Pennington playing every down like it's his last

9/29/2006 - New York Jets

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- He stood at the podium in the Jets' media room, beaming.

Wednesday press conferences are hardly the stuff of dreams (for any of the parties involved), but Chad Pennington seemed genuinely happy to be there. The Jets' quarterback was four days away from facing the Indianapolis Colts, a dubious assignment, at best. In the offseason, Pennington had his annual paycheck whacked from $9 million to $3 million, and yet here he was, dissolving in a cloud of warmth and fuzz.

"This is my passion," he said, "and when you're not allowed to be out there because of an injury, something that's totally out of your control, it's frustrating. And so having a good feeling of just being in the huddle, the feeling of being out there with my teammates … I'm just trying to take that all in and really enjoy that.

"Every down, every distance, every play -- because you never know when it's going to end."

This, Pennington understands. After two surgeries, eight months apart, to repair the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder -- the fulcrum of the Jets' hopes since the millennium began -- he has somehow managed to reinvent himself. The 30-year-old who was in a four-way battle for the starting job in training camp is suddenly, incredibly, his old self.

Maybe better.

Pennington, who led the Jets to the second round of the playoffs in 2002 and 2004 and had the league's best passer rating in 2002, has posted some airy numbers through three games: 65-for-99 (65.7 percent), 808 yards, five touchdowns and a 103.4 passer rating.

He first tore the rotator cuff on Nov. 7, 2004, against the Bills and missed only three games. And then, before it was repaired, he took the Jets to the playoffs. After uber-orthopedic surgeon James Andrews stitched it back together on Feb. 4, 2005, Pennington reinjured the shoulder in Week 3 of last season against the Jaguars. Andrews performed surgery No. 2 on Oct. 6, 2005.

"I've been told my whole life, 'You're too slow, your arm's not strong enough. Yeah, you're smart, but you're just not going be able to make it to that next level,'" Pennington said. "I think the beauty of athletics is you can only prove it on the field. You can't talk about it, you have to be about it."

For the second consecutive offseason, Pennington went about a rigorous, exhaustive and exhausting rehabilitation. Pennington and his support team searched for ways to take the pressure off his shoulder. They found an answer in the film room, where he and his father Elwood watched clips of Pennington and compared it to footage of strong-armed quarterback John Elway.

"Having two shoulder injuries, it showed some flaws in my mechanics," Pennington said. "I always thought I used my body well to throw, but I really didn't. I was really an arm thrower and that's why the ball would die on me a lot. That's why my feet sometimes weren't planted in the ground when I was throwing, and the ball would flutter.

"And so, I really had to look at that."

Pennington worked hard in the weight room to add about seven pounds to his hips and lower body. By incorporating his hips and legs more into his throwing motion, Pennington was able to achieve more torque. That allowed him to, as in the mechanics of a long driver in golf, put more velocity on the ball and more distance on his throws.

Karate, believe it or not, was another source of improvement.

"What karate has done for me is show me how important a good base, a good foundation [is], how to incorporate those hips and your core to throwing the football," Pennington explained. "Throwing a punch is similar to throwing the football and when you really break it down, you really look at it, it's really similar."

The Jets, who had been burned when Pennington went down for the second time, weren't taking any chances. They sent a sixth-round draft pick to the Redskins for Patrick Ramsey in the offseason and drafted Oregon's Kellen Clemens in the second round. Brooks Bollinger, the lead replacement for Pennington in 2005, was also in the mix.

For most of training camp, the four quarterbacks took an equal number of snaps. And then, in the Giants-Jets preseason game on Aug. 25, Pennington hit Justin McCareins with a 40-yard laser. It was the first tangible evidence that Pennington was back. In the opener against the Titans, he threw for 319 yards, the second-best total of his career. He completed two passes to Laveranues Coles that traveled at least 35 yards in the air against Titans. That had happened only one other time since he arrived from Marshall in 2000. After two games, Pennington had thrown for 625 yards, representing the most prolific back-to-back games of his career.

In his three games in 2005, Pennington completed only 1 of 9 passes to targets at least 20 yards downfield. This year, he's 4-for-9. Last year, he completed only 1 of 2 passes to targets more than 30 yards downfield. This year, he's 2-for-4.

While there is no question that Pennington is throwing the ball with more velocity than last season, how does the new-and-improved Pennington compare to the 2000 fearless rookie version?

"I'm not for sure on how things would compare six years ago," Pennington said, mulling the question. "I would hope they would be better, but if it's not, I definitely feel really good."

McCareins is less circumspect.

"I saw evidence of that of his arm being stronger even in the offseason during the mini-camps," he said. "It just seemed like he was putting the ball out there with some more velocity and making some throws that [were] better than I had seen him make.

"The speed the ball's coming to you, you don't have to wait on anything. He's hitting his deep outs that you haven't seen in a while. You can tell right away that his arm is even stronger than it was."

And so is Pennington, in so many ways.

"This game," Pennington said, "there's finality to it. It doesn't last forever. And the hard part is you never know when that finality's going to come. You never know when your last play's going to be, so playing your next play like it's your last play, that means something to me, because I've been there before.

"When I step out on the field, I don't feel like I've come back from two shoulder surgeries. I don't feel like I've been injured before, I feel normal. And feeling normal feels good to me, because it's been awhile."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.