Back on Aug. 7, would you have predicted that either of these quarterbacks would be starting in an NFL playoff game today, against each other, no less? Joe Flacco, the Ravens rookie from small-time Delaware, going 0-for-3 and losing a fumble while mopping up in his preseason debut that night? Chad Pennington, legendary noodle arm for the New York Jets, released that day (and eventually salvaged by the lowly Miami Dolphins) so the Jets could make room for Brett Favre?
Would you, in fact, have guessed that of the three aforementioned players, Favre would be the one sitting at home this weekend, absorbing abuse from fans, media and even teammates for not doing, with everything on the line, what Pennington and Flacco did for their teams?
So much for conventional wisdom. Arm strength can be overrated, after all. So can age and experience. So can a big-name college pedigree. Maybe Pennington and Flacco are breaking the mold - and maybe there never should have been a mold to begin with.
Pennington has played for the Dolphins almost exactly the way he played for eight seasons with the Jets; he led the NFL in completion percentage and became the NFL's career leader, his touchdown-to-interception ratio was 19-to-7 and he was named the league's Comeback Player of the Year. He finished tied for second in the Most Valuable Player voting, although he and Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner finished well behind Peyton Manning. But in New York, rather than be credited for that accuracy and his leadership, he was ridiculed for his weak arm. (Shoulder surgery that cost him nearly the entire 2005 season didn't help.)
At the end, it was all but ignored that in two of his final three seasons there - when he was injured - the Jets' record nose-dived, and in between, when he was also the Comeback Player of the Year, they went 10-6 and made the playoffs.
Now, John Harbaugh said, "He's the same quarterback, even better than he's been, just a tremendously effective quarterback, and he's probably responsible for a lot of their success offensively."
Yet the perception that such a soft passer couldn't get a team to the top helped drive the Jets to Favre, whose recklessness and age were not only shrugged off but also presented as positives.
Flacco's chances to make an immediate impact were also downgraded. Yes, he was deemed worthy of his first-round draft status, but starting was all but out of the question. He was a rookie, for one thing. For another, he was a rookie out of Delaware. Cracks about having jumped from facing Towson and Navy to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans persisted all season.
When a crazy set of circumstances forced him into the starting job, the NFL pretty much had permission to write the Ravens off for this season. After an awful game in Indianapolis dropped them to three straight losses and a 2-3 record, that outlook seemed valid. Not so 11 games and nine wins later, particularly after his two best games of the season, the past two, at Dallas and at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars, wins that locked up the playoff berth.
Ray Lewis, asked about Flacco last week, used the word "special" twice and mentioned Towson not once.
To recap: Weak throwers with post-surgical arms don't help a team turn 1-15 into 11-5. And guys from the former Division I-AA don't walk right in and lead a team from 5-11 to 11-5.
The lesson? Actually playing the games can be a real revelation. So can observing the entire package instead of the narrow, easily digestible snapshot. Because the original snapshot for the playoffs, back in August, could not have included Chad Pennington and Joe Flacco.
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* One benefit of winning a championship: After your team pulls off a historic regular-season choke (like Mike Shanahan's), when they fire you it's not at 3 in the morning (like Willie Randolph).
* Everybody's hollering and screaming about Southern California deserving to play the winner of the Bowl Championship Series title game, but they're wasting their breath if they don't talk about Texas, too.
* Speaking of which, good job, college football. You gave up New Year's Day and let the NHL take it over. Give me the Winter Classic over 7-5 teams in second-tier bowls every time.
* The International Sports Press Association named Usain Bolt its Athlete of the Year, which is weird, because I keep hearing that the Olympics weren't worth watching after the swimming was over.
* With Mark Hendrickson, the Orioles are deeper at power forward than any other team in the American League East.