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Ah... all this useless and pointless knowledge. My brain is absolutely inundated with the memory of games and players gone by. We are a society obsessed with the present. I figure this a rare victory for logic, since there is no real sense dwelling in the past, or a future that never occurred.
All it takes is chance circumstance, the slightest shudder from winds of fortune and fate, for our best laid plans to splinter into nothingness. It is truly fascinating to ponder what could or should have been, were it not for Rodney Harrison plowing into Trent Green's knee in a meaningless preseason game, or heaven knows millions of other instances when the script was flipped and lives changed. As a fan, and people too, we want to believe that an overriding force of logic balances the universe. That pain should be repaid with happiness. In a way, these games we play, featuring fair and foul lines and free throws, represent one of our finest attempts at order. But, despite this commendable effort, any fanatic worth his salt could recall innumerable instances where a fickle bounce, incompetent official, or temporarily insane coach rendered talent null. So we lash out, watching helpless through the window of our television screens, indignant, nauseated at a discomforting realization: chaos is king. It drives a man to drink. But there is compensation. We take comfort in legend. There are Billy Goats and hexes to cast our scorn upon, ghosts of imagination free from any real reprisal. All this to explain the inexplicable, to keep our minds from combusting, for there arrives a time to just sit back and be entertained, ceasing the infinite speculation from a voice in our head wondering what would have happened if Mark Prior threw a breaking ball, or if Luis Castillo had swung a millisecond later, or if Steve Bartman hadn't bought his glove to the game...
There are many gifts in being a fan. This is the greatest curse. What if? The players are the conquerors, the heroes, in this figurative sense. In their finest moment, they overcome the malevolent whims of randomness, attaining for the fan something irreplaceable, beautifully concrete victory. It's faith affirming, and for the truly desperate among us, a taste of salvation. The 2004 Red Sox would definitely qualify as the closest personification, the exemplar of this strand of pseudo-philosophy called competition. Their story does not belong solely to Massachusetts, or any Boston fan scattered throughout the map. It is a narrative, loathed by some and loved by others, yet universally understood.
The most glamorous of all positions is quarterback. Much like the pitcher in baseball, he has the ball, and he controls the game, or at least comes closest to. But in football, the quarterback especially stands out. All the players wear helmets. To the neophyte, All Pros and roster fodder can become indistinguishable bodies leaping, running, and violently crashing into each other. The media, catering itself to this audience, is therefore eternally obsessed with the signal caller, the offensive weapon dropping back and scanning the terrain. For the uninitiated or uninterested, the quarterback becomes the singular factor separating greatness from vapid mediocrity. This casual fan cares not about blocking schemes, wide receiver routes, press coverage or even the all-important ground attack. Their ultimate conclusion, definitely a simplified Hollywood ending, has but two possibilities. The quarterback rides off into the sunset, accompanied by the silhouette of a curious interviewer ready with inconsequential queries, head held high or shoulders slumped.
Unfortunately for the truly hardcore among us, our loyal, reasonable forms are not at all permanent, but wholly transient. We are capable of degeneration, of melting into this lesser fan, in constant search for someone to blame, often unleashing our venom on the most obvious candidate.
I can still the scene perfectly, radiant blades of San Diego sunshine beaming off his helmet, the number ten resplendent on his white New York Jets road jersey, clumps of dirt kicking up in the wake of his cleats. Chad Pennington is scrambling for a touchdown against the San Diego Chargers. The year is 2002. Pennington had usurped the starting job from Vinny Testaverde a couple weeks prior, after a highly hyped team staggered collectively out of the gate. The Jets were 2-5 entering the contest. The fan-base was in a state of depression. Due to contractual and salary cap obligations, we would be stuck supporting this obtuse collection of talent for many undoubtedly painful years to come. The Chargers were 6-1, at home, and wearing their obscenely stylish powder blue throwback jerseys. They would surely stroll all over us. But then, something happened. Pennington, who had displayed flashes of brilliance in losing efforts against the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns at home, took over the game. He took over the game like Joe Namath used to, like Joe Montana, or Peyton Manning. He was flawless, his throws feathery yet precise, his disposition cool yet spontaneously combative. And as he scrambled for a touchdown late in the second half, displaying uncanny field intuition, Jet fans everywhere had a collective epiphany. Replays showed him spiking the ball, slow motion... Who is this Chad Pennington? We knew. It was time to buy a jersey.
