Stepping back in time

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – Presiding over practice, New York Jets coach Eric Mangini looks a lot more like the small-college defensive tackle he once was than the up-all-night, eating-poorly-and-never-exercising type that so many coaches become.

Pressed to reveal how much weight he has lost, Mangini resists as if he were protecting injury information in the regular season.

"I haven't given anybody that," he said. "I haven't given my wife that."

While Mangini deserves a tip of the cap as he wins the battle with bulge, his streamlined look is hardly the most important story of the Jets' preseason. That would be quarterback Chad Pennington, who is looking more like a Rodin sculpture after spending two years trying to get his body right.

"It's still a work in progress," Pennington, who played in every game last season for the first time in his career, said Sunday. Standing in a sweat-soaked Lycra shirt, his improved physique was obvious. After an offseason spent doing boxing drills and more than a dozen other exercises, Pennington looks like he'd be all the rage for the ladies hanging down the shore at Fire Island.

But to get here, Pennington had to endure two years of rehabilitation that make him sound like a lecturer in kinesiology.

"After being with so many doctors and physical therapists talking about my shoulder, I feel like I have a PhD in shoulders and kinesiology," said Pennington, who has had his right shoulder operated on twice since the 2004 season. "It's one thing to have an injury, but it's another thing to have a major surgery on that area. That's a major trauma to that whole area of the body.

"It just takes a long time for your body to get back to normal, to where all your muscles are firing together, they're strong, every muscle can hold up for itself. There was the whole 2004 and 2005 where other muscles in the body were trying to compensate for some muscles in my shoulder that weren't as strong. Then you get a whole lot of problems with your whole body, your lower body, your traps, your lats. It was a whole balancing act and there wasn't a day where my whole body felt normal."

For a quarterback like Pennington who gets by with what he calls "adequate" arm strength, that's a dangerous combination. He's not a guy who can afford to be out of sorts because the margin for error is so small. That's sometimes evident in practice.

On Sunday, Pennington finished the team portion of practice with one throw that fell between the deep and shallow receivers so perfectly it was hard to figure out who he was targeting. On the next throw, Pennington floated a deep pass for an easy interception. So while the Jets are coming off a playoff appearance in Mangini's first season, the question persists whether Pennington can lead the Jets to a championship.

After the past three seasons, that's a daunting question. While dealing with a torn rotator cuff and the aftereffects, Pennington led the Jets to a 3-8 record against playoff teams. He had 10 touchdowns passes and 11 interceptions in those games. In a 41-0 loss to Jacksonville last season, Pennington had three interceptions, no touchdowns and finished with a 28.9 passer rating.

The 2003 season, in which he was limited to 10 games, wasn't much better as the Jets were 1-3 and Pennington had five touchdowns and eight picks. A bulk of the damage came in a pair of losses to Philadelphia and New England (six interceptions combined).

Bottom line: The Jets are still wondering if Pennington's work in 2002, when he led New York to the second round of the playoffs and had 12 touchdown passes compared to four interceptions in five games against playoffs teams, can be duplicated. If not, the question becomes when 2006 second-round pick Kellen Clemens gets a chance.

The Jets gave no indication of what to expect from Pennington during the team's exhibition opener. He didn't throw a pass in two series of action. Still, the book on Pennington is well known around the league.

"If you have a secondary that is soft in coverage or you have weak coverage in any spot, he's going to find it right away," said a scout from an AFC team. "Good, hard press coverage is a problem for him because he's trying to get rid of it quick and throw it to a spot. If you throw off the timing of the offense, he's going to struggle. You look at the history of good teams he has played well against, you'll see it was Indianapolis, San Diego before they really improved the secondary last year and New England after the secondary lost a bunch of guys. Those are all teams playing really soft and trying to hide people."

Whether that's true, Mangini seems to be fully behind Pennington.

"I've seen Chad make the full range of throws last year and throughout this camp. He has hit some really nice deep balls," Mangini said. "I think he had a good offseason in terms of strength and conditioning. I don't see him necessarily being limited in one area."

This, remember, is the same Mangini who said last season that Pennington was the quarterback "right now."

However long that lasts, at least Pennington no longer has to constantly think about his shoulder. Much of last season, his body wouldn't allow him to do what his mind was telling him was possible.

"When you finally get back out there, you can make the reads mentally, but you can't make the throws physically," said Pennington, who threw 17 touchdown passes and had 16 interceptions last season. "It was frustrating because you know where the ball is supposed to go, you know the timing of the pattern, but your body won't let you do it.

"(Now) every day I come out to practice the shoulder is not an issue anymore. I'm able to focus on getting better as a quarterback, focus on learning the system better, learning the offensive system and figuring out what the defense is trying to do. I'm not wondering whether I can throw a football today. … Now, the goal is to maintain that, maintain durability and make it to the end of the season."

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