In what so far has been a relatively quiet offseason of transactions, this one was among the quietest and most curious.
Earlier in March, Chad Pennington chose to re-sign with the Miami Dolphins rather than test a free-agent market with widespread demand for a smart, experienced quarterback who could provide solid depth -- or perhaps even become a one-year starter while a long-term answer at the position was being groomed.
Granted, Pennington was damaged goods, having undergone surgery after he injured his right (throwing) shoulder in the third game last season. But by all accounts, he'll be fully recovered by the start of the season, if not sooner.
This is where it gets interesting.
Chad Henne, who replaced Pennington for the final 13 games of 2009, is firmly established as the Dolphins' No. 1 quarterback, something Pennington knew before his return. And, at least for the time being, Tyler Thigpen is No. 2 on the depth chart, while Pennington is No. 3. Pat White, a 2009 second-round choice, is still on the roster and could end up being the odd man out.
Still, Pennington's third-string status -- which coach Tony Sparano seemed to go out of his way to reveal to reporters during the recent NFL Annual Meeting in Orlando, Fla. -- is worth a double take given the Dolphins' apparent enthusiasm over his decision to reject other potential employment opportunities in favor of staying with them. At the meeting, Sparano was quick to lavish heavy praise for what Pennington's presence means to the team's efforts to again be the playoff team (as AFC East champions) it was in 2008.
"I see value with Chad Pennington in a lot of places," Sparano said. "I see value with the way he teaches, the relationships that he has with that group of players (at quarterback), the leadership he brings to our entire football team. And the fact that this guy goes out every day and competes -- competes his tail off.
"I know exactly what I'm getting in Chad Pennington when we bring him back."
That certainly sounds a little stronger of an endorsement than one might expect for a No. 3 quarterback. Leadership to an entire team? Presumably, it would be hard enough to do that as a second-stringer, let alone while sitting in the third slot.
Pennington, who turns 34 in June, does have the wisdom and willingness to be a positive influence on his younger teammates -- especially the ones at his position. It's just that he would clearly be taken more seriously if he were one snap away from regaining the starting job. There is some speculation in league circles that the Dolphins are doing their best to enhance Thigpen's stock so that he would be a more valuable trade commodity.
It's also worth noting that Pennington's one-year deal, worth $2.5 million, would increase by $1.7 million if he were traded and give him a salary of $5.75 million if he were to become a starter. The trade clause was important to Pennington, because he wanted to do whatever he could to minimize the chances of having to relocate his family. But if the Dolphins intend to keep Thigpen as Henne's immediate understudy, it would seemingly diminish at least some of Pennington's value.
Then again, if the Dolphins are going to be a serious contender, they'll need a strong season from Henne. Although Pennington would likely be their most reliable choice to step in if Henne were to be injured, the Dolphins need Henne to give them maximum production for most, if not all, of 16 games and beyond.
"From a mental standpoint, I thought he was in a good place (last season)," Sparano said of Henne. "I think that he has the physical tools that are required to play at a high level. He has very good arm strength, very good command of his offense, understands what he's seeing coverage-wise."
No team has a stronger identity with the Wildcat offense than the Dolphins, who started a league-wide trend in 2008. But as the Dolphins' offense has progressed, it has moved away from being a team that "needs" the Wildcat to be successful moving the ball. By Sparano's estimates, the Dolphins used the formation six percent of the time with Pennington at quarterback in '08 and roughly the same amount with Henne starting for most of last season.
"It is a part of who we are," Sparano said of the Wildcat. "It is not who we are. I see the offense evolving as the quarterback continues to evolve. From the beginning of the year, when Chad Henne went into the ballgame, until the end of the year, we really came an awful long way with what we could do during the course of games and how much we could put on Chad's plate.
"And it's a credit to Chad (Henne) because he handled things very, very well. By the middle of the season, he had everything. He was going with the whole offense, and we didn't have to really worry about any of those restrictions. We started to get better, pushing the ball down the field, having more yards, possessing the ball longer, doing those types of things without the Wildcat. I think that we're going to continue to evolve as he evolves, as some of our younger players evolve at the receiver position and certainly in our offensive line."
Ramifications are wide-reaching
I got this interesting perspective on the Pittsburgh Steelers' mounting off-field issues during a recent conversation with an assistant coach in the NFC.
"I really hope that somebody gives Tim Tebow a chance to make a big impact because a guy like that is going to be very good for this league," he said. "I like everything he stands for, and that's something we really need right now. I just don't like what guys like (Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes) are doing to our profession. Whether they know it or not, the things they do, good and bad, have an impact on all of us in this business."
Colts going four wides? (No joke)
The Indianapolis Colts will have a seriously crowded situation at receiver if Anthony Gonzalez comes back fully healthy from the knee injury that kept him out of most of last season.
They already have three highly-talented players at the position in Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie. And, of course, tight end Dallas Clark is one of their very best pass-catchers.
"We may go four wides," coach Jim Caldwell said. "You think I'm kidding, but I'm also half-serious about it, too, because if that proves to be the case, maybe that could happen in some cases. But, obviously, we're not going to take Dallas Clark off the field, either.
"Obviously, it's a great situation to have. We feel at some point we're going to have some competition to see who fits where. And that's what we'll do. I anticipate some good, healthy competition."
Caldwell considers the Colts' receiver situation to be on a par with what it was in 2004, when they had three 1,000-yard receivers in Wayne, Marvin Harrison, and Brandon Stokley.
"This group is as talented," Caldwell said. "If they're all healthy and ready to go, we'll find a place (for all of them). I don't think Gonzalez is quite where he'd like to be, but by the time we get rolling, he'll be there."
Roster turnover keeps message fresh
For a long time, there was a commonly held theory in the NFL that there was a limited shelf life to a coach's effectiveness. After five years or so, assuming he had not delivered a Super Bowl victory or any real promise of one, he could count on getting the boot, if only because whatever message he was delivering to his players had gone stale.
"The roster turns over now," Fisher said. "You're turning over 25, maybe 28 percent of your roster every year. Once you get through three or four years, you basically have a new team. Years ago, when they put that five-year max on the lifespan of a coach is because the rosters didn't turnover and the message gets stale after a while.
"But the challenges, I mean, they're all the same. Every year, I've got a new team. You've got to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your team and try to win as many games as you can."
Whatever it takes to motivate
Speaking of messages, you have to love this item from the San Diego Chargers' official website about one way Philip Rivers is motivating himself for the coming season. According to the site, Rivers is making sure to keep a tight grip on the memory of the Chargers' shocking 17-14 divisional-round playoff loss to the New York Jets by sticking a decal of the final score on the rear windshield of his truck.