EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – While the difference between 11-5 and 1-15 can be as simple as the placement of a dash, the story of this season was about the movement of a quarterback for the Miami Dolphins.
Led by the soft-tossing and heavily disrespected Chad Pennington, the Dolphins completed one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history, tying the league record of a 10-game improvement.
In the process, the Dolphins won the AFC East, capping the feat by beating the team that should be holding the crown. Miami handed the New York Jets a 24-17 loss that ended New York's season with an exclamation mark. The Jets, who dumped Pennington in favor of Brett Favre, watched their former leader return to his former home and prove his worthiness.
Meanwhile, Favre proved to be worthless.
Throw in the failure of coach Eric Mangini, who might not want to take a seat for fear of getting burned, and this game had the makings of a Greek tragedy.
Not that Pennington strutted in victory.
"It's not a revenge factor, it's really not," Pennington said. "It was strictly about winning the [AFC East] … it just so happened that it had to come through New York."
Yeah, maybe, but Pennington's teammates didn't agree.
"C.P., C.P., I'm going to brag for ya, 'cause you won't do it,' " Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter yelled as Pennington walked through the tiny visitors locker room at Giants Stadium. Porter then looked at reporters and continued to gloat on his quarterback.
"He's right there, running from the cameras right now. Right over there. He's the [Most Valuable Player]," said Porter, who finished with a career-high 17½ sacks this season. "He won't tell ya, but I will. Chad is the MVP. If you don't believe it, all you got to do is turn on the film. All he does is throw touchdowns and no interceptions."
While Pennington's hasn't gotten much mention for MVP, he's worthy of discussion among the myriad of candidates in this tight season. The Dolphins' improvement is staggering and there's little question that Pennington, even after his late arrival, was one of the key ingredients.
"He has leadership qualities that every team needs to have and he had it right from the start," Dolphins running back Ricky Williams said. "He came in one day and he was a team captain the next. I think that tells you a lot."
Or the moment just a few days after his arrival, Pennington demanded that the offense stay on the field following a poor practice and work on plays.
But the most telling thing about Pennington is the love that defensive players seem to have for him. Offensive players almost immediately stand behind their quarterback from the first day. Defensive players take more time to warm to passers, usually viewing quarterbacks as pretty boys who are off-limits from getting hit in practice.
Aside from Porter's show of affection, Miami defensive back Jason Allen yelled joyously to Pennington to get in the locker room after the game and join all the other players.
"Come get your hat," Allen screamed twice to Pennington, referring to specially made AFC East championship hats the team had made for the occasion.
Likewise, Dolphins defensive tackle Jason Ferguson, a fellow ex-Jet, professed his affection for Pennington, despite the perceived shortfalls.
"People talk about the lack of arm strength he has, but all he does is compete," Ferguson said. "I knew the minute we got him that we'd be all right because of how competitive he is. He wants things to be perfect and he's never going to sit there and blame anybody. He's going to make people be accountable, but he's going to do it the right way."
On Sunday, Pennington completed 22 of 30 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns. His 27-yard touchdown to wide receiver Ted Ginn and a 20-yarder to tight end Anthony Fasano weren't just pretty throws, they were wise. In both situations, Pennington took risks with the wind at his back.
Similarly, Pennington did a great job of not taking chances when the Dolphins were going into the wind while simultaneously playing keep-away from the Jets. In the first quarter, the Dolphins held the ball for nearly 11 minutes on two drives when the Jets had the win at their backs.
Those might sound like little things, but for a team that plays on a small margin (six of the Dolphins' past seven victories have been by a touchdown or less) everything is critical.
By contrast, Favre threw nothing but critical interceptions, such as the fourth-quarter pick that ended New York's last chance at a game-tying touchdown. Or the first-half interception that was returned for a score by Dolphins rookie defensive end Philip Merling. The pick came on a screen pass where the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Merling should have been hard to miss.
Over the final five games of the season, Favre was brutal. After leading the Jets to an impressive win at Tennessee that put New York at 8-3 and had fans talking about a Subway Super Bowl, Favre threw nine interceptions and two touchdowns as the Jets went 1-4 down the stretch.
"It's disappointing because we expected to not be done at this point," said Favre, who will have an MRI on his right (throwing) shoulder today. That test may be irrelevant if Favre retires for good.
The Jets didn't think that was a problem in August when they traded for Favre, the big-armed counter to Pennington. Favre was supposed to be the key piece of an aggressive push to win the division.
That push was helped by amazing health for the Jets, who had only three lineup changes during the season and none because of injury. Coupled with the numerous injuries suffered by New England, the Jets should have won the division, not finish a disappointing 9-7.
"This was not how it was planned, certainly," Mangini said.
The Jets thought so little of dumping Pennington in August that they didn't worry about getting him out of the division. After watching Green Bay carefully push Favre to the AFC, the Jets let Pennington go to one of their hated rivals.
Pennington was out of work for all of one day before Bill Parcells, the man who drafted him with the Jets, signed him in Miami, where Parcells now runs the show as vice president of football operations.
"He's the best quarterback I've played with," Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder said. "No question and this game was all about the quarterbacks, Chad on our side and Favre over there. Hey, that was a great move for us, them getting Favre, gave us a great quarterback."
The kind of quarterback who not only can remake a team, but can move a dash.