Pennington wins Comeback Player award for second time

Friday, January 2, 2009

MIAMI -- Chad Pennington had an instant impact when retrieved from the NFL scrap heap by a team desperate for direction, joining the Miami Dolphins shortly before their first preseason game.

"Once we saw Chad come into our locker room, the atmosphere just felt different," cornerback Andre Goodman recalled. "It's kind of like you see a leader walk in and, 'Ahhhhh.' It felt like that savior moment. He has been that guy for us all year -- a guy whose competitive energy fills the room."

The quarterback of the NFL's comeback team of the year won The Associated Press 2008 NFL Comeback Player of the Year award Wednesday, the second time in three years Pennington has received the honor.

He was benched by the New York Jets midway through the 2007 season, unable to overcome an ankle injury, and they released him in August when they acquired Brett Favre. Pennington quickly won a starting job with the Dolphins and led the franchise's remarkable turnaround.

The Dolphins went 1-15 in 2007, but improved to 11-5 in 2008. Miami clinched its first playoff berth since 2001 when Pennington threw for two touchdowns Sunday to help beat the Jets.

The comeback was complete.

"This time last year I'm getting ready to watch the ball drop in Times Square," Pennington said. "No playoffs, no starting job, no anything. Now here we are playing in a wild-card playoff game with a team that was 1-15 the year before. We were able to move the dash over one and be 11-5, so it's pretty special."

The Dolphins will be underdogs Sunday against Baltimore, but they've beaten the odds all season, and their quarterback is a big reason. He threw for a career-high 3,653 yards with only seven interceptions, directing an offense that totaled just 13 turnovers, an NFL record the Dolphins share with this season's New York Giants.

Pennington set team records with his completion percentage of 67.4 and quarterback rating of 97.4.

"He changed this whole team," teammate Joey Porter said. "He's not the one that's going to brag about it. He's just an old humble country boy. So I'm going to brag for him."

For Pennington, the comeback honor was especially sweet after he was snubbed for the Pro Bowl, once again losing out to Favre. Pennington learned he had won the award when coach Tony Sparano made the announcement to the team after practice.

"From the day he came in here, he was very driven," Sparano said. "For us, as a young offense, we needed to have somebody that we can hang our hat on and be accountable to in that huddle. Prior to that, you'd always ask yourself the question, 'Who's the leader?' When Chad walked in there, it was very clear."

Pennington also won the comeback honor when he led the Jets to the playoffs in 2006. He's the first player in the award's 11 seasons to win it twice.

What's his secret?

"Get hurt the following year and then come back," he said with a laugh.

Injuries weren't a factor this time, although Pennington answered doubts about his durability by playing in all 16 games for only the second time in his nine-year career.

The Dolphins had no 1,000-yard rusher or 800-yard receiver, and their best blocker was a rookie -- tackle Jake Long. Yet with Pennington in charge, the offense made dramatic improvement from a year ago and was at its best in the fourth quarter of close games.

Throughout the season, teammates sang Pennington's praises.

"He deals with the other players like good parents do -- they're firm, but they're fair," offensive coordinator Dan Henning said. "I don't think he berates them in front of other people, and I think they appreciate him for what he knows. They just play better when he's there, and he did that for us when he came in."

Pennington received 19 votes, 13 more than quarterbacks Kerry Collins of Tennessee and Jake Delhomme of Carolina. Another quarterback, Arizona's Kurt Warner, received four votes, as did his teammate, wide receiver Anquan Boldin. So did Tampa Bay wideout Antonio Bryant.

Two of Pennington's teammates also received votes: linebacker Porter (3) and running back Ronnie Brown (1).

Also with one vote were San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark and Baltimore tackle Willie Anderson.

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