The Jets quarterback competition unofficially ended in Detroit on Saturday with the realization that life in the NFL is not fair.
It’s an unforgiving line of work. Big-boy pants are not optional.
Nobody knows that more than Christian Hackenberg, who hasn’t exactly been operating under optimal conditions in the past few years. From playing behind a patchwork offensive line in college made up of converted defensive linemen to learning a second offense in his second pro season to throwing to a bunch of no-names, the second-year quarterback hasn’t been set up to succeed.
Now, his chance of being the Jets Week 1 starter has all but vanished.
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Hackenberg sputtered in his first career start in a 16-6 preseason loss to the Lions, paving the way for veteran Josh McCown to start the regular-season opener in Buffalo in a few weeks.
Todd Bowles claimed that Hackenberg “really didn’t get a chance” to prove his worth in the second preseason game due to protection problems.
“It’s not a fair evaluation of the kid,” the coach said, while refusing to divulge whether a fair chance would come in the third preseason game against the Giants next weekend.
Spoiler: It won’t, because it can’t.
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McCown, who didn’t play Saturday, needs sufficient time with the starters in the final dress rehearsal before the start of the regular season. Hackenberg will play with the backups.
“You got to experience things and got to be able to bounce back and learn from them and grow from them,” Hackenberg said of Bowles’ characterization. “I think Coach has his opinion… I’m sure that’s one that I’ll hear and my quarterback coach and OC will have their opinions after (watching) the tape. Again, I’m always trying to build and move forward.”
Bowles pointed the finger at his offensive line for “bad” play due to “missed communication” in the first half. Hackenberg was sacked twice in his five first-half drives, including a seismic thud from a free runner on the third play of the game. It’s unclear whether the offensive line or Hackenberg whiffed on that play.
The Jets had five blockers for the six Lions on the line of scrimmage.
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Hackenberg has had some struggles setting the protections in training camp. Did he not make the proper adjustment?
Was it unfair to evaluate Hackenberg on a night when his coach was clearly not pleased with the protection up front?
“Obviously you have to make the most of any situation any time you’re on the field,” left tackle Ben Ijalana said. “You get evaluated for it. So, I’m not here to decide what’s fair and what’s not. From my understanding, he got a half of football. And that’s a lot of football. There’s some people on this squad today who might not have played any. So, you got to make the most of the opportunities you get. Obviously, 11 guys on the field have to be firing. But I wouldn’t say it’s not fair.”
Hackenberg’s evaluation is complicated.
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Although there were moments when his offensive linemen underperformed, let’s not pretend that the young quarterback was scrambling for his life on every snap. Truth be told, he had sufficient time in the pocket on most of his drop-backs. He overthrew Robby Anderson early on a deep ball. He threw a low (albeit probably catchable) ball to Austin Seferian-Jenkins that fell incomplete.
Hackenberg was not blameless in an anemic first half that netted 43 yards and two first downs. The conditions were far from perfect for the quarterback, of course, but an NFL offense simply cannot go three-and-out on four of five first-half possessions. Hackenberg has not led his team to any points in 13 drives this preseason.
The Lions starters held the ball for seven and a half more minutes than the Jets in the first half. At that rate, Bowles’ defense will be gasping for oxygen in the fourth quarter every week.
Bowles disagreed with the notion that his quarterbacks just don’t have enough offensive playmakers.
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“I wouldn’t say we don’t have any difference makers,” he said.
But let’s get real for a moment, shall we? Hackenberg isn’t throwing to the Three Amigos out there. Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson and Ricky Nattiel aren’t walking through that door.
No wideouts caught a pass when Hackenberg was under center. Part of it falls on Hackenberg, but you’re fooling yourself if you believe that his supporting cast is anywhere near close to good enough to help out a young signal-caller searching for assistance.
“Christian’s handled the situation very well,” Ijalana said. “He has good poise…. I was proud of him last year. He seems to be blocking out the noise. He’s just handling his business.”
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Contrary to popular belief, Hackenberg didn’t ask to be drafted with the 51st overall pick. There’s undue pressure to deliver for a second-rounder dealing with a pretty awful set of circumstances.
There’s not enough time for him to win the starting gig before the regular season.
Is it fair? No.
Is it reality? Yes.
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