Welcome to the Spotlight. Here we spotlight one key player for each game of the season, hopefully putting a different player in the spotlight each week. Today's player in the spotlight is quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Christian Hackenberg is a 22 year old, 6' 4", 225 pound quarterback out of Penn State University. He’ll turn 23 on Valentine’s Day 2018. Hackenberg was drafted by the New York Jets with the 51st overall selection in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft.
At Penn State Christian Hackenberg got off to a good start his freshman year in 2013, throwing for 2955 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. It was a good enough freshman year for some to speculate that he might one day be the top pick in the NFL draft, though even then Hackenberg suffered from problems with his accuracy. Subsequent years saw Penn State get swept up in the Sandusky scandal, lose scholarships, suffer a large exodus in talent, and change coaches and offensive systems. Amid the turbulence Hackenberg chose to remain at Penn State but his game suffered. He was never able to match his freshman performance, much less improve and build on it.
In the 2016 draft process Hackenberg supporters saw an uber talented quarterback victimized by circumstances beyond his control. Detractors saw a wildly inaccurate and mostly ineffective quarterback perhaps not even draftable. Jets GM Mike Maccagnan held a private workout for Christian Hackenberg and reportedly fell in love with his potential. In 2016 Maccagnan pulled the trigger on Hackenberg in the second round, a selection that left many bewildered, while some rejoiced with visions of a franchise quarterback dancing in their heads. A scouting video showing Hackenberg doing the Christian thing with some impressive pointing surfaced and Hackablanca was born.
In the ensuing months Christian Hackenberg went through two training camps, two pre-seasons and almost two regular seasons and looked mostly lost doing so. His accuracy remained an issue and problems reading NFL defenses also surfaced at an alarming rate. As a result Hackenberg was buried on the Jets quarterback depth chart, a fourth string quarterback in 2016 and a third string quarterback in 2017. Despite injuries leaving Hackenberg at times one of just two healthy options at quarterback, with the underwhelming Bryce Petty the only one standing in the way of Hackenberg seeing the field, the Jets steadfastly refused to give Hackenberg a single regular season snap, even after both seasons became lost causes. While a backup quarterback not playing is hardly news, a quarterback drafted in the first two rounds never receiving a single snap of regular season professional football in his first two seasons is rather remarkable. In fact it is so remarkable that it has only happened once before in the last 50 years. Until now.
It would appear the Jets are preparing Christian Hackenberg to break that streak on Sunday. Hackenberg is splitting first team reps in practice with Bryce Petty, and unlike any other regular season Sunday since Hackenberg has been with the Jets, head coach Todd Bowles, in his own enigmatic, oracular way, has dropped broad hints the Jets are looking for an opportunity to insert Hackenberg into Sunday’s game against the New England patriots. Reading the tea leaves it would appear the Jets intend to give Christian Hackenberg his NFL debut on Sunday, unless the wildly improbable occurs and Bryce Petty plays well enough to lead the Jets deep into the game with victory in sight. The most probable turn of events may be Christian Hackenberg coming out to take the reins to open the second half.
This week’s game against the New England Patriots in a bitterly cold Foxboro, Massachusetts with home field advantage in the playoffs on the line for the Patriots does not exactly present a great opportunity for a Jets upset. A win here would be one of the biggest upsets in Jets history. Christian Hackenberg leading a come from behind victory would nearly defy belief. However, for Christian Hackenberg and the Jets this game has less to do with wins and losses than it has to do with establishing a path forward.
It is just one game. In all likelihood Christian Hackenberg won’t even get more than one half of this game. To call that a small sample is an enormous understatement. Nothing Hackenberg can do in this game will likely alter the Jets plans for the future at the quarterback position. If Hackenberg plays lights out, nobody acting rationally would abandon plans to upgrade perhaps the NFL’s worst quarterback depth chart based on less than even one full game of NFL action. Likewise if Hackenberg plays poorly nobody acting rationally would say, based on one brutal partial game in difficult conditions against the reigning Super Bowl champions matching wits with perhaps the greatest coach who ever lived, that Christian Hackenberg’s NFL career is over. Either way, whether Christian Hackenberg surprises everybody with a solid or even great performance, or whether he flops like many expect, this one moment won’t define Christian Hackenberg’s career. But what it may do is begin to provide the first evidence under actual NFL game day conditions as to whether there is hope for Hackenberg.
Sunday’s contest against the Patriots presents a major challenge for the Jets in general, and assuming Christian Hackenberg actually makes it onto the playing field, for Hackenberg in particular. Conditions will not be ideal. Hackenberg will be facing a head coach in Bill Belichick notorious for giving young quarterbacks fits. The conditions on the field will resemble a frozen tundra. The Patriots have something important to play for, and they like nothing better than to destroy their division rivals, the hated New York Jets. This won’t be easy, but for Christian Hackenberg, it may finally represent all he’s asked for his first two years in the NFL: a chance. Christian Hackenberg, this is your chance to take a first step towards shutting up your countless critics. This is your time in the spotlight. This is your chance to shine for the Jets. Like many others I doubt your long term viability in the NFL, but like any Jets fan I would love nothing better than to be proven wrong. Time to begin to state your case for being a part of a brighter Jets future. May you get your chance and shine brightly on Sunday against the Patriots. Go get ‘em Hack.