Kellen Clemens Ahead of Chad Pennington Seems Like a No-Brainer for the New York Jets

Daniel Latzman@@dlatzmanCorrespondent IJanuary 9, 2008

As the NY Jets’ 2007 season spiraled downward—with five straight losses and one Chad Pennington mediocre performance after another—I did some research on second year backup Kellen Clemens, who was forced to stand on the sideline and watch Pennington lead the team into the pits of the NFL.

Clemens, the team’s second-round draft pick in 2006, was a Heisman-hopeful his senior year at Oregon when he had 19 touchdowns and only four interceptions while passing for 2406 yards—before breaking his ankle in a late season game against Arizona.

The injury effectively ended his Heisman campaign and set him on a long course to recovery before he could be considered by NFL teams in April’s draft. Clemens ended up falling in the draft from a first-round lock to the 49th overall pick to the New York Jets—a franchise whose starting QB was recovering from two shoulder surgeries.

In his rookie season, Clemens witnessed Pennington become the league’s comeback player of the year and lead the Jets to a surprising playoff berth. Kellen worked hard in the offseason and was poised to challenge Pennington for the starting spot in 2007.

Coach Mangini stuck with Chad, however, and named him the starter before Week One—despite an impressive preseason by Clemens.

After a pounding at the hands of the seemingly unbeatable New England Patriots, Clemens shot into the starting lineup, following an ankle injury to Pennington. His first task was overpowering the forceful defense of the Baltimore Ravens, a tall order for his first start of the season.  

After NY fell behind early, Clemens led an impressive comeback against the Ravens that culminated with the Jets having a chance to take the lead on their final possession.

Some dropped passes—most notably a sure touchdown to Justin McCairans, who appears unlikely to be back next season—squashed the comeback bid, but the second-year pro definitely gave fans a glimpse of how good he can be.

By Week Nine, the Jets were 1-7 and going nowhere. It was then that Mangini decided it was time to replace Pennington for good with Clemens as the team’s starting quarterback.

In his second start, Clemens was even more impressive than the first. Fans watched in awe as he smoothly scrambled to his left while looking downfield and delivering sharp precise passes. When the pocket collapsed, Clemens would adeptly maneuver himself out of it to find open running room, a move that the most optimistic Jets fan couldn’t dream of Chad attempting.

Kellen was equally as impressive in the pocket. He routinely took three- and five-step drops on rhythm, and completed strikes downfield to his receivers.  In addition to his ability to scramble, buy time, and deliver strong, accurate throws down the field, Clemens displayed a certain cool that not many quarterbacks possess.

Receiver Jerricho Cotchery commented in a NY Times article in mid-November on Clemens’ impressive poise. “He always had that confidence about him,” he said. “It all comes from that confidence. Everyone calls it swagger. All those drives, they start there—confidence, swagger, whatever you want to call it.”

Even after the Jets blew a 14-point first-half lead and found themselves trailing 20-17 with 5:13 remaining in the game, Clemens displayed his composure and led the team on a 16-play, 64-yard drive to tie the game in the waning seconds. On the drive, which started at the Jets’ 25 yard line, Clemens was 5-9 passing for 44 yards and added 15 crucial yards with his feet. 

New York won the coin toss and opted to receive the ball first in overtime. Clemens would complete the first pass he threw in OT, a 39 yard connection with Cotchery that brought the Jets all the way down to the Washington 42 yard line. NY needed one more first down to set up a potentially game-winning field goal attempt for Mike Nugent—but once again, the receivers failed to make the big catches for Clemens.

Cotchery had a decisive drop on third and seven at the 39 yard line, a catch that would have put the Jets in field goal position with a first down. Instead they were forced to punt it away and watch as Clinton Portis ran through the porous Jets’ defense, as he did all day for 196 yards on 36 carries.

Jets fans everywhere witnessed Clemens run the offense in a way Chad Pennington never could in his half decade stint as the starter. His numbers on the day weren’t fantastic; he completed 23 of 42 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown, but converted on several key first downs to keep the Jets’ chances alive.

Following the defeat to the Redskins, Clemens and the Jets returned after the bye week with a home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite being two-touchdown underdogs to the 7-2 Steelers, the Jets came out firing. Clemens connected with Coles on a 56-yard strike on the game’s opening drive to set up a short touchdown pass to Chris Baker.

Again, Clemens was put to the test against the league’s top rated defense, and although his numbers weren’t spectacular (14-31 for 162 yards 1 td, 1 INT), he led the team to victory over one of the AFC’s best.

These performances in his first year as a starter make a strong case for Kellen Clemens to be named the Jets starting quarterback, at least for next season. To hold on to Pennington would mean that New York would suffer a $7.8 million hit to their salary cap, which seems awfully expensive for a backup QB.

The Chad Pennington era as the NY Jets’ starting QB is over; he had many opportunities to secure the job in the past six years and was unable to neither stay healthy nor play consistently. We saw what Kellen Clemens can do in glimpses in his first year as a starter, and if he is able to play well consistently, then the Jets have found the franchise QB that all teams covet.

If he is unable to live up to his potential, which will be largely contingent on the players that GM Mike Tannenbaum brings in to solidify NY’s decimated O-line, then the Jets will be pressed to find themselves a young QB.

Kellen Clemens deserves at least one full season as the team’s starter before they start looking elsewhere. With his impressive track record and glaring potential, it would be foolish to give up on him so quickly.