Sunday, September 16, 2007

Quarterback Stands Tall on a Dizzying Day

Sports Of the Times
September 17, 2007


From the vantage point of a bed in a small emergency room here, I watched the emergence of the Jets’ future, and perhaps their salvation: quarterback Kellen Clemens.

Shortly after the Jets kicked off to the Ravens yesterday afternoon, I had a sensation of sustained dizziness — room moving, field swirling — that doctors later told me was consistent with vertigo.

There was a television in the room, and I joked that the Jets, in a football sense, seemed to be suffering from the same thing. I was certain that the world had to be spinning for Clemens, who was making his first N.F.L. start — spinning cloud formations, topsy-turvy stadium, waves of swirling purple jerseys coming from below and above.

If the Jets were going to win this game or at least give fans hope, Clemens would have to beat the Ravens. For most of the afternoon, Ray Lewis helped induce a case of quarterback vertigo. Clemens was sacked four times for 25 yards and, beyond that, was hit, hurried and spun around seemingly every time he attempted a pass.

“They were everything they were talked up to be, that’s for sure,” Clemens said afterward.

Yet, in the fourth quarter, it all stopped spinning: the clouds, the stadium, the Ravens’ defense in those menacing purple jerseys.

In the face of all that, Clemens came of age. He led a fourth-quarter blitz that produced 10 points and nearly sent the game into overtime.

The margin of victory was a dropped pass to a wide-open Justin McCareins, an underthrown pass to Laveranues Coles and a pass that bounced off McCareins’s hands and into Lewis’s.

Eric Mangini, the Jets’ taciturn coach, said he was happy with Clemens. That’s a lot. Mangini said Clemens showed great poise, and he reminded critics that Clemens was making his first N.F.L. start against an outstanding defense.

“He took their best shot and kept coming,” Mangini said. “I was pleased with that.”

Now the inevitable questions, and the quarterback controversy, will begin. Who’s the Jets’ starter: Pennington or Clemens? The unwritten code in the N.F.L. is that in a league defined by injuries, a starter cannot lose his job because of an injury. On the other hand, the floundering Jets are 0-2.

“Chad is still the starter,” Mangini said after the game. He didn’t say for how long, or whether Pennington would be the Jets’ starter emeritus and Clemens would continue to start while Pennington healed. Healing could take, well, all season.

I wouldn’t call this a brewing controversy; I’d call Clemens a replacement in waiting.

After the game, Clemens was appropriately gracious and humble, speaking only of the team. He correctly noted that the heart and spunk the Jets demonstrated in the fourth quarter were significant.

“It was great to see us respond to the adversity that we had been going through,” he said. “It’s good to see us compete that way.”

I left the hospital and arrived at M&T Bank Stadium in time to see happy Ravens fans pouring out.

Clemens and the Jets quickly dressed, met reporters, then made their way to waiting buses. The team is slipping into a hole that had better not get much deeper.

There are many lessons for Clemens to learn from Pennington: toughness, determination, resilience. Even in his best day, Pennington’s arm strength was never his strength; it was his mind and feel for the game.

Clemens has an arm and a feel as well. The general feeling in New York is that his time has come.

After a rugged Sunday in Baltimore, the world is no longer spinning.



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