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Season on the line: Favre or Pennington?

12/23/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Four months ago, the New York Jets made their choice. Sixteen weeks later, would they repeat their decision?

Enamored with the chance to add a legendary quarterback to their tricked-out roster, the Jets traded for Brett Favre in training camp. To make room they dumped Chad Pennington, a move that might doom not only the Jets, but also the entire AFC East.

The Miami Dolphins added Pennington right away, a landing pad that probably didn't concern the Jets aside from the two times they would meet him in the regular season.

But that single transaction changed the division's total dynamic. Due in large part to Pennington, the Dolphins are in position to win the AFC East with a victory over the Jets on Sunday in the Meadowlands and could help eliminate the New England Patriots, too.

The Patriots and Buffalo Bills sure would have preferred Josh McCown running the Dolphins' offense.

Funny how Favre's arrival in the Big Apple struck fear in the other three AFC East locker rooms and front offices. Pennington to Miami was an afterthought.

The season didn't unfold according to New York's expectations. While Favre inspired an intrepid mindset and helped the Jets soar to an 8-3 record after consecutive road victories over the Patriots and unbeaten Tennessee Titans, a nosedive has them barely alive in the playoff race.

Pennington, meanwhile, owns the second-highest passer rating in the NFL. He has methodically guided the 10-5 Dolphins into position to make the playoffs after a 1-15 season. All they have to do is beat the Jets.

"I honestly believe this, and it's not a fence-riding situation, but I think both teams are better off with the quarterbacks they have," former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel said. "I don't know that Brett Favre would fit in Miami, and if Chad Pennington was still with the Jets I don't think those two teams would be where they are today."

But in a do-or-die situation, and that essentially is what Sunday will be for both clubs, which quarterback would you trust to come through?

If the players were to show up at the Meadowlands and be told to mingle on the field for a pickup game, would you take Favre or Pennington when choosing up sides?

"Favre's struggling to throw the ball," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "He's becoming Chad Pennington, but a much worse version because he's still a risk-taker at heart.

"He's a less-accurate, less-intelligent decision-making version of Chad Pennington. All his bad qualities are coming out, and his good qualities aren't there."

But at least two offense-minded Super Bowl coaches, Fassel and Sam Wyche, still lean toward Favre in an all-or-nothing situation.

Wyche, who helped mold a young Joe Montana and led the Cincinnati Bengals to the 1988 AFC championship, is aware of Pennington's fine season. But Wyche remains drawn to Favre's intangibles.

"Brett has been the proven winner over time not only over Pennington but virtually everybody that's played in his era," Wyche said. "If you go into a must-win game and you got both guys on your team, which one do you start? You put the guy with the most experience in a crucial game like this."

Former Pro Bowl quarterback and current ESPN analyst Kordell Stewart paused a while before making his pick, but he also gravitated toward Favre, admittedly because of that inescapable romantic notion of the old veteran coming through.

"There could be some magic in the air," Stewart said. "If I had to choose between the two, from a momentum standpoint it would be easy to say Pennington, but it's hard to go against Brett Favre because of his makeup. I'm going to go with Brett Favre."

Joe Theismann couldn't disagree more. The former league MVP and Super Bowl champion scoffed at the possibility Favre would be the better option Sunday.

Theismann considered it laughable Favre was selected to the Pro Bowl ahead of Pennington.

"Chad should have been in the Pro Bowl," Theismann said. "I think Favre was a sentimental choice. Chad Pennington has done more for the Miami Dolphins and played at a higher level than Brett has for the Jets.

"If Brett plays smart football and doesn't try and force something, he can make more throws. But which Brett are you going to get? I know what I'm going to get with Chad. You need consistency at that position. You need to know your guy is not going make decisions to cost you."

Fassel stressed Jets fans couldn't have expected the same results had Pennington stayed. A change was necessary for all parties.

"What the Jets needed in a quarterback, beyond the numbers, is what Favre provided the minute he walked into that locker room," Fassel said. "He gave that whole team a lift. There had to be a switch made."

Favre's initial bounce has rebounded the other way.

His mistakes have been a colossal problem for the Jets. He leads the NFL with 19 interceptions. He has thrown only two more touchdown passes.

Several factors are playing into Favre's floundering. He never had the foundation of minicamp reps (then again, neither did Pennington) and appears to be hitting a wall whether it's due strictly to being 39 years old, an undisclosed injury, not committing himself to an offseason conditioning program or a combination.

Williamson of Scouts Inc. doesn't like what he sees. Favre's arm strength isn't there anymore, but when it comes time to make a decision on where to throw, his instincts tell the swashbuckling quarterback he still can pull it off.

"He throws from so many goofy angles and off balance, but he still tries to do it," Williamson said. "He's so tough, and there's guys in his face and he's throwing off that back foot, but now the ball just hangs in the air. He used to be able to get away with some of those things. He isn't anymore."

The Elias Sports Bureau found on passes that travel more than 20 yards downfield, Favre has completed 13 of 53 passes for 435 yards, five touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 53.1 passer rating. He had an 85.8 rating on such throws last year.

"He really believes that he can get the ball places that he throws it," Theismann said. "He believes it. Your eyes tell you 'The hole is there.' Your arm says 'I'm going to try,' but it doesn't quite get there."

Theismann and Wyche were in harmony
on one point regarding Favre.

They strongly suggested Jets coach Eric Mangini sit Favre down on Saturday night and break down the turnover situation in no uncertain terms.

"You have a long talk with him about chancy throws," Wyche said. "You say 'Let's get real here, Brett. Turnovers are unforgivable in a game that decides the playoffs. You play smarter than you ever played, and you've played smart a lot of times.'"

In addition to ball security, Theismann noted the Jets can't win unless Favre checks down and makes short, smart passes.

"If I'm in that meeting Saturday night," Theismann said, "I sit down with Brett and say 'Look, man. You've done everything you could for us, but I need you to do one more thing. I need you to be very conscientious of dumping the ball off and throwing underneath.'

"I would almost make him sign an affidavit to show I discussed it with him."

Favre is playing so poorly over the past month, many are predicting this must be his last season.

Over his past four games he has thrown one touchdown pass and six interceptions. His passer ratings for those increasingly meaningful games were 60.9, 60.8, 61.4 and 48.7. If not for a miracle defensive touchdown against the Buffalo Bills two weeks ago, the Jets would have lost every one of them.

"I'm not saying that his career's over, but it sure looks like it is," Williamson said. "Maybe he comes back like gangbusters and something heals that we don't know about and he trains hard over the offseason and looks like the rocket-armed guy we remember.

"But he isn't there now, and he isn't going to be there next week."

Williamson also noted Favre "looks like he doesn't want to get hit that much anymore. It looks like his body hurts."

This wasn't the situation New York envisioned when its mayor practically handed Favre a key to the city before throwing a pass for the Jets, or when Mangini named his newborn son Zach Brett Mangini in homage to the first-ballot Hall of Famer and expectant savior.

"I'm not a Brett Favre fan anymore. I don't believe in him anymore," Williamson said. "But who do I want for one game? He's still hard to bet against because he does have something you can't put on paper. When the chips are down that guy has come through so many times that if they're down by four points with two minutes left, I don't think it would shock anybody if he sucked it up and brought the team back.

"He still has that and he always will, but I don't want him as my quarterback. I want to play against him, not with him."