Jets face quarterback quandary

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Eric Mangini, the hopelessly earnest head coach of the New York Jets, must have had a moment during the opening of his first training camp -- while he watched practice with his trademark grumpy scowl -- to daydream.

What if he could combine Chad Pennington's acute mind, Brooks Bollinger's quick first step, Patrick Ramsey's howitzer arm and rookie Kellen Clemens moxie and fearlessness?

Mangini would have himself the perfect quarterback. A hybrid of his current foursome to lead his moribund football team out of its current, unprecedented predicament -- the only franchise in the league with four quarterbacks in a wide open competition for the starting job.

After his first training camp practice, Mangini did not reveal himself to be a mad scientist. But he did say he had a few tarot cards and had seen the future, saying he warned his team in a meeting that "there is no light at the end of the tunnel."

What he meant by that, he said, is not to look too far into the future. Focus, he admonished them, on the meeting, the practice, the drill at hand.

Mangini could have easily been talking about his quarterback quandary. And that's exactly what confronts the Jets. The head coach may talk about healthy competition, but he wants one of his quarterbacks to emerge as the starter -- and do it as quickly as possible. When will he name a starting quarterback?

"As soon as someone distinguishes themselves, that's the date," said Mangini, the league's youngest head coach. "This is a wide-open opportunity."

Of course, it's also an open wound. Going long into training camp and into the preseason games without naming the No.1 quarterback is a huge risk -- especially in New York.

Mangini risks diminishing the effectiveness of each of his quarterbacks, and the development of his offense -- the timing between the starter and his receivers, and the ability of the eventual No. 1 guy to establish himself as a leader in the huddle and locker room. He also buys himself a summer of constant questioning about it.

"One of the things that I'm looking for is communication," said Mangini. "And with these quarterbacks -- they're going to be forced to communicate with all the different groups. That helps when you work with the various groups, because you know injuries happen, and a new guy comes in, you've got to be able to communicate across the board. This is a positive thing."

But you also have Pennington running with the fourth string, and how that's going to be helpful to his development is a mystery. Pennington is not complaining, but he fully understands the limitations of what Mangini has devised here.

"I'm just glad to be out here, and take the reps that they give me, and work hard on those reps," he said. "You know when you have so many people in camp, and you have quarterbacks rotating, your reps are far and few between. When you get your reps you've got to make sure you make the best out of them."

Maybe this is all an elaborate ruse by Mangini to protect Pennington -- to help save his arm. Pennington is coming off his second rotator cuff surgery to his throwing arm in as many years. He's on a pitch count. The medical staff watches his every move. They tell him when to shut down. Pennington said he doesn't even know the number.

Every throw is scrutinized, calibrated and analyzed by every coach, player, member of the media and fan in attendance at Hofstra University. And Pennington knows it.

"I understand what's happening here," he said. "It's a competition. Coach Mangini is not playing favorites. It's better that way."

On day one of training camp, he underthrew a pass to Laverneous Coles over the middle. Coles slipped down and hobbled off, apparently spraining a leg muscle. He returned. But soon thereafter, Pennington tried to hit running back Cedric Houston and threw it behind him. It was intercepted by linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who returned it unscathed for a touchdown.

Later, Pennington aired out a 40-yard toss to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery -- touchdown.

"What I like about Chad was that he comes back," said Mangini. "That's the way a lot of days are going to go where early you may struggle, come back, but we're looking for, not just in Chad, but in all these guys, is competitiveness."

The Jets' brass would like to see Pennington overcome the physical limitations and emerge as a starter, but they're not sure how long they can count on him. When healthy, he's their best option. Pennington has won 21 of his 37 career starts since taking over for Vinny Testaverde in 2002. But he has also missed 22 games in three seasons.

Ramsey has the tools, but he's never been able to prove it. In Washington, he was 10-14 as a starter. He was benched by Steve Spurrier and Joe Gibbs -- two established judges of quarterback talent.

Those who know Ramsey say he was victimized by Spurrier's poor protection schemes and that Gibbs fell in love with Mark Brunnel. Not surprisingly, Ramsey is happy for the change of venue and the promise made by Mangini

"He told me this is an open competition," said Ramsey, who just signed a contract extension. "And I believe him."

Those around the Jets believe this so-called open competition among four quarterbacks really comes down to this: Can Pennington emerge? Or will Ramsey be competent enough to make that a moot point?

Mangini has been unequivocal in his praise of Ramsey. "I think Patrick has made great improvement," he said. "He's gotten his weight down. He's really working on his footwork. Impressive in the classroom. I'm pleased with what he's done so far."

Those close to Mangini say he's loathe to start the season with a rookie at the helm -- especially with two rookie starters on the offensive line, center Nick Mangold and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson.

Added to that state of uncertainty are questions at running back. Curtis Martin, 33, is coming off knee surgery and started camp on the physically unable to perform list. Backup Derrick Blaylock was hurt most of last year. The other contenders to carry the load are fourth-round draft choice Leon Washington or Cedric Houston, who showed flashes last year, but not enough to inspire confidence.

If Clemens lined up under center Week 1, the Jets would fall off everybody's radar screen. And Mangini might lose his own locker room under the weight of the dreaded rebuilding word.

In the media and on talk radio, Clemens has been getting rave reviews. But Mangini is already laying the groundwork to extinguish the giddiness about the rookie -- before the head coach gets engulfed by a full-blown plebiscite on the back pages of the New York Post and Daily News.

"Kellen has been -- in the offseason, since he got here -- he's been outstanding in terms of the classroom, his preparation, his work ethic, his maturity," said Mangini. "I think that all of that has been great, but when you're working without pads and you transition to pads, the speed of the game increases dramatically. And that's always a transition -- getting used to the speed of the game. So, he's going to have to adjust to that."

Mangini was present for the revolution in New England, when Drew Bledsoe got hurt and Bill Belichick handed the reins to young Tom Brady. Mangini saw first-hand how a little charisma can go a long way at that position. Brady also was a great young student of the position. He had an innate sense of when to get rid of the ball in the face of the rush. He seamlessly adjusted to the speed of the game.

Like Belichick in those days, Mangini -- a defensive-minded coach -- spends a lot of time in the quarterbacks meetings. He is not leaving this critical decision up to zealous young offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

Behind door number four is Brooks Bollinger, who can move around the pocket better than any of his competitors. Bollinger has a live arm, too. He just has not distinguished himself as a bonafide NFL starter -- not yet, anyway.

Last year, he made nine starts for the injured Pennington, and had a quarterback rating of 72.9. He threw seven touchdowns compared to six interceptions. Truth be told, if the Jets had been impressed by Bollinger's play, they wouldn't have signed Ramsey or drafted Clemens.

Mangini can see what Nick Saban is doing in Miami. He knows what's going on in New England. The Jets have about a season or so to turn it around -- and it's the offense that has the longest way to go. Last year, the Jets were dead last in the league in time of possession.

Mangini is urging his team to develop some sense of urgency in their play now -- so when the games begin, it will be second nature.

On the first day of training camp, he kept the team on the field for nearly two and a half hours in the morning practice -- almost 30 minutes longer than scheduled.

"We had to restart a drill because we weren't playing fast enough," he said. "I'm looking for them to play fast."

Eventually, he wants his starting quarterback -- whoever it is -- to make that happen.

Sal Paolantonio, who wrote about the Eagles for the Philadelphia Inquirer during 1993-94, covers the NFL for ESPN.