Escaping New York limbo, Pennington ready to help Dolphins rebuild

Chad Pennington was 11-for-15 for 94 yards and a TD pass Saturday against the Chiefs. Steve Mitchell/US Presswire

DAVIE, Fla. -- The first real indication of how much Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington has to learn in his new job came early in his first preseason game.

He strolled to the line of scrimmage on one play Aug. 16, eyeing the Jacksonville Jaguars' defense and knowing only one route that his receivers would run. At that point, Pennington knew he had two options: Hope the receiver got open or run for his life.

"I wound up running," Pennington said. "It felt a lot like being a rookie all over again."

That play was just one example of the whirlwind the Dolphins' newest quarterback has faced. Ever since Pennington arrived in Miami on Aug. 8 -- he signed with the team just two days after his old franchise, the New York Jets, traded for Brett Favre and subsequently released Pennington -- his life has been all about playing catch-up.

Like Favre, Pennington is adjusting to a new offense, a new roster and a new environment. The only difference is that Favre's every move seems to be followed by daily reports while Pennington's transition doesn't merit much attention outside of South Florida.

But that really doesn't bother Pennington. He's just happy to know he can play for a team that still wants him.

"I've been excited from the moment I knew I was coming here," Pennington said after a recent practice. "It always feels good to know that somebody wants you. As far as the Jets, I really haven't had any time to reflect on all that. Maybe I'll make sense of it during the offseason, but right now we have to get going."

There really isn't much to make sense of, as far as the Jets' part of this story is concerned. They saw a chance to acquire Favre and they decided Pennington had to go after eight seasons with the organization. Even Pennington admits that his release wasn't that much of a jolt. With a week of trade speculation leading up to the transaction -- and the knowledge that the Jets tried to turn the team over to Kellen Clemens last season -- Pennington just felt the whole situation solidified his belief that Jets management had tired of him anyway.

That's why Pennington sounds so sincere even when he talks about a new start with Miami, a team that finished 1-15 last season. Even though head coach Tony Sparano hasn't officially named Pennington the starter over rookie Chad Henne yet, Pennington seems rejuvenated by having the chance to prove his worth. Down here the endless questions about his arm strength don't come up as often as they did in New York.

Instead, there's a sense that it's nice to just have a quarterback on this year's roster who has had a decent measure of success in the NFL.

Now that doesn't mean Pennington's arrival will transform a team that won a single game in 2007 into a surprise playoff contender. It does, however, give the Dolphins more reason to feel like they can be respectable.

"Any time you bring in an established veteran at that position, it lends credibility to the huddle," Sparano said. "We're such a young team and we have so many players auditioning for jobs that when you get a player like that –- someone who commands respect -- it's a big thing."

Of course, the big question is how quickly Pennington can get up to speed with the Dolphins. He's been working 14- to 16-hour days since he arrived, all with the hope of understanding the Dolphins' offense well enough to lead. (In Saturday night's 24-0 win over Kansas City, Pennington was 11-for-15 for 94 yards and a TD.) In New York, Pennington felt comfortable with a play when he could call it in the huddle and see a picture of the execution form in his mind. As recently as last week, he was happy just to say the play without wondering what he had called.

The good news for Dolphins fans is that Pennington has displayed amazing progress. Sparano pointed to a conversation on the sideline during that Jacksonville game, when Pennington sought him out to discuss the details of a second-and-1 play that had gone bad. The coach also noticed more confidence in Pennington's voice during a recent practice. Instead of calling plays with a measure of self-doubt in his words, Pennington sounded like he wasn't thinking about the terminology he was now using.

There's also the cumulative impact Pennington has had on his team's confidence. As Dolphins outside linebacker Joey Porter said, "It's not that you don't want a young guy out there, but it eases the whole team to have a proven guy at that position."

Said Pennington: "That's my goal -- to let those guys know that I have their back. When you can get everybody on offense feeling that way, that's when good things can happen."

As easy as it is to dismiss Pennington's optimism as typical, pie-in-the-sky, preseason talk, it is important to note that his presence will mean more to Miami than just the wins and losses they accumulate this season. The addition of Pennington means Henne now has more time to develop. It also helps younger receivers like
Ted Ginn Jr., who already have benefited from Pennington advising them on how to run routes better. The team also gets to enter this season with a sense that the next four months won't be nearly as bleak as they were in 2007.

When you look at it like that, you see why the Dolphins appreciate Pennington so much and why he looks forward to this opportunity. He enjoys the challenge of learning all over again and he knows Miami's season opener with the Jets will be a strange experience, mainly because he's never faced a former team during his football career.

More than anything, Pennington understands that his time in Miami isn't about proving the Jets wrong for dumping him. It's about helping a new set of teammates learn how to succeed.

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.