We are going to begin a new feature here during the offseason on GGN. Every Wednesday we are going to look at certain moments that changed the course of New York Jets franchise history. It is inspired by a basketball book I recently read that looks at some of the ultimate "What if?" moments in the NBA. There is only one outcome that really matters, the one that actually happens. It is important, however, to understand that seemingly small events can drastically change the course of NFL history. It's also fun to imagine and discuss what could have happened. The first we will look at is how things might have been different for the Jets had Chad Pennington never injured his rotator cuff.
Generally from what I have seen, people best remember Chad Pennington for his last few years. He played decent football, but his arm was so weak that he could never be great. There is more to the story, however. It is easy to forget that arm was ravaged by two torn rotator cuff injuries. They decimated Pennington's arm strength. Early in his career, Pennington's throws had much more zip on them.
On November 7, 2004, Pennington was first injured against the Buffalo Bills. He missed the next three games before returning against the Texans and quarterbacking the Jets through the second round of the Playoffs. After the season, it was revealed Pennington had torn his rotator cuff. The Jets rushed him back into the lineup for Opening Day in 2005. Although the team would eventually finish 4-12 with half of its starters on IR by Week 17, many forget the Jets were a trendy Super Bowl pick coming off a surprise appearance in the Divisional Playoffs and splashy additions like Ty Law and Laveranues Coles. The Jets were going all in. The problem was Pennington did not look right from the outset. After playing shaky for three weeks, the Jets announced Pennington was out for the year following a Week 3 loss to the Jaguars. He had torn his rotator cuff again. One only wonders whether the Jets rushing him back when he clearly was not right contributed to that.
From that point on, Pennington was a limited quarterback. Never known for great arm strength to begin with, his throws looked like slow pitch softball tosses the rest of his career. These final memories of Pennington make it easy to forget how great he was before the injuries. I'm not exaggerating when I say he was great before the injuries either.
Pennington was inserted into the starting lineup in 2002. The Jets were 1-3. Vinny Testaverde was looking his age. Things looked bleak. All Pennington did was win 8 of his 12 starts that year and lead the Jets to the AFC East title. While doing it, he led the league in completion percentage, quarterback rating, and touchdown rate while posting the second lowest interception rating in the league and the second highest yards per pass attempt rate.
The numbers partially describe how great Pennington was before he got hurt. Before that fateful game in Buffalo, he had completed 65.7% of passes in his career. He had 49 touchdowns against 22 interceptions. He had a 94.7 rating. And his team had won 19 of his 30 starts. He was averaging 7.3 yards per attempt in a span where that put you in the top five in the league. When Pennington got hurt in 2004, he was completing 68.2% of his passes with 8 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and a 99.1 rating. The Jets were 6-1 at the time.
The numbers do not tell the whole story, however. It wasn't just about them.
Everybody remembers how the Patriots won three of four Super Bowls from 2001 to 2004. Not many remember what happened the one year in that stretch when they did not go all the way. The Jets came to Foxborough Week 16. The Pats, Jets, and Dolphins were in a tight race for the AFC East title. A Patriots win would have eliminated the Jets and left New England in control of its own destiny. A Jets win kept Gang Green alive and put New England in deep trouble.
Pennington lit up Bill Belichick's defense that night to the tune of 22 for 33 for 286 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Tom Brady was 19 for 37 with 133 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception. In the middle of the Patriots dynasty, Pennington went up to Foxborough in a huge spot, outplayed Brady, and carried the Jets to a win.
The next week, Pennington threw 4 touchdown passes as the Jets routed a Brett Favre led Packers team playing for the top seed in the NFC 42-17. This won the AFC East for the Jets. In the first round of the Playoffs, Pennington hit 19 of 25 for 222 yards and 3 more touchdowns as the Jets blew out Peyton Manning's Colts 41-0 before the dream season ended the next week in Oakland.
When Pennington returned from his first injury in 2004, he took the Jets on the road in the first round and hit 22 of 33 for 279 yards and 2 touchdowns as the Jets registered an overtime upset win against the Chargers. A week later against the Steelers, Pennington and the Jets took over the ball on their own 24 with the game tied 17-17 and 6:00 to go. The crowd in Pittsburgh was going nuts. Facing the number one defense in the NFL and a 15-1 team, Pennington hit passes for 22 and 17 yards to get the Jets into field goal range. Doug Brien missed the kick and then another as the Jets lost in overtime.
Far from being the limited guy with a ceiling, Pennington was a top statistical quarterback building a clutch big game resume. He looked like a guy headed for greatness.