It would be Pennington piloting the Jets to the playoffs in 2002, cementing himself as the franchise. A new age was dawning. Wayne Chrebet had been my favorite player. But as Chrebet became less of a factor in the offense with Pennington at the helm, complaining as the team won and his stock fell, he was rendered an afterthought. Chrebet was the brightest personality remaining from the Bill Parcells regime. The team appeared moving toward the future. His receptions now belonged to Laveranues Coles, surely for years to come...
On their way to the postseason, the Jets annihilated the Patriots at Foxboro week sixteen. Our quarterback had soundly outplayed theirs, and a legitimate argument could be made that he had a brighter future. Optimism delirium. We destroyed the Colts at home in the Wild Card playoffs. Again, Chad outclassed another top flight contemporary, Peyton Manning, who put forth a pitiful performance in comparison. The Jets would fall against their nemesis, the Oakland Raiders, in the Divisional Playoffs. But Chad was the man. Now he could be blamed.
There would be injuries. A broken hand in 2003... a torn rotator cuff in 2004. Chad, either heroically or idiotically, played through the tear in '04, his passes feeble and accuracy compromised. This injury was not disclosed to the media, and they pounced on the quarterback as the '04 season spiraled downward. The Jets withered down the stretch, and needed a shocking Buffalo choke against a Steeler team playing for nothing just to reach the postseason. Amazingly enough, they somehow managed to triumph in a road playoff game, despite carrying absolutely nothing in the way of positive momentum and relying on a quarterback with a severe injury. It was Pennington's finest moment as a Jet.
The win came against San Diego.
The Jets would nearly upend the Steelers in the Divisional Playoffs. But the game, and season, concluded painfully, missed field goals, bizarre coaching decisions, and Pennington’s arm strength, now under serious questioning from those of us who didn’t know any better, conspiring to form a horrible defeat.
There was never a real apology from any of the big, tough city columnists after Pennington’s malady was fully disclosed.
It may have complicated that sunset scene.
Pennington's reputation was mangled after he played through pain. If he won... the rewards would have been endless. But he lost... therefore his arm was dubbed a "water pistol" by Cris Carter, and every simpleminded Jet fan on the block reserved the right to blame him for their misery. The more reasonable among us would lay in wait for the team to totally collapse, so yet another new era could begin. And sure enough, Pennington's last stand occurred in 2007, as he crumbled behind an abysmal offensive line, and lost his job.
So here we are. The Jets have once again staggered down the stretch of a previously promising season. Their new quarterback is having difficulty throwing the ball downfield. They need outside help to reach the playoffs, from teams who have no real motive to play hard. The fan base needs someone to blame.
These days, Chad Pennington tries controlling this crazy game for the Miami Dolphins. He's been healthy, and guided the Fish to their most successful campaign in years.
Pennington is far removed from supernova. After being compared to Joe Montana in 2002, he's received nary a courtesy mention for Most Valuable Player in this, his finest season since.
Heroes rise and fall. That's the machinery of America.
As I periodically check his stats, and restrain myself from cheering at a bar, for his success with a divisional rival, I can’t help but be filled with a sense of sadness. I miss Chad being the hero, the savior for the Jets.
He was the one.
And then he wasn't.
Nothing to be done, at this point... Bridges have been burned, new alliances formed. The number ten jerseys are gone now, worn only in a parallel universe, where Pennington never got hurt, and we were all right.