TAMPA, Fla. - He's spent his Sundays with his hands nearly glued to a clipboard for the better part of the last 13 weeks, standing mostly in the immense shadow cast by the franchise's face of the future.
Kellen Clemens has been a forgotten man since that Wednesday morning in the final week of August when Jets coach Rex Ryan officially tapped Mark Sanchez on his $50-million right arm and told him he was the starter.
That all changes Sunday - well, at least for a little more than three hours.
With Sanchez back in New Jersey rehabbing his sprained right posterior cruciate ligament so he can be ready for next Sunday's game against the Falcons, Clemens steps into the forefront and under center against the Buccaneers today, looking to keep the Jets' slim playoff hopes intact. It's a rebirth of sorts for the fourth-year pro, who's making only his ninth career start.
"I just love playing," Clemens said. "The competitor in me wants to be out there on the field with my teammates. So that's the same with every guy. Nobody dreams of growing up and sitting on the bench."
That's precisely where Clemens has been for the bulk of his career, though, ever since the Jets grabbed him in the second round with the 49th overall pick in the 2006 draft. Clemens, 26, hasn't been able to grab the starting job and has been immersed in three quarterback competitions in his short NFL career, losing each.
His most extensive work came in 2007, when he finally made a name for himself after starting in place of the injured Chad Pennington in the Jets' second game of the season in Baltimore. That's the game everyone brings up when discussing Clemens' plight because it was one of the best performances he's had, especially given that it came against the vaunted Ravens defense in his initial pro start.
Clemens nearly led a stirring fourth-quarter comeback, rallying the Jets from a 20-3 deficit and getting within 20-13 late. But on the Jets' final drive, his potential game-tying touchdown pass was dropped by Justin McCareins and picked off by linebacker Ray Lewis, clinching the Ravens' win.
Despite seemingly running for his life all game because the Jets' offensive line wasn't that good, Clemens connected on 10 of 19 passes for 176 yards in the fourth quarter, threw his first career touchdown pass on a 3-yarder to former Jets tight end Chris Baker, and hooked up with Jerricho Cotchery for bombs of 44 and 50 yards. He finished 19-for-37 for 260 yards.
Rex Ryan, then the Ravens' defensive coordinator, had a front-row seat.
"I remember playing against him when I was in Baltimore," said Ryan, now Clemens' coach. "For three quarters they struggled offensively, but then they lit us up in the fourth quarter. He made some nice passes that day. That was how familiar I was with Kellen. It was based on that."
Clemens started eight games that season for the Jets and needed three starts before collecting his first victory. It came on Nov. 18 against the Steelers, who featured the league's top-ranked defense at that point.
Clemens compiled an unimpressive 3-5 record as a starter in 2007, was sacked 27 times and threw five touchdown passes compared to 10 interceptions. But he's had two more seasons to master the playbook and get all the terminology down in Brian Schottenheimer's scheme.
"The fact that he knows the system gives him an advantage even over Mark to a point," the Jets' offensive coordinator said. "When you go into a game and you have to adjust, it's easier to adjust with a guy like Kellen because [we can say], 'Remember that play we ran in 2007? That looks good.' "
Maybe, but Clemens looked awful against the Bills when he came in to relieve an injured Sanchez. He coughed up the ball near his own goal line and got sacked three times. His pocket presence isn't always there and he appears sluggish going through his progressions.
"With this you have to go back to the 2007 season," Schottenheimer said. "He was playing a lot and getting hit a lot, quite honestly. That has a part to do with it. It's something he's worked really hard on."
Clemens, in the final year of his rookie contract, says today's start isn't about him and that he isn't looking at this as a showcase to give other teams a closer look. He's not about to step out of his usual persona.
"We've got one of the best run games in the league and also one of the best defenses," Clemens said. "So I just need to do my job, keep possession of the football, and I think we'll be fine."