In light of recent events, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look back at a time when a Jets backup quarterback had success. That of course would be Chad Pennington, who replaced starter Vinny Testaverde in week 4 of the 2002 season. Now, Chad might not be considered a true "backup" as he was a young guy being groomed. For the purposes of this article, I'm considering "backup" as a player who was not #1 on the depth chart or projected to be #1 on the depth chart. Let me also add this: I am in no way, shape, or form comparing the Jets 1st round pick to the journeyman veteran of Ryan Fitzpatrick. I am simply emphasizing this point: when guys miss games in the NFL, whether that be due to injuries on the field (or in the locker room), suspensions, or even AWOL, it provides an opportunity for other guys to step up. Chad Pennington certainly took advantage of his early opportunity with the Jets and frankly, Fitzpatrick is now in a prime position to have success as well.
A few years ago, John B wrote a fantastic piece looking at what might have happened if Chad Pennington never injured his rotator cuff. As John notes, Pennington lead the league in completion percentage, quarterback rating, and touchdown rate in 2002. That year was also the last time the Jets won the AFC East. Over the course of his career before he was injured against Buffalo, Chad completed 65.7% of his passes and threw 49 touchdowns against 22 interceptions. The consistent theme when Pennington was on the field was high completion throws and minimal mental errors. Even when Chad was fully healthy, he did not possess the strongest arm. Yet, his high football IQ and ability to manage a game led to above-average success for the Jets.
Fans and experts argue the extent of Chad Pennington's greatness. The numbers he put up in 2002 were elite. As John mentions in the article above, who knows where the Jets franchise could have gone if Chad stayed healthy. He could have very easily been their first franchise quarterback since Joe Namath. The problem with Chad Pennington and for many players trying to cross the threshold into the "great" and "elite" categories is consistency. Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady are elite quarterbacks because they dominate year in and year out. Chad simply did not provide this consistent factor to be considered an elite quarterback.
However, do you need an elite quarterback to win? I think there is a misperception around the league that you absolutely need a dominating quarterback to have any type of success. Competent quarterbacking is a must, there is no question. But there is a stark difference between competent and elite. Is Russell Wilson an elite quarterback? I would say no. Some would say yes. I would say Wilson is extremely smart with the football and is a benefactor of a tremendous run game and defense. Elite quarterbacks can certainly carry a football team when these other components are lacking, but Wilson hasn't had to pick up his rushing attack or defense all that often. Is Eli Manning an ELIte quarterback? Again, I would say no. Even more would say yes. I would say Eli is incredibly clutch, gritty, and overall, a winner, but not in the same league as Rodgers, Brady, and his older brother. Now, it takes an extremely talented quarterback performing in unbelievably high pressure to reach and win the Super Bowl. I don't want to take anything away from Russell and Eli, who both might just end up in the Hall of Fame. They are however, in my opinion, just not elite quarterbacks.
Chad Pennington wasn't elite either, but he was an effective game manager. He limited the critical mistakes to keep the Jets relevant. Geno Smith, who has great arm talent, has been a terrible game manager his first 2 years. This goes beyond turnovers. This goes to taking ill-timed sacks to knock the Jets out of field goal range. This goes to not commanding the huddle, wasting useless timeouts. This goes to not taking care of the ball in the red zone, a near guarantee position to put up at least 3 points. Some of these mistakes are expected out of rookies and 2nd-year quarterbacks, but Geno has not shown substantial improvement, at least in games, in these areas. Training camp reports suggest that Geno has shown maturity, better decision-making, and improved awareness, but Florham Park is Florham Park. It is really unfortunate and I was sincerely bothered by the IK-Geno situation, but things happen.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is known for a free, gunslinger style of play, needs to be an effective game manager for the Jets to succeed. He doesn't need to be elite or even close to that. If he can limit turnovers and mental mistakes, the Jets should be relevant in most games with their defense and run game. However, there is a reason this is Fitzpatrick's 5th team. I would not be surprised at all if we see Geno Smith back on the field at some point this year. In that case, he would be the new "backup" looking to take advantage of an opening. Whatever ends up happening, let's hope the next man steps up, seizes the opportunity, and comes up big in the same way Chad Pennington did for the Jets in 2002.