High marks in chemistry
Dolphins bonded behind Pennington
The gift arrived via Jet from New York, and it didn't take long before the Miami Dolphins realized they had possession of the rarest of football gems: a locker-room transformer.
It can help take a team to unexpected places.
Few would dispute that quarterback Chad Pennington's solid on-field performance has helped spark the Dolphins' resurgence this season, but those closest to the scene are also quick to point out that his greatest impact has extended beyond the 100 yards where games are decided each week.
Dolphins insiders say Pennington's presence in the diverse, complex locker room that binds 53 players has probably been his greatest contribution. He's a locker-room linchpin.
A football locker room is a fascinating place, bringing players together at different points in their careers, from different backgrounds, with varied salaries and personal agendas, in a testosterone-filled environment.
If only it were so easy to order up good locker-room chemistry, it would be one of the first items on a coach's to-do list each year, because a bad mix can quickly sink a season.
Usually that chemistry must evolve over time. With Pennington, however, the culture of the Dolphins' room changed almost immediately.
"We got lucky," first-year coach Tony Sparano acknowledged.
Lucky because the Dolphins' initial rebuilding plans never included Pennington, who entered Jets training camp locked in a battle for the starting job. But when the Jets pulled off their stunning trade for quarterback Brett Favre in early August - and chairman/CEO Woody Johnson declared it was a reflection of the team's commitment to putting the best possible product on the field - Pennington was released.
Unhappy with their own competition at quarterback, the Dolphins moved fast, signing the jilted Pennington to a two-year, $11.5 million contract two days later. It took just 3-4 weeks before Pennington was unanimously voted by his offensive teammates as one of three captains, along with defensive linemen Jason Ferguson and Vonnie Holliday.
Today, in a script fit for Broadway, the 32-year-old Pennington returns to the stadium he called home for eight seasons as the Dolphins visit the Jets.
The stakes couldn't be much higher: If the 10-5 Dolphins win, they capture the AFC East title and match the 1999 Indianapolis Colts for the largest one-season turnaround in NFL history (Miami was 1-15 last year).
Miami's success can be traced to several areas - such as Bill Parcells's winning formula for building a team, the "Wildcat" package taking the NFL by surprise, a plus-14 turnover differential, and outside linebacker Joey Porter's resurgence as a disruptive force - but Pennington has been the primary catalyst.
It starts in the locker room, the underrated place that probably doesn't receive enough attention from football scribes.
"When you have people like Chad in the locker room, I think it's a calming influence," Sparano explained. "I think it's critical, and it certainly was for us when we started this whole [rebuilding process] because we had so many players in from different places. I think we've changed 50 players since the time we started here.
"He's been through this, so it's not the first time he's seen people come and go in locker rooms and those type of things. He can help spread the message, and is very good at spreading the message that the head coach sends and that the organization wants to send."
The message Pennington has spread in the last few days is that his return to the Meadowlands today is nothing special; he said the real emotional part came when the Dolphins hosted the Jets in the season opener. Yet few are buying what he's selling, especially given how hurt he was to be dumped by the Jets.
Now, in an unpredictable turnaround, Pennington figures to receive legitimate consideration for league MVP, especially with a win today.
"Chad Pennington has meant an awful lot to this team," Sparano said, again pointing to often-overlooked locker-room contributions.
"He's a tremendous leader, and has done an awful lot for our young players - he's taught them a lot about how to study this game and what it takes to prepare. It's just been his leadership skills and the way he goes about his business. He's a true professional. The guy's work ethic is unmatched from anyone I've been around."
Finishing touch on futility
If the Detroit Lions lose today at Green Bay, they will become the first team since the expansion 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-14) to go winless through a regular season. So the pressure is on - both teams, actually.
The Lions naturally want to avoid having their name attached to a winless season, while the Packers don't want to be the only team to lose to them.
Members of the 1976 Patriots, who were the Buccaneers' final opponents that year, can relate to what the Packers might be feeling.
"I don't know about the rest of the guys, but I was aware they were winless, I was aware we had already made it into the playoffs, and I was aware that I didn't want us to be the only team they had beaten that year," Hall of Fame guard John Hannah recalled of the '76 finale. "It would have been embarrassing, so that was certainly on my mind."
The Patriots won, 31-14, although they started slowly, falling behind, 14-7.
"We came out a little sluggish," recalled quarterback Steve Grogan, noting that the Patriots traveled to Tampa Bay on Tuesday the week before the game, which was a reward for clinching a playoff berth.
Grogan doesn't recall any additional pressure from facing the Buccaneers in the finale, as players were generally enjoying themselves after escaping the frigid Northeast for the beaches of Florida.
Grogan remembered Sam Hunt intercepting a pass and racing 68 yards for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. He also recalled that linebacker Steve Zabel attempted (and made) the team's final extra point, yanking the jersey of kicker John Smith to keep him on the sideline so he could put his soccer skills to use in a regular-season game.
Meanwhile, Hannah said the Patriots were still playing hard late in the game because they wanted to see Grogan set the NFL record for rushing touchdowns in a season by a quarterback with 12.
Grogan scored on a 1-yard run with four seconds remaining, and his record remains to this day.
"We drove down in the last few minutes, and I remember forcing Grogs to go in and score the last touchdown, because we wanted him to get that record," Hannah said. "The Bucs got all mad at us."
Again, it's in with the new
Regardless of what unfolds today, at least five teams will qualify for the playoffs that were not in the postseason last season, thus marking the 13th consecutive season that has happened.
It's a statistic that reflects one aspect that helped the NFL thrive - hope is often right around the corner, as any franchise can turn things around quickly.
Arizona, Atlanta, and Carolina already are in, and the winner of the NFC North (Minnesota or Chicago) will be the fourth new playoff team. At least one team from the trio of Baltimore, Miami, and the Jets also will qualify.
Depending on how scenarios unfold, as many as eight new teams could qualify for the playoffs. Although unlikely, that would tie the highest total over the last 13 seasons, as eight new clubs qualified for the playoffs in 2003.
Furthermore, five divisions are guaranteed to have a different champion from last year, with the Steelers the only repeat winner at this point.
Since realignment in 2002, the record for new division winners is six (in 2003). There is a possibility for seven new division winners - if the Dolphins or Jets win the AFC East, and the Broncos win the AFC West.
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.