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    December 28, 2004 -- THAT is not Chad Pen nington straining to push the Jets into the playoffs.
    It is Chad Painington.

    It has been the dirty little secret around the Jets, because no one wants to give the opponent a competitive advantage, because no one, least of all Pennington, wants to use his pre-surgical shoulder as an excuse for starting 5-0 and now living on the edge of doom with P-Day Playoff Day arriving Sunday in St. Louis.

    But everyone, especially defensive coordinators around the NFL, can see with his or her own eyes that the quarterback isn't right.

    "It's not an injury, but it's an aggravation," Pennington revealed yesterday at his locker. "It's something that all athletes, all of us have to deal with some sort of inconvenience physically, whether it's tendinitis of the knees, a strained muscle, something like that. It's something that you deal with, and you try to fight through it, and that's what I'm doing. I'm just gonna keep my head up and keep fighting through it."

    Have you changed your delivery at all?

    "No, I don't think so."

    What have you changed?

    "To compensate? Nothing. I feel like I don't need to change anything as far as my delivery. Because really, the injured part of the shoulder has nothing to do with the follow-through or anything, it has to do with picking your arm up."

    Of course, even when he was Chad Pennington, he couldn't beat the Patriots in October.

    So what kind of chance do you think Chad Painington had to beat the Patriots Sunday? What kind of chance do you think he will have to get his team over the hump and beat them, or the Steelers, in January, if he is able to get past the Rams?

    He can't borrow Joe Namath's arm. He can't trade Paul Hackett for Charlie Weis, and probably wouldn't want to, given their relationship. But if he can't throw the deep ball, and if his ball can't cut through the wind on sideline routes, then he had better lead, and manage the game, and be accurate, and Curtis Martin's running game and Donnie Henderson's defense had better rally around him like never before.

    I asked Pennington whether he ever had to deal with the kind of inconvenience he is dealing with now.

    "No," he said, "because last year it was the left hand. This is a central part of what I do. But I don't look at it as a hindrance. Hey, look at all quarterbacks; you gotta play with something normally every year."

    Pennington at one point said he felt as well physically as he has since he returned. That only underscores the condition of his throwing shoulder when he returned. One insider, lauding Pennington's toughness, said: "It bothers him when he gets hit."

    I said to Pennington: "Quarterbacks have to throw the ball."

    "Yeah, it's a pain in the butt, no doubt about it," Pennington said, "but there's no excuses for that, there's no explanations for that. It is what it is. Hey, I've won two games (Texans, Seahawks) where we played magnificent. So it's not like it can't be done."

    Now I asked him whether it restricts the way Hackett calls the game, because it sure looks as if it does against the elite teams. "No, Paul and I, we've been on the same page," Pennington said. "We feel like we've had good game plans, we don't put anything in the game plan that I can't execute. Really, we haven't changed anything.

    "The lack of execution I don't think has been physical, I think it's just been mental."

    The good news is the Rams are not the '85 Bears, and there is no wind indoors. The bad news? "We gotta go in and score 28-35 points," Pennington said.

    Herman Edwards, whether his quarterback is hurting, said: "Feelings, yeah."

    No excuses. They have no choice but to believe that Chad Painington is Ram tough.