HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) – The time had come for Chad Pennington to take his first snap during team drills at training camp Friday.

The veteran Jets quarterback huddled up with the first team. Good sign.

He stepped to the line, snapped the ball, and let it go. It started sailing down to the ground and Kerry Rhodes dove for an interception. Fans groaned. Bad sign.

Pennington was far from crisp when the Jets opened camp Friday, in another performance that showed he still has a long way to go to regain his starting job. He threw another interception on his third pass. Many of his throws lacked velocity and zip, and he sat out the drills in which the quarterbacks threw passes of 30 yards or longer.

It is clear Pennington is not the same quarterback after undergoing his second major shoulder operation last October. Whether he has enough to beat out Patrick Ramsey, Kellen Clemens and Brooks Bollinger remains to be seen.

“My plan and my goal is to get better and better,” Pennington said. “If you’re worried about staying the same, you’re going to get worse.”

Maybe Pennington should worry about his competition. Ramsey, the former Redskins starter acquired in a trade, looked much better Friday than at any point in minicamp. He made good reads and had good velocity on his passes.

Clemens, a rookie second-round pick out of Oregon, has the strongest arm of the bunch. Bollinger started when Pennington went down last season, but has a remote chance of winning the job. Still, coach Eric Mangini plans to rotate all four quarterbacks for now, continuing what he did during minicamp in June.

When Mangini was asked whether he had an idea about when he would announce a starter, he said, “After one practice, no.

“As soon as someone distinguishes himself, that’s the date,” he said. “That’s the timetable.”

The 30-year-old Pennington faces a career crossroads. After getting a $64 million deal as the franchise quarterback in 2004, nothing has gone right. Once hailed as the face of the franchise, this could be his final season in a Jets uniform if he fails to win the starting job.

He initially tore his right rotator cuff during the 2004 season but played through it, and ended up having surgery in early 2005. But it is now apparent the Jets rushed him back so he could be ready for the start of last season. He only had six months between his surgery and the start of camp.

Pennington hurt his rotator cuff again in the third week of the season, and questions were asked about his durability.

Still, the seven-year veteran restructured his contract in the offseason to make it more salary-cap friendly in the hopes of getting his job back. But if he loses it, the Jets will have no use for him as a backup next year. Plus, Pennington most certainly would want to find a fresh start elsewhere – if he proves his shoulder is OK.

For now, Pennington said he is fine with the open competition.

“Any time they tell me to get in there I’m going to get in there. I want the reps I need the reps and I love getting the reps,” he said. “If I could, I’d take every rep if they let me. But they’re not going to let me so I’m going to take every rep they tell me to, get in there and make the best of it.”

Still, the uncertainty might be taking its toll on Pennington. Normally known for his upbeat demeanor and confidence, never once did Pennington say he expected to be the starter. Never once did he say it was his job to lose.

All the quarterbacks repeated the company line: competition is good.

“As athletes we all want to compete, we all have competed all our lives. It’s something you welcome and want to do well at,” Ramsey said.

Competition is one of the main mantras Mangini has stressed, and it showed in his first training camp as a head coach. He had the players practice in full pads, and kept them on the field for 21/2 hours. Curtis Martin, placed on the physically unable to perform list, was rehabbing inside.

Martin is out indefinitely until his right knee allows him to practice again. Receiver Justin McCareins also is on the PUP list, but he is on it because he failed a conditioning test.

Yet despite all that was happening on the field, all eyes were on Pennington.

That was not such a bad thing at the end of practice. He closed with a nice 65-yard touchdown throw to Jerricho Cotchery.

“It was a good way to end,” Pennington said.

AP-ES-07-28-06 1654EDT


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