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The Shoulder of Burden: Pennington’s Surgery and the 2005 season

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by Patrick Stanton
Contributing Columnist

~Like it or not, Chad Pennington and the NY Jets 2005 season are behind the proverbial 8-ball right now and success rests solely on the repaired shoulder of Pennington.

Despite a tragic and gut wrenching end to the NY Jets playoff run, the weeks following the 2004 Season had many fans looking towards the 2005 season with optimism. While optimism has never been regarded as a strong trait in NY Jets fans, legions of Gang Green supporters saw a team that they felt was not only ready to contend for an AFC East title, but for the AFC title as well

Jets fans concluded 2004 watching a defense that, after coming back from the dead following the 2003 season, had quietly evolved into one of the best in the league. Through youth, speed and vastly superior coaching under Donnie Henderson, the NY Jets defense not only brought life back to the Jets as a team, but to their fans as well. A much improved defensive line, anchored by emerging superstar Dewayne Robertson, put forth a fearsome front against opposing ground games that had Offensive Coordinators thinking pass first and run a distant second. As the season progressed, the linebacking corps, led by AP Defensive Rookie of the Year Jonathan Vilma, continued to evolve into one of the most impressive units in the league. Through excellent reads and superior speed, Jets linebackers made contact at the point of attack throughout the season, creating sheer terror in opposing run games.

On the other side of the ball, the offensive game plan struggled under the beleaguered former offensive coordinator Paul Hackett. Despite that fact, the offense still featured the NFL rushing title holder Curtis Martin, who late in his career, produced one of the best seasons for a RB in NY Jets history. It validated the trade for Justin McCareins who, late in the season, became an emerging and important part of the Jets offense. While not even close to perfect, the Jets offense did what was necessary at times to win games and with the off-season addition of new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, looked to put its Hackett demons behind it and become a force.

Unfortunately as we’ve all learned throughout the years, placing ‘optimism’ and the ‘NY Jets’ in the same breath can sometimes be hazardous to your mental health. The first 24 hours of the NFL free agency and trading period brought forth disappointment. While somewhat expected, the loss of Lamont Jordan created an immediate void in the Jets power running and short yardage game. What had been an ideal, yet underutilized situation for the Jets running game came to an immediate halt with Jordan joining Oakland. While Jordan’s departure was disappointing, its impact wasn’t nearly as immediate as the loss of Jason Ferguson to the Cowboys. Quietly coming off one of his best years with the Jets, Ferguson helped anchor the aforementioned defensive line and along with Robertson, created havoc in the heart of the opposition’s running game.

Yet just when you think things can’t get any worse for the Jets, they can. Pressed back into early service for a late season playoff push by Coach Herman Edwards, NY Jets QB Chad Pennington finished the 2004 season essentially playing with a torn rotator cuff. What had been initially described and diagnosed as a ‘rotator cuff strain’, was nothing more than a cover up. A cover up to hide the fact that Edwards and the Jets were gambling with Pennington’s career and $64 million of the Jets money in an all or nothing effort to salvage the Jets season. The result of that gamble: Pennington and the Jets rolled snake eyes and the gamble could blow up in their faces.

The miracle of modern medicine is a fabulous one and as such I, like many others, have a hard time believing that Pennington’s rotator cuff tear occurred during the playoff push. The Jets knew full well what was at stake and their actions could seriously effect not only the 2005 season, but the career of that chunk of cap space once considered our franchise QB. Pennington has made his career as a starter through accuracy and good decision-making. Arm strength has never been a strong suit of Pennington, and while sometimes overrated amongst the fan circles, it was blatantly obvious that Pennington’s arm was nowhere near normal upon his return from injury.

As a result, Pennington underwent surgery to repair his damaged shoulder nearly two and a half weeks after completion of his 2004 season. The surgery, described as a ‘success’ by surgeons, began as an arthroscopy but ended with an invasive procedure to repair a rotator cuff tear. Additionally, it is rumored that surgeons discovered Pennington’s labrum had suffered a partial tear and made repairs to that as well, something the Jets front office vehemently denies. Why would the Jets hide this? If a labrum tear does exist, it could possibly mean the end of Pennington’s career. Here’s something to keep in mind regarding labrums: Of the last 36 MLB pitchers to suffer a labrum tear over the past five years, only one (Rocky Biddle) has successfully made if back onto the mound to pitch again. One!

With news of what surgeons found unknown, the possibility of Pennington not being ready for training camp is very strong and makes finding a suitable backup/spot starter that much more important. The general and optimistic rehabilitation timeline for a shoulder to return to full strength after rotator cuff repair is four months. Again, that’s being optimistic. According to my personal experience as a recipient of shoulder surgery, a more realistic timeline is 4-6 months before the recipient is ready to resume the ability to throw. Not 4-6 months before the arm can throw full speed, mind you but 4-6 months before the recipient is ready to resume aggressive throwing for the first time. In even a best-case scenario, Pennington would be arriving to camp in July and could begin throwing for the first time since surgery if the shoulder rehabilitation and strengthening program leading up to it goes according to plan. Mix in the fact that he’ll be returning ice cold to learn a brand new offensive scheme with an arm that was weaker than the most before the injury to begin with, and dreams of traveling to Detroit in February of 2006 seem that much more distant.

If you have any desire to preserve your current level of mental health, it is imperative that you keep the possibility of Pennington not being ready by camp at a minimum as possible reality. As I write this article, I come to you as not only an author, but a man who had less invasive shoulder surgery a mere five months ago. My shoulder still hurts, I still wake up and night with pain and what had once been a very good throwing arm continues to be outdone by thirteen year olds despite a good rehabilitation program. While I have neither the medical nor rehabilitation resources as that of a NFL quarterback, the fact that I, as a amateur athlete with the same age as Pennington and much less wear and tear on my body, continue to have problems rehabbing my throwing arm back to full strength gives me great cause to worry about the ability of Pennington to fully come back from an injury much worse than mine.

If Chad Pennington has shown us one thing during his tenure with the Jets, it’s that he has the heart and determination of a lion when faced with off the field adversity. If there’s ever been a time for this characteristic to be an advantage, it’s right now. Like it or not, Chad Pennington and the NY Jets 2005 season are behind the proverbial 8 ball right now and success rests solely on the repaired shoulder of Pennington. Barring a Tom Brady-like discovery in back-up Brooks Bollinger, or a quick veteran free agent move by GM Terry Bradway, the franchise’s future is relegated to the ability of Pennington’s $64 million dollar shoulder to heal on schedule and according to plan. In the seven games Pennington played after coming back from the injury, the Jets went 3-4 down the stretch with their injured QB throwing 9 TD’s and 7 INT’s, ending in a disappointing loss to the Steelers in the Divisional Round, where the Jet offense could only muster 3 points. If Pennington is still limited going into next season, those three wins will be remembered as having a hefty price paid for them. I, for one, hope Herman Edwards sleeps well tonight.

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