The Curious Case of Christian Hackenberg
It is possible the New York Jets did something brilliant last Friday, and yes, I know exactly how that sounds, and I know that the Jets have drafted 10 quarterbacks since 2003, and I know that precisely two of those quarterbacks have started more than nine games in the NFL, and that those two quarterbacks were Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith, neither of whom appears bound for Namathian stardom anytime soon.
So let me say this: It is also possible the Jets did something characteristically boneheaded by choosing Christian Hackenberg, a polarizing quarterback out of Penn State, in the second round. Some of this is dependent on Hackenberg, who played brilliantly as a freshman under former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien and then got caught up in a cycle of terrible offensive line play and questionable play-calling and bad body language. But it’s worth noting that quite a bit of this is up to the Jets at this point, because the thing about Hackenberg is that under those exposed flaws, he carries an undeniable amount of talent.
It is a question, at this point, about whether the NFL manages to misuse him and toss him aside – much like they’ve done with so many other quarterbacks in recent years.
This is not just a Jets problem, of course. The NFL as a whole has a problem developing quarterbacks, particularly those chosen in the later rounds of the draft. And maybe you can pin some of this on the fact that college offensive systems – based heavily on more wide-open spread philosophies – haven’t translated so neatly to the NFL, and maybe you can pin some of this on the fact that many quarterbacks drafted in the later rounds aren’t going to be good enough to stand up to the rigors of pro football. But there’s something else going on here: As NFL.com’s Kevin Patra recently pointed out, of the 34 quarterbacks who are potential starters heading into next season, 21 were drafted in the first round, and six were chosen in the second round. Russell Wilson in Seattle and Tom Brady in New England, chosen in the later rounds, are increasingly the outliers.
With an increasing emphasis on the passing game, but fewer outlets for young-quarterback development given the evolution of the college game and the dissolution of NFL Europe, Patra writes, “teams are more apt to throw an unready quarterback into the fire…rather than cultivate a passer from the ground up.” And so quarterbacks get shuttled in and out, general managers and coaches fall victim to public outcry and certain players never really get a fair chance to develop.
This year’s draft should prove a particularly interesting litmus test on that front: a record 15 quarterbacks were drafted in total, including a dozen beyond the first round, as opposed to the seven (five beyond the first round) who were chosen in 2015. Most of them – see Cardale Jones, he of the huge arm and raw talent and charming social-media presence who got drafted in round four by the Buffalo Bills – will require a certain amount of patience.
But the most interesting social experiment of them all is Hackenberg, who will have to be nurtured in New York, a place where patience is not generally a welcomed trait. The Jets are in a contract tug-of-war with last year’s starter, Ryan Fitzpatrick; if they don’t re-sign him, the other candidates to start are Geno Smith (who has been erratic at best when not being assaulted by his teammates) and Bryce Petty, a fourth-round draft pick out of Baylor in 2015 who has yet to do much of anything. And so Hackenberg will be lurking out there if the Jets struggle, and if he looks good in practice, I imagine the temptation will be for Jets coach Todd Bowles to start him as soon as humanly possible.
“I don’t think he’s ready to play right way,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said during a conference call this week. “I think he needs time. Hopefully, he’s not forced to be the guy, or he’s going to be a bust. If they handle him properly, manage him properly, I think he’s got a chance three years down the road to surface. If they’re forcing Christian Hackenberg to right away be a factor at quarterback, they’re barking up the wrong tree.”
I’m sure Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan are convinced of this wisdom at this moment. But what happens if the pressure builds? What happens if in, say, two years, both of their jobs are on the line, and Hackenberg is still “developing”? This is the irony of modern professional football, in which the forward pass matters more than it ever has: Every team needs a quarterback more than ever, but no one has the patience to construct the kind of quarterback they’re seeking.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb