Good Pre-season Performance Puts Clemens In The Backup Driver Seat
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ- Kellen Clemens stood on the sideline and maybe wondered if the Jets were trying to revive Knute Rockne's singlewing formation that relied almost extensively on a slew of backs to carry the offense.
The second-year quarterback saw starter Chad Pennington play nearly the entire first quarter without throwing a single pass in Friday's preseason opener against Atlanta. Instead of utilizing the forward pass, Pennington was told before the contest that his role would be nothing more than a facilitator to the running backs.
Seeking to secure the backup spot, Clemens was inserted with 27 seconds left in the first quarter. Less than a minute later, Thomas Jones capped his stellar Jets debut by rushing in for a one-yard touchdown, tying the score in a game the Jets would go on to win, 31-16, at the Meadowlands.
Since the starters usually play only a few series in the first exhibition game, Clemens was entrusted to run the offense for most of the second and third quarters against a Falcons team looking to find momentum in the face of star quarterback Michael Vick's legal troubles and suspension, the former second round-raft pick excited the sparse crowd at Giants Stadium by throwing for 174 yards and three touchdowns.
Two of those scoring passes came to Sean Ryan, who has never caught a touchdown in 25 regular season games the past three seasons.
This time last year, Clemens was a rookie battling Pennington and two other contenders in a four-way open competition for the starting spot.
But Pennington proved he was healthy after leading the Jets to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth and locked up the top spot heading into camp.
Coach Eric Mangini is now determined on finding his No. 2 passer, which Clemens made a strong showing for thanks to his 16-22 ledger, including a 42-yard strike to Justin McCareins that helped him record a 135.2 quarterback rating. Perhaps just as important as those gaudy statistics was that ball security was not sacrificed when the play calls became more aggressive.
"The biggest thing was there were no turnovers," Clemens said. "That's the biggest thing about playing quarterback. We were fortunate to score points but we did not give them the ball."
Clemens appeared in just two games last season, throwing an incomplete pass on his only attempt, while getting sacked four times.
The 24-year-old turned in an impressive showing against a Falcons defense that still featured some firstteam players when he entered the contest.
In less than pristine conditions- kickoff temperature was an unseasonably low 54 degrees- Clemens avoided pressure and shrugged over a light drizzle, completing at least one pass to six different receivers.
"I like the fact that he is coming up, assessing the defense, being able to check in and out of plays. I thought he had good presence," Mangini said. "He hung in the pocket really well, maybe even a little bit too long for right now. I thought that you were seeing some of that growth tonight."
Pennington said his own career path mirrors Clemens' rise through the organization.
The former also started in the NFLas a backup behind an accomplished veteran, as Pennington served as Vinny Testaverde's backup from 2000- 01 before injuries gave him a chance to start.
"I think he understands what it's going to take to be a good quarterback in this league," said Pennington, who handed the ball off on all 10 of his offensive plays. "I know how he feels right now. It's a tough job being a backup quarterback because you never know when your opportunity is going to present itself. But when the opportunity does, you have to be ready."
Coincidentally, Clemens' performance came against the Falcons and Joey Harrington, the former Lions' first-round draft pick who is playing for his third team in three seasons, while trying to prove he can still be a franchise quarterback.
Harrington was a collegiate star, becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist at Oregon. Clemens also excelled for the Ducks, throwing for nearly 5,000 yards from 2004-05.
The two share more than an alma mater. Both were born in Oregon and led the Ducks to a bowl game. Clemens said he met with Harrington after the game to catch up.
The latter started for the Falcons and finished 6-9 for 88 yards in his first game action since it was announced he would receive the chance to win the starting job, while Vick faces criminal charges stemming from dog-fighting accusations.
"I was fortunate to learn under Joey at Oregon," he said. "We are pretty good friends. I was catching up on how life is going for him in Atlanta, and he was catching up on how life is going for me in New York."
Chansi Stuckey, a seventh-round draft pick, registered three receptions for 20 yards in his professional debut. One of those catches was a 13-yard touchdown strike Clemens delivered on the Jets' first drive in the third quarter- something the rookie receiver said was not surprising, considering the rapport he built up with the team's quarterbacks in the offseason.
"I've been working with Kellen in mini-camp, OTAs and in training camp and we've just worked hard," Stuckey said. "Kellen is doing a great job throwing the ball, making reads and I just really want to commend him on doing a great job tonight."