Doubts start to creep in for reeling Chad and Jets

By RICH CIMINI
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER


Chad Pennington has no answers on Sunday, but still faced the press yesterday.




The only things missing yesterday at Weeb Ewbank Hall were a shrink and a leather couch in the middle of the Jets' locker room.

"It's like waking up from a bad dream," said Chad Pennington, describing the psyche of the team. "You wake up and you just don't believe that it happened."

Oh, it happened all right, a 23-7 meltdown against the Patriots, putting the Jets in a familiar back-to-the-wall scenario for the season finale Sunday in St. Louis. For Pennington, it was his second personal nightmare in three weeks and it seemed to hit him hard.

For the first time in his mostly successful tenure as the starting quarterback, Pennington expressed self-doubt. In a candid self-evaluation, he acknowledged that his recent struggles have caused him to wonder if his on-the-field demeanor has changed from 2002, the year he led the NFL in passing.

His conclusion: No, he hasn't changed. But a Monday morning Freud might say it was telling that the question crossed his mind. "Am I different than I was, say, in '02? I don't think so," said Pennington, who has compiled a poor touchdown-interception (28-21) ratio since 2002. "I think the difference between '02 and these last two years is that everything didn't go smooth coming back from an injury.

"I feel like my demeanor is good," he continued. "Obviously, ask my teammates and see how they feel, but I feel like they feed off me. It's just a matter of ... I don't know, I can't explain it right now. I'm looking for answers and I've got to find them quick because time is running out."

It's a one-game season for the Jets (10-5). If they beat the Rams, they clinch a wild-card berth and the fifth seed in the playoffs. If they lose, and the Bills and Broncos (both 9-6) win their final games, the Jets will miss the playoffs in what would be one of the biggest collapses in recent memory.

Some players admitted the offense lacks the necessary confidence to beat elite teams, which could be perceived as a dig at Pennington, who prides himself on being the sparkplug.

On Sunday, all eyes will be on Pennington, who has played miserably in the Jets' three biggest games. In two games against the Patriots and one against the Steelers, he has only one touchdown pass, five interceptions, two touchdown drives and an 0-3 record. Since returning from a strained rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder, which likely will require off-season surgery, Pennington is 2-2. Against the Steelers and Patriots, he made bad decisions and floated some passes.

Is his shoulder bothering him more than he's letting on? Pennington, more forthcoming than usual, said, "It's not an injury, it's an aggravation." He added, "Last year, it was my left hand. This is a central part of what I do. It's a pain in the butt, no doubt, but (the mistakes) have been mental."

Pennington, perhaps affected by the cold and windy conditions at Giants Stadium, completed only three passes to his wideouts in the first three quarters on Sunday. Said Justin McCareins, "It was a windy game and (the Patriots) knew it would be tough to throw a lot of passes outside the numbers. They stuck us inside pretty good."

Trying to explain what went wrong, Pennington managed a smile and said to reporters, "Go back and look at your notes from the Pittsburgh game. ... It's déjà vu. It's a bad dream. There's no explanation. There are no excuses. It just has to get better." Herman Edwards stood behind his $64 million quarterback, although he wondered if the spate of turnovers has caused Pennington to become a little gun-shy.

"(The turnovers) might affect him a little bit," Edwards said. "But he's going through a learning process and he'll learn from it."

For the Jets' sake, he'd better learn by Sunday.

Originally published on December 28, 2004