Chad Pennington has been charged up about Sunday all week. It’s a benchmark road trip, a chance to see how his side matches up against stiff competition.
“We’re excited,” Pennington said Thursday night, phoning South Florida from his adopted hometown of Lexington, Ky.
Dolphins-Jets? Not exactly. Pennington was talking about his eldest son Cole’s flag football tournament in Cincinnati.
Yes, retirement fits Pennington just fine.
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For a decade, the earnest, charismatic quarterback loomed larger than any other player in the acrimonious AFC East rivalry, which resumes Sunday in New Jersey for its 95th incarnation. But it has been two years since Pennington took his last NFL snap, and — as hard as it might seem to believe — four since he was on the field for a Jets-Dolphins game.
And he will be hundreds of miles away from the next one. Instead, the Penningtons will spend Sunday at the Bengals’ training complex for the NFL Flag Football Regional Tournament. Cole is only 8, but he is good enough to play in a league of 9-to-11-year olds.
So when Pennington needs an update on how his friends on both sides are doing (and he still has many), he will have to get it by phone. But the significance of Sunday’s game isn’t lost on anyone, least of all the most accurate passer in NFL history.
“This game, to me, could really be a turning point for either team,” said Pennington, who should know — his side has won eight of the 10 games he started in this rivalry. “For the Jets to be able to sweep one of your divisional opponents is crucial. For the Dolphins, it’s about getting over .500.”
Pennington is spot on.
Sunday’s game at Met Life Stadium is a true crossroads affair. Miami enters at 3-3 after a week off; New York is 3-4 and sinking fast. The winner will have a clear leg up in the wide-open AFC playoff race. For the loser, the path to the postseason gets awfully narrow.
“It’s a huge game for both teams, without question,” Jets coach Rex Ryan told Miami reporters Wednesday, in typically understated fashion. “If it’s said otherwise, it’s not true because nobody believes it. Everybody knows how huge this game is.”
Maybe that’s why the trash talk was a bit louder — and personal — than normal this week. All eyes, including the league’s, will be on whether the Jets intentionally try to injure Reggie Bush after New York linebacker Aaron Maybin’s now-infamous threat.
Under the best of circumstances, neither side does a good job hiding its contempt for the other, and the fan bases are even worse.
“I’ve heard Fireman Ed’s there and he’ll be [getting] the ‘J-E-T-S’ chants going,” said Ryan Tannehill, the rookie quarterback who’s making his first trip to the Meadowlands.
“I’m excited for it. It’s a tough place to play from what I’ve heard. Great fans for them obviously, but it’ll be a good test for us.”
Although only in his first season, there’s a case to be made that Tannehill has played better than his seasoned Jets counterpart, Mark Sanchez.
Despite a fraction of the national attention, Tannehill leads Sanchez in passer rating (76.5 to 74.6), completion percentage (59.6 to 53.2) and yards per pass (7.3 to 6.7).
From afar, Pennington has taken notice.
“I’ve been impressed with how Tannehill has played; I see his progression in winning football games,” said Pennington, who then delivered the highest praise possible for the current crop of Dolphins.
“Their team to me is similar to our 2008 team, as far as the recipe to winning. Play great defense, take care of the ball, run the ball and make a play at the end.”
Pennington, always one of the most popular Dolphins — inside the locker room and out — still sounds like a player.
But these days, he’s a coach, a cheerleader, and, mostly, a dad. When Pennington is not immersed in learning the horse business — he owns 63 acres of land and helps provide riding lessons to kids with chronic and life-threatening illnesses — he’s teaching his boys the family trade (football, of course).
By all appearances, he seems content. But is he?
“I miss being in the huddle, having the opportunity to take hold of the situation, grab the bull by the horns,” Pennington said.
“That’s what you miss the most. At the end of the day, it’s a players’ game. That’s what I always miss. I controlled it. No one else affected the game but me as a quarterback. That’s something you always miss.”