Chad Pennington, the New York Jets' new leader, has spent the last three years making himself smoother, smarter, and faster.

In consequence, Pennington is now one of the smoothest and smartest quarterbacks in the NFL, if never the fastest.

He is also the best quarterback New York City has had since Joe Namath, whom he resembles, not in appearance maybe but as a football stylist.

Namath was last heard from 33 Super Bowls ago. So it's about time that New York had another champion. And in last week's Jet conquest of Green Bay, 42-17, Pennington looked like there's a Super Bowl sometime in his future. A quarterback who can rout Brett Favre — in the game that Favre has to have to assure the steady home-field advantage that means everything in this year's tournament — is clearly on his way.


New Namath Has Big Arm

PENNINGTON WASN'T THIS good a year ago, or even two months ago, and he knew it. He could throw a straight long pass — he could always throw the ball — but there is more to football than that, and he's been learning. When Pennington joined the Jets in 2000 as a first-round but inexperienced prospect from Marshall, he brought with him a keen intelligence, a strong desire to study, and a deep interest in long hours of work — three things that not every talented pro is born with or acquires. And already, the Jets are cashing in, most spectacularly with the four Pennington touchdown passes that doomed Favre.

The new Namath has shown that he can throw a bomb. He can also put a proper touch on short or medium-range passes. Yet the most noticeable thing about him — during a streak in which the Jets have won seven of their last nine — is the Pennington smoothness: the effortless way he plays, the clear-mindedness. Standing back to pass, he shifts his attention swiftly and alertly from receiver to receiver, normally adjusting to just the right target at the right moment. At age 27, Pennington is also normal-sized for a modern NFL quarterback, 6 feet 3 and 225 pounds. He still lacks professional experience, to be sure, and that may hurt him awhile, but not forever.


Jets' Three Quick Receivers

THE QUESTIONS NOW are whether Pennington is this year's Tom Brady and whether the Jets are this year's New England Patriots. On the final Sunday of the regular season, Pennington, though miles away from the Patriots, knocked them out of the playoffs on the afternoon they were beating Miami, 27-24.

Patriot quarterback Brady, the winner of last winter's Super Bowl, only held on until the end of the season by throwing to running backs, mainly Kevin Faulk. The weakness of New England's wide receivers, exposed in the early weeks of the season, kept Brady, one of the NFL's great ones, from repeating as a champion.

His is a problem that Pennington doesn't have. To build a 28-10 lead over Favre in the third quarter last Sunday, and drive him to the bench soon after, Pennington capitalized on the football know-how of his three quick, tricky, little receivers, Laveranues Coles, 5-11, 196; Wayne Chrebet, 5-10, 188, and Santana Moss, 5-10, 185.

Coles and Moss possess the speed that every passer wants. Chrebet is merely tricky. But as a group they're so good that one of them was almost always open in the Green Bay secondary. Give Brady those three receivers — and put New England's in New York — and Brady, not Pennington, is Super Bowl-bound, as promising as Pennington seems to be.


Edwards Foremost Jet Asset

THE JETS ARE a more substantial organization all-round than one might expect of a bunch that came out of nowhere to reach the playoffs in the final minutes of the NFL's strangest season. This isn't one of those lucky patchwork teams that sometimes sneak in at the last minute. The Jets could have led the East all season.

As of last September, they had everything a playoff team wants except the quarterback that Pennington has turned out to be. If they didn't look that good on the field, even on defense, it was because, subconsciously, they doubtless wondered if their quarterback of the moment, Vinny Testaverde, was good enough.

The foremost Jet asset as the year began was the team's top man, Herman Edwards, who in 2001 had finished 10-6 and made the playoffs in his first season as a head coach. Not bad for a rookie.