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A tale of two passes

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

More Jets: Pennington's curious behavior

TAMPA, Fla. – Two passes last Friday night defined the present and the future of the New York Jets' quarterback situation.

The first occurred on a third-and-10 in the first quarter. The Jets had driven 42 yards on nine consecutive plays that measured no shorter than three yards and no longer than nine, but after a pair of incomplete passes, veteran Chad Pennington faced a standard situation that separates good quarterbacks from also-rans.

Needing a first down to keep the hopes of a touchdown alive (eight yards to get into reasonable field-goal range), Pennington dropped back and looked for wide receiver Laveranues Coles, who was open in the Buccaneers' soft zone coverage about 15 yards downfield. The throw required some zip but, with the sharp angle, didn't allow Pennington to just fire away.

Crow-hopping slightly for a little extra power, Pennington let loose. His toss ended up in the dirt, a good three yards off the mark.

The second throw came with 1:30 remaining in the first half. This time, the situation was second-and-9 from the Tampa Bay 47-yard-line, and rookie Kellen Clemens had the opportunity to impress his new bosses in a two-minute drill. He did just that.

Clemens, a second-round pick who some believed would have ranked with the likes of Vince Young, Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler in the draft if not for a broken leg last season at Oregon, threw a rope to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. The out pattern, which was essentially on the same trajectory as Pennington's throw to Coles, sailed through the muggy Florida air with only a flick of Clemens' considerable arm.

While drawing serious conclusions about any two quarterbacks on such limited data is akin to trying to make a living on the World Poker Tour, this much is clear: When Pennington is playing, the Jets' offense looks like it's trying to operate in a phone booth.

When Clemens is behind center, the field starts to resemble a pasture.

"Kellen can get it out there," Cotchery said with a grin. "He can throw it and get it on top of you in a hurry."

The difference can't be understated in today's NFL. One of the greatest statistical indicators of success these days is a team's average of yards per pass attempt. Or in simpler terms, how far do you go when you throw the ball.

Last year, the Super Bowl champion Steelers averaged 7.12 yards per pass attempt, second in the league only to the Colts. Meanwhile, the NFC champion Seahawks ranked fourth at 6.9 yards per attempt. Moreover, of the 12 playoffs teams, 10 averaged more than 6.0 yards per attempt and only five teams that topped that number didn't make the playoffs.

The statistical comparison between Pennington and Clemens is telling. Both players were relatively accurate last Friday, Pennington completing nine of 14 throws and Clemens going 10-of-14. But where Pennington produced 54 yards (an average of fewer than four yards per attempt), Clemens had 92 (an average of better than 6.6 per pass).

Again, this is all premature stuff. Clemens' night could have looked a whole lot worse if his out-pattern pass in the third quarter had been intercepted, as even he expected.

"I was already running back [to make the tackle]," Clemens said.

After two shoulder surgeries on an arm that was already challenged for strength, Pennington isn't ever going to be throwing rockets all over the field. That problem shows up in some not-so-subtle ways, such as when the Jets faced a third-and-goal situation Friday.

New York had driven 60 yards, the biggest gain being 15 on a roughing-the-passer penalty. As the Bucs' defense lined up, the secondary flooded the middle of the field, essentially challenging Pennington to throw something quickly to the outside. Again, it's a throw that requires some strength. Tampa Bay then threw in a blitz on top of that.

Pennington was caught with no time and no blocking. He was sacked and fumbled the ball. The Bucs recovered and the threat was gone.

Clemens, by contrast, has the kind of arm that can open the field, open the playbook and even cause a little fear. He may not be quite that big of a threat just yet, given how young he is, but the potential is obvious.

As obvious as the future is for the Jets.