Any excuse I can find to reach out to Chad Pennington, I’m gonna take it. In my opinion, if you’re building the perfect quarterback, the former New York Jets and Miami Dolphins QB brought precisely what you want from the position in terms of leadership, smarts, preparation, toughness and throwing with touch and anticipation.
He spent his 11-year career swimming upstream in the AFC East while the Patriots ruled the division with an iron fist. The numbers he rolled up don’t tell the entire story. His teams went 44-37 in games he started. He threw 102 TDs and 64 picks. He never went to a Pro Bowl.
But he was twice named AP Comeback Player of the Year (2006 and 2008) after seasons in which his shoulder was mangled then repaired. And he was unbelievably accurate.
He’s relevant right now for several reasons. First, Mac Jones is similar to Pennington in that accuracy, leadership and preparation are seen as his biggest strengths. Also, like Jones, Pennington played with a ridiculously talented wideout in college – Randy Moss. Finally, Pennington went through the same thing Cam Newton is now dealing with – being the placeholder for a first-round draft pick. In Pennington’s case, it was as the Dolphins starter in 2008 when Miami drafted Chad Henne.
I hit on all these topics with Pennington on Tom Curran’s Patriots Talk Podcast. One of the first things we discussed was the gestation period for a young quarterback. When Pennington was drafted 18th in the 2000 draft (181 spots before Tom Brady), Vinny Testaverde was in place as the Jets starter. Pennington threw 25 passes in his first two seasons and didn’t make a start. When he finally got his shot, he was in his third year and 26 years old.
“It was everything for my career,” Pennington said of his time backing up Testaverde. “We don’t put enough emphasis on a young quarterback just learning how to be a professional. And a lot of that has nothing to do with the scheme and what’s happening between the white lines. It’s just learning how to take care of business across the board in every aspect of your life. We’re coming from college where all we do is train, go to school and play ball. That’s it.
“Now we step into a world where we've got to worry about finances, we've got to worry about writing checks, we've got to worry about all these different things and – oh yeah – play professional football,” Pennington added. “There is certainly some time that needs to be (devoted) to what your routine is, what your daily schedule is, your organization to your life so that you can be successful on the field.”
When the Jets drafted Sam Darnold, Pennington advocated for the Jets taking their time with him. They did not. And Darnold is now out of New York and in Carolina.
“I do understand what’s happening in our league,” said Pennington. “Our league is much younger now. Our younger players are asked to play and be more productive at an earlier part in their career. I understand that. But from a quarterback perspective, I think that three-year process is really important. And even though Sam was given three years, was the right structure of the organization and the right players around him to be successful? That’s really the question to ask.
"Even with a guy like Mac Jones, what are the organizations doing to develop that? Obviously, you saw that great talent in the player. So now it’s up to you to bring that out. You can’t just place it all on the player.”
Pennington’s heard the comparisons of his game to Jones'. He doesn’t disagree with them.
“I can see where people can see some comparisons,” he acknowledged. “He’s a very accurate quarterback. He’s certainly that prototypical accurate passer that I think the Patriots have always liked to have in their system. And when it comes to mobility, we are very similar. He ran a 4.8 (40-yard dash). I ran a 4.8 coming out of college.”
Even though he knows it’s unlikely, Pennington would like to see Jones follow a similar route in terms of development.
“I say, ideally – and this is just Chad Pennington talking – if I put my general manager or head coach hat on, ideally I would love to see Mac Jones take a Patrick Mahomes route where Patrick Mahomes is able to learn from a great veteran in Alex Smith,” said Pennington. “He was able to make mistakes behind closed doors and didn’t have to answer to why he made those mistakes.
"He’s young. He’s gonna make those mistakes. And then those keys can be handed to him down the road. Is that one year? Is that two years? Don’t know. But ideally speaking that’s what you’d be looking for.”
As for Newton? Pennington raised an interesting point. Bill Parcells – who drafted Pennington with the Jets – was very up-front with Pennington when he brought the quarterback to Miami. Pennington was at a different stage of quarterbacking life. The same stage Newton’s at now. The drafting of Jones tacitly told Newton his time here is short.
“If I was Cam, you can’t worry about that. You can’t blink. You can’t worry about that. You've got to go play. You've got to be very confident in your ability,” said Pennington.
“When I went to Miami, Chad Henne was drafted. Bill Parcells told me, ‘Hey, you’re gonna come in here and be the example and hold the fort down and eventually we are handing the keys to Chad.’ And so, because Bill was very up-front with me about that, I knew exactly what my goals were, I knew exactly what my responsibilities were and I embraced that. So instead of worrying about protecting your position, take pride in who you are and who you are as a quarterback and then let’s see what happens. You never know what’s gonna happen.”
Belichick has, over the years, been regarded as the straightest of shooters with his players. He lays out what his vision for their role is. You can presume he’s done the same thing with Newton. He is the starter. Until he’s beaten out.
Pennington’s advice for Newton is, “Own your territory. Own who you are as a quarterback. Be confident in what you bring to the team. The leadership and the playmaking ability. And always remember these 32 teams are looking for great quarterback play.
"… What you learn as a player is to not get emotionally tied to a club. Because every club is going to say, ‘Hey, we don’t need your services anymore.’ But how you handled your business and how you played the game will in fact give you another opportunity, and I think that’s what Cam has to focus on wherever that may be.”