Sitting winless at the bottom of the AFC East with a trip to Foxboro on deck painted an ominous forecast for the 2008 Miami Dolphins. Perhaps that was the outlook from the fans and studio analyst's vantage point, but for Chad Pennington and his Dolphins team, the knowledge of a unique game plan set the stage for a colossal surprise.
"We were 0-2," Pennington said on Friday's episode of the Drive Time podcast. "We were just blown out by the Cardinals in Arizona, now we're going to play the New England Patriots coming off of their undefeated regular season."
Even with a trip to that venue that had proven too great of an obstacle for many teams prior, the Dolphins entered play with perhaps an exorbitant amount of confidence.
"I remember us having a meeting on the field and just talking about how the Patriots had just lost Tom Brady," Pennington said. "They were going to their backup and we've got something they will not be prepared for. This is our X factor; a great opportunity to shock the world, and we were able to do that."
The entire 2008 season was one of proving the pundits wrong. Pennington joined the team one day after Miami's preseason opener in Tampa Bay and was running with the first team offense during his first practice. He quickly seized the job and would start the opener against the team that had released him one month earlier.
"I felt like the whole weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders because it could no longer be Chad Pennington's fault in New York," Pennington said. "I probably had no business playing quarterback [in the season opener] because I was emotionally attached to the whole situation."
The Dolphins would lose that game against the Jets before traveling to the desert for a thorough beating in Arizona, but good times were ahead. Those fun times began, in earnest, in Foxboro with a secret recipe mixed into the game plan. The Wildcat package wasn't intended to be a supplementary aspect of the offense, but rather an attempt to get something going with the run game.
"The Wildcat was developed out of necessity," Pennington said. "We could not run the ball very well at all in the first two games."
Some quarterbacks might scoff at the idea of lining up anywhere besides under center or in the shotgun. For the 2008 MVP runner-up, and unquestioned captain of that year's AFC East champions, it was an opportunity to not only win games, but aid the passing game.
"If it gave us an advantage, and we were able to create some space in the run game, then it was going to help the pass game, too," Pennington said. "The whole point of it was that we had to be very efficient in the pass-game for this to work because once you line up in the Wildcat formation, your pass options are limited, obviously. We knew we had to be very efficient in the first- and second-down passing game for this to work."
If the dictionary came with visual aids, next to the term 'efficient' would've been Pennington in his 2008 Miami Dolphins garb. The Fins quarterback completed 17-of-20 passes for 226 yards. Once Pennington marched down the field, it was running back Ronnie Brown's time to shine. Brown rushed for four touchdowns and threw another with an impressive corner-route dime on a bootleg left – a play call only made possible by a southpaw triggerman.
"The Wildcat fit Ronnie's patient running style perfectly," Pennington said. "Then you add on the fact that he's left-handed, and to be able to run a bootleg to the left, which defenses don't see a whole lot, with a Wildcat quarterback, that was the icing on the cake to say we've got something no one else in the league has. It fit our personnel perfectly."
Each touchdown had a cavalcade effect on the New England defense. Not only was Miami piling up points on the scoreboard, they were leaving the Patriots befuddled by an equation that simply had no solution.
"The best part about the whole situation was the reaction of the Patriots defense," Pennington said. "When you play the Patriots, they normally had a call and an adjustment for everything. I was used to how they would communicate and how good they were at it. This was the first time in my career that I remember the field being completely silent. No communication whatsoever, eyeballs being really big, jaws dropped because they had no answer for how to line up to the formation or what call to make to defend it."
Brown's touchdown pass to tight end Anthony Fasano late in the third quarter gave the Dolphins a commanding 28-6 lead, and all but put the game on ice.
"Once we hit the touchdown pass [to Fasano] we knew the game was in our hands and all we had to do was not screw it up," Pennington said. "Kudos to our offensive staff to have the courage to install this, and then kudos to [Offensive Coordinator] Dan Henning for running it successfully. Then it just became something that we built energy and momentum off of."
On top of his highly-efficient production throwing the ball, Pennington's buy-in to the Wildcat was instrumental to the Dolphins' success that season.
"The team bought into what we were doing from a Wildcat perspective," Pennington said. "If I was going to be negative about the Wildcat, I don't think it would've worked as effectively because you've got your quarterback -- your leader -- downplaying or being negative about part of your system. The whole perception is really important to the reality of trying to execute the Wildcat system."
The win in Foxboro was a laugher, a result that was unique to Miami's path to victory the rest of that season. Each game was a tightly-contested battle with a fourth quarter triumph. The Dolphins quarterback believed in the formula for success that season, and believed in his team's ability to stay true to that formula.
"Everyone knew what our formula was on the team, and these games weren't blowouts," Pennington said. "We were going to play stout defense. Offensively, we weren't going to turn the ball over to put our defense in a bad situation. And when it got to the fourth quarter, we believed we were going to find a way to win, and we did."
The division title was made possible due in large part to the Jets parting ways with Pennington. Like a Hollywood script, Miami's schedule would take Pennington back to his former stomping grounds for a shot at ultimate revenge and vindication.
"It was really sweet," Pennington said about the bookend dates with the Jets. "By the end of the season, there were 16 games in between [the two meetings with the Jets], and it was strictly about making NFL history. The emotion [from Week 1] had subsided and I was really excited about helping lead this young team to an AFC East division title and making NFL history. Going from 1-15 to 11-5, that was just a fun time to be a Miami Dolphin."