If that still doesn't convince you, consider what Pennington did after his second torn rotator cuff. He still figured out how to play effectively with an arm hanging by a thread. Even though he could only make a fraction of NFL throws because of the damage to his arm, he still quarterbacked two more teams to the Playoffs and finished second in MVP voting in 2008. Just imagine what would have happened if he had stayed totally healthy.
What would have happened if Pennington hadn't gotten hurt? There is a short term possibility. People remember Doug Brien missing the two field goals. What happened leading up to the second miss is easily forgotten. The very play after the first miss, Ben Roethlisberger made an awful throw that was easily intercepted by David Barrett. The Jets took over on their own 37. They had a kicker whose confidence was shaky after a miss late in a game in Heinz Field, a stadium notorious for being tough on kickers. Instead of attacking to give Brien an easier kick, the Jets went into a shell. They ran it three times, had one safe pass to a running back, and an inexplicable kneel down, leaving Brien a difficult 43 yard kick. One cannot help but wonder whether Pennington's condition playing hurt entered the calculus. Would Herm Edwards have attacked with a healthy Pennington? Might the Jets have given Brien an easier kick he would have made? Even had the Jets won that game, they would have faced long odds going on the road to Foxborough for the AFC Championship Game. They would have had a shot, though. Divisional games are always tricky, and a blizzard swept through the New England area on the day of the game that could have been an equalizer. At the very least, a healthy Pennington would have given the Jets a puncher's chance.
Over the long run, I think there were two possibilities. The first is the Jets would have ridden an elite franchise quarterback to at least one Super Bowl, taking the Jets-Pats rivalry to the next level and setting off a never-ending debate in the Northeast about whether Brady or Pennington was better. If you dismiss this too quickly, you are quick to forget that 2002 game in Foxborough, the Joe Montana comparisons some really smart football people made of Pennington, and how it wasn't unreasonable at one point to say that Pennington might have a brighter future than Brady.
The second possibility is more disturbing and all too plausible. It stands to reason that Pennington would have always kept the Jets good enough for guys like Terry Bradway, Herm Edwards, and Paul Hackett to keep their jobs. These guys never would have done enough to surround Pennington with a championship team or maximize the roster's talent like what happened with Peyton Manning during the second half of his career with the Colts. The questions from fans about whether Pennington could ever win the big one that were beginning in 2004 (despite Pennington building a nice big game resume early in his career) would have been amplified over time, and Pennington's time with the Jets would have ended like Donovan McNabb's time with the Eagles where he was always good but never really appreciated the way he should have been because of the lack of a ring.
Let's think about either possibility. This means no Mark Sanchez, Mike Tannenbaum, Eric Mangini, or Rex Ryan. Tannenbaum probably would have stayed with the Jets in the front office. What about Mangini?
When the Jets hired him, it felt like he was a few years away from being a serious head coaching candidate. His one year as New England's defensive coordinator was undistinguished. Would he have grown into the job with more experience? Maybe. With him around, could the Pats have avoided the defensive meltdown they suffered in the second half of the AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis in 2006 and gone on to face a Rex Grossman quarterbacked Bears tema in the Super Bowl? Maybe. Would they have been able to get the big stop a year later against the Giants? Perhaps? Could a healthy Pennington have thrown the Pats one to two more Super Bowls? Possibly? What could the end result have been? In 2007, Dan Snyder throws a ton of money at the future coaching superstar, Mangini, the defensive coordinator of the only 19-0 team in history, to be the head coach of the Washington Redskins.
What about Rex Ryan? Without the Jets, he doesn't get a head coaching job in 2009. He stays with the Ravens only one year more. What about 2010? Only three teams changed coaches. Two of them went for big, established names, Mike Shanahan and Pete Carroll. The third was the Buffalo Bills. Ryan had a great resume and was the kind of cheap, first time coach the Bills would have liked. Could he have ended up coaching against the Jets in the AFC East. Maybe the Bills passed on him. Rex stays with the Ravens in 2010. Remember how Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was willing to dump Tony Sparano to make a splash hiring Jim Harbaugh. After he struck out with Harbaugh, does he turn to another headline-generating coach, Ryan? Could Rex have ended up coaching one of the Jets' most bitter rivals?
It is tough for me to say which of these outcomes was likely. I could have seen any of them happening or not happening. That's the fun in it. It doesn't really matter. All that matters is that Pennington did get hurt, and things turned out the way they did. It seems reasonable to conclude that Pennington's body might have been prone to breaking down given a terrible injury history through his career.
I can't help but wonder how things might have been different. The case of Chad Pennington leaves me wondering "What if" more than anything since I have started following the Jets. He was headed for greatness. You'll never convince me otherwise.