- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

The season was approaching the halfway mark, the calendar read November and the New York Jets were languishing in last place in the AFC East, owners of a 2-5 record and seemingly ready to flush this season down the toilet.

So when Chad Pennington said, "We are going to make history [by qualifying for the playoffs]," few took him seriously.

After all, who was going to believe a 26-year-old quarterback with all of three weeks' starting experience in the NFL? Certainly not the rest of the Jets, who initially brushed aside Pennington's brazen comments as nothing more than wishful thinking.

"You can talk about it," coach Herman Edwards said, "but until you do it, they will hear you but they won't see it."

A couple of days later, Pennington made sure his teammates saw it. He gave them an eyeful.

Facing what was then a hot San Diego team on the road, Pennington completed 28 of 37 passes for 253 yards and scored two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) to lead New York to a 44-13 thumping of the Chargers.

A star was born.

"When he started playing like that, it inspired a lot of people," Edwards said. "Our team just rallied around him."

Eight weeks and six more wins later, Pennington has made good on his promise. The Jets rallied not only to make the playoffs at 9-7 but to win the AFC East and the right to play host for a wild card-round game tomorrow against the Indianapolis Colts.

And these days, no one is doubting anything that comes out of Pennington's mouth.

"He comes in the huddle as this young quarterback without any experience in our mind, and he's saying all of these positive things," said running back Curtis Martin, who at first likened Pennington to an annoying "little brother." "They all sound like the right thing to say. But nine weeks, 10 weeks later after he said those same things consistently and his play has backed those things up, you know, it has more meaning to us.

"Now when he says it, you can tell he has the attention of the huddle."

Overnight quarterback success stories have become the norm in the NFL, from Kurt Warner to Tom Brady to Tommy Maddox. But what Pennington, a former first-round draft pick from Marshall, has done may be most impressive of all.

Since taking over for injured veteran Vinny Testaverde during the fourth game, Pennington has gone 8-4. He's thrown 22 touchdown passes while being intercepted six times. His 68.9 percent completion rate is the sixth-best in league history. He leads all NFL quarterbacks this season with a 104.2 passer rating.

And he knows it was all made possible by that Nov.3 win against the Chargers.

"The San Diego game was a crucial game for us," Pennington said. "That gave us some light at the end of the tunnel. We knew that if we just kept focusing on the job at hand, kept at what we were doing, not get down on ourselves, we would have a chance to turn the season around."

Pennington's penchant for speaking in a confident perhaps even cocky manner may remind Jets fans of another larger-than-life quarterback. Pennington in many ways resembles Joe Namath, the hero of Super Bowl III, both in attitude and playing style.

But this inexperienced signal-caller knew talk alone wasn't going to win him the trust of his teammates, several of whom were openly against Edwards' decision to replace Testaverde with the kid.

"Actions," Pennington said. "You have to win football games. [Offensive coordinator Paul] Hackett and I talked about this when we first made the move for me to play. We knew we would only play on emotions and energy for so long. After a while, you have to start producing, you have to start winning football games. You have to come out and play well on the field. Then you can really get something going."

Behind Pennington, the Jets got something going. Beginning with the San Diego game, they won four straight, then after a couple of hiccups at Oakland and Chicago, came back to win their last two impressively: 30-17 at New England and 42-17 Sunday against Green Bay at the Meadowlands to clinch only the second AFC East title in franchise history.

Now the Jets are one of the hottest teams entering the playoffs, perhaps trailing only the surprising Tennessee Titans in that category. And their brightest star is none other than that annoying little brother, who it turns out may just be wiser than his older siblings.

"He's still a little brother," Martin said. "But it's funny you may have a situation where the younger person ends up leading the parents. And that's what's happening here. Chad is such a strong leader and he has so much confidence that it spread to the 10-year veterans.

"I take my hat off to the guy. There's not too many young guys there's not even too many veterans who could step in, in that situation, and get the job done the way he has."


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