CHRISTMAS WAS still seven weeks away, but Miami wide receiver Greg Camarillo was already in the spirit of the season as he stood in a corner of the cavernous locker room at Dolphin Stadium, surrounded by shoulder pads, cleats and dirty practice gear, and spoke about the person who had filled him with joy. "I should send a Christmas present to Brett Favre," Camarillo said. "His coming out of retirement and going to the Jets is what allowed us to get Chad [Pennington]. We didn't really have a well-spoken veteran on offense who was our leader. It took Chad two or three days to assume that role."
Other players this season have more impressive statistics than Pennington, the quarterback cut by the Jets in August to clear salary-cap space after they'd acquired Favre in a trade with Green Bay. But no one has had a bigger impact on his team, and that's why he's my choice for 2008 NFL MVP.
Last year Miami nearly became the first team in NFL history to go 0--16, needing a 64-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Camarillo in overtime against the Ravens in the third-to-last game of the year to secure its only win. In beating the Chiefs 38--31 in Kansas City on Sunday, the Dolphins made history by becoming the first team to reach 10 victories the year after having only one—and they can clinch the AFC East title by beating Favre and the Jets this week in the Meadowlands.
As Camarillo noted, new coach Tony Sparano needed a leader on the field who wouldn't blink under pressure, and Pennington, whom Miami executive vice president Bill Parcells had drafted 18th overall in 2000 while running the Jets, was not easily rattled in eight up-and-down seasons with New York. Six of Miami's 10 wins this year have been by a touchdown or less, and you don't get away with that if you have a jittery or mistake-prone quarterback. Pennington has completed 67% of his passes for 3,453 yards and 17 touchdowns, but more important, he has thrown only seven interceptions, second-fewest in the league among QBs who've started 15 games. As a team the Dolphins have committed a league-low 12 giveaways.
Still, to characterize Pennington as a glorified caretaker would be as inaccurate as it is disrespectful. With the game tied at 31 to start the fourth quarter in Kansas City, he took the Dolphins on a 13-play, 85-yard drive in which he completed all seven of his passes (five for first downs) for 65 yards and the decisive touchdown.
Pennington could come north this week and fill the New York tabloids with I-told-you-sos, in retaliation for being benched by the Jets midway through last season and later cut loose, but that's not his style. Instead of revenge as his motivation, he speaks of reaffirmation. "The most satisfying thing is to know that how I play the game, how I prepare, how I work—those core values work," Pennington says. "Those values lead you to success. Sometimes when things aren't going your way, you may start to question those [values]. So it's nice to get into a situation that reminds you that the way you do your job is the right way. That's more satisfying than outperforming any one person or outperforming my former team."
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Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
BILL FRAKES (PENNINGTON)
HIS WAY Forget stats—Pennington's leadership is what the Dolphins needed.