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Pennington Is Right on Target

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Special to the Times

Chad Pennington, the New York Jets’ new leader, has spent the last three years making himself smoother, smarter and faster.

Pennington, the passer who routed Green Bay last week, 42-17, is now one of the smoothest and smartest quarterbacks in the NFL.

Never the fastest, he has learned how to use what speed he has.

The NFL’s highest-rated passer this season at 104.2, Pennington is on the way to recognition as the best quarterback New York City has had since Joe Namath, whom he resembles as a football stylist.

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It’s about time New York had another champion, and in last week’s conquest of the Packers, which elevated the Jets to the top of the AFC East, Pennington looked for all the world like a quarterback with a Super Bowl somewhere in his future.

He’s Effortless

Pennington wasn’t this good a year ago, or even two months ago, and he knew it. He could throw a straight long pass -- he could always throw the ball -- but there is more to football than that, and he has been learning.

When Pennington joined the Jets in 2000 as a first-round but inexperienced prospect from Marshall, he brought with him a keen intelligence, a strong desire to study, and a deep interest in long hours of work -- three things that not every talented pro is born with or acquires.

Already, the Jets are cashing in, most spectacularly with the four Pennington touchdown passes that doomed the Packers.

The new Namath has shown that he can throw a bomb. He also can put a proper touch on short or medium-range passes. Yet the most noticeable thing about him -- during a streak in which the Jets won seven of their last nine regular-season games -- is smoothness, the effortless way he plays, the clear-mindedness.

Standing back to pass, he shifts his attention swiftly and alertly from receiver to receiver, normally adjusting to just the right target at the right moment.

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At 26, Pennington is also normal-sized for a modern NFL quarterback, 6 feet 3 and 225 pounds. He still lacks professional experience, and that may hurt him a while, but not forever.

Has Three Receivers

The questions are whether Pennington is this season’s Tom Brady and whether the Jets are this season’s New England Patriots. On the final Sunday of the regular season, Pennington, though miles away from the Patriots, knocked them out of the playoffs on an afternoon when New England defeated Miami, 27-24.

Patriot quarterback Brady, the winner of last winter’s Super Bowl, held on until the end of the season by throwing to running backs. The weakness of New England’s wide receivers, exposed in the early weeks of the season, kept Brady, one of the NFL’s great ones, from repeating as a champion.

His is a problem that Pennington doesn’t have. To build a 28-10 lead over the Packers in the third quarter last Sunday, and drive Brett Favre to the bench soon after, Pennington capitalized on the football know-how of his three quick, tricky, little receivers, Laveranues Coles, 5-11, 195; Wayne Chrebet, 5-10, 188; and Santana Moss, 5-10, 185.

Coles and Moss have the speed every passer wants. Chrebet is merely tricky. As a group they’re so good that one of them was almost always open in the Green Bay secondary. Give Brady those three receivers -- and put New England’s in New York -- and Brady, not Pennington, is Super Bowl-bound, as promising as Pennington seems to be.

Top Jet Asset

The Jets are a more substantial organization than one might expect from a bunch that came out of nowhere to reach the playoffs in the final minutes of the NFL’s strangest season.

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This isn’t one of those lucky patchwork teams that sometimes sneaks in at the last minute. The Jets could have led the East all season.

As of last September, they had everything a playoff team needs -- except the quarterback that Pennington has turned out to be.

If for a while they didn’t look that good on the field, even on defense, it was because, subconsciously, they doubtless wondered if their quarterback of the moment, Vinny Testaverde, was good enough.

The foremost Jet asset has been the team’s top man, Herman Edwards, who in 2001 finished 10-6 and made the playoffs in his first season as a head coach. Not bad for a rookie.

A onetime Los Angeles Ram defensive back, Edwards is a solid, positive human being -- the opposite of frantic coaches often seen along football sidelines.

And at 48, Edwards can look back on a diversified background as athlete, talent scout and coach.

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Coming up, he played cornerback in college before putting in four years as an NFL player and a dozen as an assistant coach, mostly at Kansas City and Tampa Bay.

If he is barely remembered by, say, the Rams, there are those who have been impressed by him all the way.

Pass-First Team

Edwards learned two things at Tampa Bay, where he rose to become first lieutenant to Tony Dungy, the defensive expert who in the late 1990s coached the Buccaneers to the NFL’s first level before taking over the Indianapolis Colts last year:

First, Edwards mastered Dungy’s extraordinary defense, the league’s finest.

Then, he realized that defense isn’t enough.

So at New York, Edwards brought in a competent offensive coordinator, Paul Hackett, whose knowledge of football offense is encyclopedic.

Even so, Edwards didn’t retire from offense, as other defensive coaches have done when promoted to head coach. He not only wanted a pass-first offense, he insisted on it.

Though Hackett, like Edwards, is an advocate of the Bill Walsh system, widely known as the West Coast Offense, Hackett’s preference is for a run-first attack, particularly when the runner is the Jets’ jet, Curtis Martin.

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The difference between Edwards and Hackett in approach to offense seems slight but is, in fact, astronomical. In the NFL, it’s regularly the difference between winning and losing titles:

* Run-first teams believe in usually running on first down to set up their pass offense.

* Pass-first teams usually pass on first down to set up the rest of their offense.

Because Edwards is in charge, the Jets are a pass-first team -- and thus first in the super-competitive AFC East.

Best Formation

Hackett has provided the Xs and O’s assistance Edwards sought in a leader on offense, as was evident when Pennington was beating up on the Packer defense last week. A former head coach at USC and elsewhere, Hackett seems cut out to be an offensive coordinator.

The formations that all pro clubs employ are never quite the same when operated by a Hackett-coached offense. He seldom uses the simple, straightforward plays that are good enough for the NFL’s many conservative coaches.

Thus last week, the Jets, while rolling for 42 points, were always a step ahead of the Packer defense. One of many examples came when the Jets sent Martin bucking into the line, two offensive linemen pulled into the hole ahead of him, plus a blocking back. Most coordinators simply call for an off-tackle blast, and, if it fails, blame someone, usually an offensive lineman.

A favorite Hackett formation places three wide receivers and a single running back in the same lineup. That is football’s finest formation, I’d say.

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Not long ago, Jim Kelly took Buffalo to four consecutive Super Bowls in three-receiver sets, though in those years the Bills were rarely, if ever, the AFC’s most talented team.

In Hackett’s system, three receivers are a natural because of the Jets’ three quick ones, Coles, Chrebet and Moss, and because running back Martin was built for one-back football -- in which a third wide receiver replaces the fullback.

When a wide receiver substitutes for the fullback in a three-receiver lineup, the defense typically removes a linebacker, a player the fullback probably would have blocked, or tried to block.

The defensive replacement is invariably a smaller defensive back who improves Martin’s ground-gaining chance in the open field. Meanwhile, the pass offense gains a third receiver. For the offense, it’s a win-win deal.

Three-receiver football is also a natural in the Jet offense because of Pennington, who appears to be one of the few young NFL quarterbacks with a mind so acute that he can, when heavily blitzed, hunt around for different targets, two or three of them at least. And before going down, he has arm enough to reach the open player.

This is not to say that Pennington will instantly, or ever, take over the league. The NFL is full of great quarterbacks from Brady and Favre to Michael Vick, Kurt Warner, Marc Bulger, Rich Gannon, Donovan McNabb, Jeff Garcia, Peyton Manning, Steve McNair, Drew Bledsoe and Drew Brees.

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But in New York, after Edwards and Hackett had everything else in place early last fall, Pennington gave them the precise weapon they need to keep rising on the Super Bowl totem pole, in the next two or three seasons if not sooner.

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