Coming off of a 10-6 season in 2006, hopes were high for Eric Mangini's Jets. The general consensus had been that he took a team without a lot of talent to the playoffs with a weak schedule, and then in 2007, the team would face a reality check.
That proved to be exactly the case, as new acquisition Thomas Jones could not make up for the regression that the offensive line, as a whole, underwent. The only new offensive lineman was Adrien Clarke, a journeyman who was replacing the outspoken Pete Kendall. Clarke was as effective as a turnstile, but the rest of the offensive line seemed to regress as well.
This led to quarterback Chad Pennington, who had been a winner for much of his career with the Jets, getting benched after a 1-7 start. He ended the season with a respectable rating of 86.1, but anyone who watched the games could easily see his flaws and his role in the team not winning.
Kellen Clemens came off the bench, and while he led the team to three wins, he was by many measures the worst quarterback in the NFL last year. By the time he was playing consistently, the team was basically running open tryouts along the offensive line and in the receiving corps. The Jets were an offensive wreck.
Enter the offseason.
While their jobs may not have been on the line just yet, GM Mike Tannenbaum and coach Mangini were looking to make a big splash, and they did just that, signing Calvin Pace, trading for Kris Jenkins, and drafting Vernon Gholston. On the offensive side, they gave Alan Faneca the biggest contract ever for an offensive guard, and Damien Woody received a sizable contract to play right tackle. They also drafted Dustin Keller, 6'2" 245 lb. tight end with enough speed to provide big mismatches.
On paper, it's a completely different team, as the offensive line and defense both look much improved. The improvements of the line also should allow Jones, and receivers Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery, to revert back to their normal forms.
All of these moves indicate that the Jets want to win now, but there's one major problem with that. The most important position on the football field is a major question mark, and it's one that even the Jets' coaching staff and front office probably can't answer.
The Case for Chad Pennington
Those who write off Pennington after his 2007 season are sorely mistaken. He never got a chance to succeed, getting hurt in the first game, and then having absolutely no help on the offensive end the rest of the season. Despite that, he put up better numbers and threw for twice as many touchdowns in just 10 more attempts. He took the team to the playoffs in 2006, despite rehabbing most of the offseason, and he also played quite well in 2002 and 2004, with a decent 2003 season in which he got hurt in between.
He'll be 32-years old at the start of the season, and he certainly has experience taking the team to the playoffs. He did that in 2006, and the team is even better around him now. The team is built to win now, and Pennington is the better quarterback today, with experience and statistics both clearly on his side.
The case for Kellen Clemens:
With all the attention that was paid to Vince Young, Matt Leinart, and Jay Cutler, the Jets snatched the Oregon quarterback 49th overall after maneuvering up and down in the second round to secure him. Clemens flew up the draft board in the weeks preceding the draft, as people examined and began to like his mobility, arm strength, productivity, and leadership abilities more and more. He only threw two passes his rookie season, but he got his chance Week Two against Baltimore after Pennington suffered a high-ankle sprain in the opening game.
Clemens struggled for three quarters before coming alive in the fourth, where he was two Justin McCareins drops away from tying the game against the mighty Ravens defense. A healthy Pennington regained his job, but Clemens took over late in Week Eight against Buffalo, and kept the job for the rest of the season.
His first win was against Pittsburgh, where he went 14-31 for 162 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also led victories against Miami and Kansas City, but many would argue it was in spite of Clemens rather than because of him. His completion percentage remained low, only reaching 52 percent for the year, with an abysmal 5/10 TD/INT ratio. Only in the Miami game did he post a QB rating over 79, and he ended the season with a 60.9 rating.
Nothing in his play or statistics last year suggested that he can be a starting quarterback in the NFL. But if quarterbacks were only judged by their first eight games, Hall of Famers like Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw would never have gotten a chance. Clemens will likely never reach that level, but it's a waste of a draft pick to give up on him now. He outplayed Pennington in preseason last year, and the Jets obviously felt strongly enough in his ability to target him in the draft.
He has ability and the physical skills to succeed. He is only 6'2", which is a slight detriment, but if Clemens is going to be a good quarterback in this league, that should not hinder him too much. The Jets should realize that the best thing they can do for the long-term, and possibly the short-term, would be to find out what they have in Clemens.
If he's still playing this poorly after another eight games or so, then maybe pull the plug on him. But last season should be used as a way to get his feet wet in preparation for the 2008 season, not as a way to judge him as a bust. The Jets know what Chad Pennington is. They know that if he gets time, and if he has a great running game, he can be successful. They can always fall back on that if Clemens fails or gets hurt.
Pennington is the perfect backup, but as a starter, you want someone who could have the ability to take you to the Super Bowl. Pennington does not have that. As anyone who watched the games last season noticed, it seemed like every time the Jets were behind late (almost every game), Pennington could not lead a comeback to get the victory, throwing interceptions at the end of many games.
His total lack of velocity allows for players to sit on his out-routes, break toward the ball, and intercept it. You want a player who can succeed when the team is behind or ahead, and when Pennington is limited to throwing to the sideline, which is something he would have to do late in games, he simply can't. Clemens at least has that ability.
Clearly, there are less questions about Pennington than there are with Clemens. The problem with Pennington is that the answers to those questions aren't necessarily positive. Clemens is an unknown at this stage, but he was drafted to be the quarterback of the future, and the future is now.
This may be a win-now team, but they can only win so much with Pennington. Give Clemens some talent around him, something he sorely lacked last season, and the results should improve, dramatically. Either way, the Jets need to find out what they have in Clemens soon.
If he's a bust, they can cut ties with him soon. If he's the quarterback of the future, it would be a shame to leave him on the bench. They can't afford to make the same mistake they did with Pennington, where they did not have enough time to decide if he was the quarterback of the future before giving him a $64-million contract. Clemens is undoubtedly the best option long-term to start this season, and despite the statistics, he may be the best option in the short-term as well.