranues Coles (calf), RW Tim Dwight (hamstring), OL Pete Kendall (thigh), S Kerry Rhodes (thigh), DB Derrick Strait (thigh), & OL Trey Teague (ankle) *Probable: *DL Dave Ball (hand), *RB Kevan Barlow (calf), *LB Matt Chatham (foot), *OL Anthony Clement (shin), *CB Drew Coleman (hand), *DL Shaun Ellis (hip), *DL Bobby Hamilton (knee), *QB Chad Pennington (calf) & *DL Kimo von Oelhoffen (knee)
Out: DT Corey Simon (knee) & S Bob Sanders (knee)
Questionable:LB Gary Bracket (thigh), T Ryan Diem (thumb), C Dylan Gandy (abdomen), CB Nick Harper (ankle), * DB Kelvin Hayden (groin), DB Marlin Jackson (concussion), *DB Tim Jennings (knee), *LB Freddie Keiaho (knee), DT Dan Klecko (lower back), G Ryan Lilja (knee), DT Darrell Reid (elbow), *G Jake Scott (knee), WR Brandon Stokley (ankle), *DE Josh Thomas (hip), *TE Ben Utecht (groin) & K Adam Vinatieri (R groin)
Probable:RB Dede Dorsey (ankle)
* Denotes players who participated in practice