The legion of Chad Pennington doubters grew substantially after he underwent a second arthroscopic shoulder surgery on October 6, 2005. He participated in only three games in '05 and nobody knew how his right arm would respond following two procedures in an eight-month span. Last March, the Jets and Pennington agreed to a re-structured contract.
"I think the biggest issue for me is just continuing to get stronger and getting back my total body strength that I had even before my first surgery in 2004 (following the season)," Pennington said at the time. "It is very important to get all of my strength back - both in my lower body and in my upper body. If I can do that, I think the throwing and the velocity and all of those questions that people have will be answered."
Pennington, the third of the Jets' four first round selections in the 2000 NFL Draft, was happy to stay in New York for a seventh professional season.
"And in the bottom of my heart I felt like New York was the place for me to be," he told reporters during a conference call. "I was just hoping that we would come to a mutual agreement where both sides would be committed and both sides would share some risks."
After leading the Jets to a 21-16 record and two postseason berths in three years as a starter, Pennington acknowledged the outside skepticism regarding his health and durability.
"I have tremendous faith in my ability and believe in the people that are working with me," he said. "If you're not me or one of the coaches or trainers that work with me, I would expect you to have doubt. The people that have doubt, I'll just have to concentrate on playing and winning games to remove that doubt. "
Long before he could take the field, Pennington needed to get in the training room and work diligently under the watchful eye of John Mellody, the Jets' head athletic trainer. After a rigorous spring rehabilitation period, Pennington entered training camp as a competitor for the starting position. Eric Mangini, a bright young head coach in his first season, said there would be no timetable on naming a starter and each of his four passers – rookie Kellen Clemens, free agent addition Patrick Ramsey, fourth-year vet Brooks Bollinger, and Pennington – would be awarded an equal opportunity.
"As soon as someone shows us that he is the best player and he helps us win the most, then he'll be named," Mangini said in July. "That is really the only timetable."
Prior to the Jets' fourth and final preseason game, Mangini had seen enough to announce Pennington as his starter. Pennington, a Marshall alum named top-student athlete in the country by the St. Louis Athletic Club in 2000, grasped coordinator Brian Schottenehimer's attack and displayed sufficient arm strength and good command during a grueling camp.
"I've thought quite a bit about this," Mangini said. "It's become really clear to me Chad's distinguished himself in the way I was looking for. He has made great progress throughout the preseason, especially over the last couple weeks. That consistency I've been looking for has been there: his presence, his ability to move the team, his leadership. He has done an outstanding job, and it's clear to me he should be the starter - and he will be."
That designation did not surprise wideout Laveranues Coles. The Jets top target, the 13th receiver selected in the 2000 draft, always believed in his quarterback. Throughout the course of their careers, Pennington and Coles have developed a unique bond.
"The only people that were skeptical, were you guys (the media)," Coles told reporters after the announcement. "From what I understand, he was the one taking the blunt of the force from the media saying he wasn't going to be the same guy and questioning whether he was going to be Chad of the old again. I never doubted that for a second."
The Jets opened their regular season slate with a road date down in Tennessee and Pennington, a Knoxville, Tennessee native, made a statement in his return to the field. He completed 24 of 33 passes (73%) for 319 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers. Pennington, who registered a 123.3 passer rating, threw a game-winning 12-yard scoring pass to Chris Baker with just 2:10 remaining in the fourth quarter. After the 23-16 victory, Pennington was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts.
A week later, Pennington passed for 306 yards against New England. It marked the first time in the quarterback's career that he had thrown for more than 300 yards in back-to-back games. He was off to a blazing start, and he would continue to impress throughout the season.
In an October home win over the Lions, Pennington became only the fifth quarterback in Jets' history to record 10,000 yards passing in his career when he connected with wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery for a 23-yard gain. After the bye, the Jets scored an upset over the Patriots in New England and Pennington exemplified his team's fantastic effort. His first punt of his career – a 29-yard pooch kick – in the third quarter forced the Pats to begin a drive at their own four-yard line.
Facing adversity after a shutout loss to the Bears, Pennington responded splendidly at home against the Texans in week twelve. He connected with eight different receivers for 286 yards and a touchdown, and his team steam-rolled Houston. Pennington, who completed 24 of 31 passes, also helped both Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery top the century mark for receiving yardage. The crowd got a scare in the third quarter as Pennington remained down after having the wind knocked out of him. For a moment, the 30-year-old thought he was in trouble.
"I thought I wasn't going to make it," Pennington said with a laugh. "If anybody's ever had that done, you know that's the worst feeling in the world."
But if Pennington is anything, he is a survivor. He missed one snap against the Texans and ran back to a jubilant home ovation. The Jets' December began in Green Bay and Penny was on his accurate game, racking up 25 completions. His first eight completions went to eight receivers, and the Green & White raced to a 31-0 halftime advantage over a stunned Green Bay club.
Two weeks later, Pennington established a career-high for starts in a season and then picked apart the Vikings' secondary in the Metrodome. He threw for a career-high 339 yards while completing 29 of 39 attempts. By the time the regular season had reached its conclusion, Pennington had set a career-high with 3,352 yards pass yards and added 17 touchdowns. But more importantly, Pennington started all 16 games for the first time in his career and his 10-win team captured a playoff berth.
For his efforts, Chad Pennington was named the Comeback Player of the Year by the Associated Press.
"It does mean a lot to me because I've put in a lot of hard work and a lot of people have supported me throughout the entire process and have put in a lot of hard work with me," Pennington said of the honor. "To me it's a group award. It involves so many people, in so many different areas, in so many different places, that have taken time out of their schedule to help get me back to being the player that I want to be. I have a chance to play the game that I love to play, so it's special because there are so many people involved in getting me back healthy."
"I think that is a real testament to how hard he worked and all the things he does - not just professionally but personally to put himself in a position to succeed," added Mangini.
The Jets' season finally came to an end in New England, but Pennington put together a decent performance and passed for 300 yards and a touchdown. With the clock winding down and the Jets trailing by 14, Asante Samuel picked of a Pennington pass intended for Justin McCareins and returned it for a score. Pennington was hindered by a career-high 16 interceptions in 2006, but his football year was marked by inspiring achievement.
"One thing I have learned over the past seven years is that you are not guaranteed anything in this league," he said. "No matter what has happened in the past, it does not guarantee a future. What I am guaranteed is another opportunity to show what I can do and to lead this team. I feel confident in that. I feel confident in my abilities, I feel confident in my abilities, and that is where we are right now."