Although Henne flashed immense potential during his 21-game run as the team's starter, he has been mired in a slump that has allowed Miami, 4-4, to fall two games behind the New York Jets and New England Patriots in the AFC East race. He has thrown nine interceptions in the past five games, and guided the Dolphins to only seven touchdowns in their last 54 possessions.
With ball security and scoring touchdowns at a premium, the decision to go with Pennington is sensible. He led the Dolphins to the AFC East title two seasons ago, and remains the unquestioned leader in the locker room. More importantly, he is a terrific fit in the methodical, ball-control system that Sparano and offensive coordinator Dan Henning implemented upon taking over in 2008.
The system, which features a host of quick passes and play-action plays from myriad formations, is designed to blend a power-running game with a high-percentage passing attack. The passing game is deeply rooted in conventional play-action and semi-bootleg fakes with vertical routes on the outside. The quarterback is taught to look for the vertical throw initially, but settle for the safe underneath option when the deep ball is covered. By repeatedly taking the checkdown early in games, the offense eventually lures defenders out of their assigned zones, which eventually leads to big plays on the outside. It takes patience to execute this system, but a quarterback willing to repeatedly take the high-percentage throw can put up numbers.
As a player, Pennington is an outstanding game manager. He is one of the league's most accurate throwers, and he rarely puts the ball in harm's way by forcing a pass into tight coverage. Even though he doesn't possess exceptional arm strength, he makes up for it with timing and anticipation. He routinely gets the ball out of his hands before receivers make their breaks, and his quick delivery prevents defenders from jumping a route. When he opts to push the ball deep, Pennington creates windows for his receivers by selling the play-action.
His ability to show the ball with an extended arm while faking the handoff with a deliberate pace to the running back forces defenders to freeze, and allows his receivers to run past coverage on vertical and deep crossing routes. Throw in his crouched position after the run fake, and it is hard for defenders to diagnose the run or pass.
In looking at how the Dolphins' offense will operate with Pennington under center, I found a solid example of their play-action package from a Week 2 preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars to illustrate my point. The Dolphins are in a one back set with a slot formation on the left, and the tight end and flanker on the right. Ronnie Brown is set in the "dot" position behind Pennington. On the snap, Pennington drops back from center executing an inside zone fake with Brown on the left. He sells the fake by turning his back to the defense with the ball extended and taking a deliberate pace towards the runner. After executing the fake, he wheels around with his eyes down the field before dropping the ball off in the flat to Brown, who slips past a few defenders on the way to a 10-yard score.
With the Dolphins committed to running the ball with Brown and Ricky Williams, Pennington's ability to execute run-action fakes will produce big plays.
While Pennington's insertion will increase the amount of play-action passes, it will also help the Dolphins get the ball to Brandon Marshall. Their No. 1 receiver has been relatively quiet through the first half of the season, but Pennington's field awareness and confidence should lead to more production from Marshall.
The same preseason game also provided a glimpse of how Pennington and Marshall will hook up in the coming weeks. The Dolphins broke the huddle in a one-back, three-receiver package that starts out in a trips formation with Brown offset to the right. Anthony Fasano motions across the formation prior to the snap to create a "doubles" formation. Pennington executes a five-step drop and immediately looks for Marshall, who has quickly defeated press coverage on the far left. After hitting his last step, Pennington floats a high ball to Marshall's back shoulder, which allows the Pro Bowler to outmuscle the Jaguars' defenders in traffic. While the pass wasn't in an ideal spot, Pennington showed tremendous confidence in Marshall by throwing up a fifty-fifty ball.
Pennington's return will not only help the Dolphins go back to the methodical, ball-control approach that led to a surprising division title two seasons ago, but it could spark Miami to another run at the crown this year.