Dolphins’ Pennington has tunnel vision

DAVIE, Fla. – Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano was vacationing in June when he text messaged quarterback Chad Pennington(notes).

Pennington, back at home and feeding his now-six-month-old son Gage, flipped on NFL Network. On it was a replay of the Dolphins’ loss to Baltimore in the playoffs last season, an ugly performance that featured an uncharacteristic performance by Pennington.

Photo Pennington in the closing moments of the loss to Baltimore.
(Jeffrey M. Boan/AP Photo)

He finished the game with four interceptions, his most since throwing five in a regular season game against the Patriots in December 2003. For a guy who has made a career on minimizing mistakes (Pennington threw only seven interceptions in the ’08 regular season and has had fewer than 10 in four of the six seasons he has been a full-time starter), this game was a nightmare, complete with one of those picks being returned for a score by Ravens safety Ed Reed(notes).

So as Pennington watched the game and pondered, he defiantly tapped out the message to Sparano.

“That will never happen again under my watch,” said Pennington, who was part of Miami’s stunning turnaround from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 and the playoffs last season.

While the MacArthur-esque tone of that message can be inspiring, there’s one problem: Pennington’s watch over the Dolphins figures to be done after this season.

At least that’s the plan to anyone who understands the situation, including the 33-year-old Pennington, who is entering the final year of his contract with no talks about an extension under way. The Dolphins’ plan to have Pennington lead the transition to second-year quarterback Chad Henne(notes) is about as secret as Kim Kardashian’s love life.

But for anyone who thinks Pennington is treating this season with the passion of a temp job, the reality is far different.

“It’s all about the now,” Pennington said, his hands waving and his voice rising to emphasize the point. “What happens next year has nothing to do with now and I would hate for any of us to waste the season to wait until next year. Why not focus on this year and try to have the best year we can have and when next year comes, we’ll see what happens. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice and we’re being disrespectful to the game when we look into the future. This game is about the now, preparing for the now, playing for the now.

“This game can be gone like that and I was close to that with two injuries and being fired [the New York Jets cut him in August last season after trading for Brett Favre(notes)]. That’s three times where it could have been over. That’s where I think the mistake is made because this isn’t really a career like normal careers. I’m one of the lucky guys, I’m in double-digits [this is Pennington’s 10th year]. Three years is the average. So you better enjoy it and go full out while it’s here so that when it’s over, you have no regrets and you can say, ‘I laid it all out on the line.’ ”

While that may sound like a Pollyanna way of avoiding reality, Pennington is doing more than expressing himself through talk and text. He’s doing the kinds of things that devoted leaders and good managers do to maintain the trust and loyalty of those around them.

Such an example also occurred in June, when Pennington rented a mansion in nearby Weston after the final day of offseason training. He invited all the players for a day of relaxation, including racquetball, a pool, barbeque and a couple of casino games where prizes could be won. In all, Pennington said he spent “five digits” on his teammates, smiling happily about it.

“It was just a great time for all the guys to sit around and just chill, talk to each other away from the facility, get some good camaraderie,” linebacker Channing Crowder(notes) said. “That’s just Chad, the way he does things. Everybody on this team is behind Chad because of how he works, how he plays, how he leads … he’s the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to marry.”

Pennington is the ideal leader in a number of ways. From the attention to detail, the work ethic and the leadership, players are simply drawn to him.

“He’s shown that he’s fearless,” running back Ricky Williams(notes) said. “Whether it’s in the middle of a game or in dealing with the coaches. I don’t want to say fear, but some guys because they’re apprehensive get tense, whether it’s in a game or if the coaches start yelling. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, Chad speaks his mind and says what needs to be said.”

Of course, all of that begs the question: If Pennington is so good, why are the Dolphins setting the table for Henne?

The perception is that there is a fatal – yet highly debatable – flaw to Pennington. That criticism is that for all his brilliance, he simply doesn’t possess the arm capable of beating great defenses in playoff situations. The argument goes that great defenses simply take away too much of the field against Pennington, limiting his ability to run the offense effectively.

To wit, in playoff losses against Oakland (in 2002), Pittsburgh (2004), New England (2006) and, most recently, Baltimore, Pennington has completed 90 of 158 passes for 917 yards, three touchdowns, eight interceptions and 13 sacks. His offense has never scored more than 17 points in any of those games and the average of 5.8 yards per pass attempt (a very important stat in measuring offensive success) is far too low to be considered effective.

Pennington has heard that argument and contends it’s overstated.

“No. 1, I think that’s something convenient to say after somebody has had two shoulder surgeries,” he said. “No. 2, if I wasn’t adequate enough to lead the team in that situation, Sparano wouldn’t have me out there. Why would he put me out there if I was a detriment to our team and I can’t help us win? No. 3, if you look at all four interceptions [against Baltimore], it had nothing to do with arm strength. I don’t know what else to say.”

In Henne, the Dolphins believe they have a guy who can cure that deficiency. All you need to see is about five throws to understand that Henne has a cannon arm, particularly when measured side-by-side against Pennington.

“So far, he’s handled all the things that we’ve thrown at him and shown that he can move the team in the situations we’ve given him,” Sparano said.

Henne’s latest outing on Monday night against Jacksonville was impressive as he completed seven of 11 passes for one touchdown, a dropped touchdown throw and one interception. But can Henne do all the things that Pennington has done to rally the team? Can he keep the momentum going for the Dolphins as they continue to build the team under vice president of football operations Bill Parcells?

Pennington, ever the good soldier, hopes so, even if it means an end to his time in Miami.

“This organization has been up front with me from day one. It’s not like they’re trying to pull the wool over my eyes,” Pennington said. “They told me from day one what their future goals were and why they drafted [Henne]. When you have an organization that does business like that, you can respect that and go about your business and not really worry about all this.

“I feel extremely comfortable with where I am. I think what makes my situation easier is that we have an excellent staff and organization. I trust them and I have a great relationship with [Henne]. We help each other, we work together. We’re here to help this team win.”


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Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Aug 21, 2009