Christian Hackenberg shows promise in preseason opener

The Summer of Hack kicked off in a near-empty building with an ultra-conservative plan for the biggest mystery on a star-crossed franchise.

The Jets rolled out a crawl-before-you-can-walk blueprint for Christian Hackenberg in a pre-season opening snooze fest designed to build up the young quarterback’s confidence.

It was safe, simple and somewhat productive for an organization hoping to instill the second-year signal caller with belief so they can get a definitive answer to this maddening question: Is this kid our franchise quarterback?

Nearly one year after Hackenberg sputtered in a pre-season finale disaster in Philly, he went 18 for 25 for 127 yards and a lost fumble in the Jets’ 7-3 win against the Titans at MetLife Stadium on Saturday.

The team’s hope was to give Hackenberg, who came into the game after Josh McCown engineered an eight-play, 78-yard opening touchdown drive, plenty of snaps to better evaluate him.

“He played okay in the pocket,” Todd Bowles said. “I thought he moved around well. He threw the ball away when he had to. It’s stuff to build off.”

Hackenberg’s numbers were hardly spectacular—he only averaged 5.1 yards per attempt, for Pete’s sake – but he looked comfortable in John Morton’s West Coast scheme.

The young quarterback, scrutinized at seemingly every turn this spring and summer, showed some encouraging signs, but this much is clear: He has a long way to go before the brain trust will feel comfortable starting him in a regular-season game.

Christian Hackenberg is sacked by Tennessee Titans defensive back Brynden Trawick.

Christian Hackenberg is sacked by Tennessee Titans defensive back Brynden Trawick.

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

Hackenberg made quick decisions in the pocket after an uneven first two weeks of training camp that included entirely too many indecisive moments that resulted in too many “sacks.”

“The fight as a young player is to not press and go, ‘Man, I need to go make that throw or go do that,’” McCown said. “He stayed within the system. When you do that, then you can really grow into becoming a more consistent player.”

The good news: The Titans didn’t lay a finger on Hackenberg in the first half thanks, in part, to his decisiveness. The bad news: The Jets didn’t sniff the end zone in eight drives with Hackenberg that included six punts, a missed field goal and lost fumble.

Morton, making his maiden voyage as an NFL play-caller, dialed up plenty of three-step drops designed to get the ball out of Hackenberg’s hand fast. This version of the west coast scheme was safe… and boring.

Hackenberg didn’t resemble the lost rookie that threw a pick-six and racked up nearly twice as many incompletions than completions in last year’s preseason finale.

“(For) every rookie coming into the NFL (in) your first experience, you don’t really know to expect,” Hackenberg said. “It’s a totally different game, a totally different feel. I think just being able to go through everything that happened last year and learn and see and watch and observe and grow… helped.”

Hackenberg completed his first five passes before a drop by Jalin Marshall.

Christian Hackenberg.

Christian Hackenberg.

(Elsa/Getty Images)

“I think (for) anyone playing that position at this level,” Hackenberg said, “Being able to stack some wins early… helps you kind of get in rhythm and get in the flow of the game. Getting the ball out quick. Seeing the defense. Understanding when they’re going to give us those shots (and) when they’re not.”

The top priority was to build Hackenberg’s confidence even if it meant taking baby steps against backups. In that sense, mission accomplished.

Hackenberg played one series behind the Jets starting offensive line. He only faced Tennessee’s first-team defense on that drive before Mike Mularkey rolled out his backups.

Chandler Catanzaro missed a 55-yard field goal attempt to cap Hackenberg’s second series. The quarterback’s night was filled with quick hitters to wideouts and dump-offs to running backs. Nothing too sexy. Hackenberg rarely challenged Tennessee’s defense with intermediate or deep passes.

“He had some shots down the field that they took away by coverage,” Bowles said, “So, he went to his second read and got rid of the ball. So, a good job doing that.”

Hackenberg rarely challenged Tennessee’s defense with intermediate or deep passes.

He averted disaster on his fourth drive when his third-down pass was batted in the air at the line of scrimmage, bounced off an offensive line and threw the arms of linebacker Nate Palmer.

Christian Hackenberg completed 18 of 25 passes for 127 yards.

Christian Hackenberg completed 18 of 25 passes for 127 yards.

(Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)

The Jets had an opportunity to run a two-minute drill with Hackenberg when they took over at their own nine-yard line with 1:22 left in the first half, but chose the conservative path. Evidently, Bowles and Morton didn’t want to risk dinging Hackenberg’s confidence with a potential mistake just before halftime.

Hackenberg was sacked on his first snap of the second half thanks to an offensive line breakdown that led to two free runners. He ended his night with a lost fumble late in the third quarter on a botched exchange with center Jonotthan Harrison.

A few days ago, Bowles said that he wasn’t expecting the young quarterback to be Roger Staubach.

Hackenberg’s 83.2 passer rating won’t make anyone think he’s the answer to the franchise’s most maddening problem for the past half century, but this was a necessary step in his education if he has any chance of becoming it.

The theme on this night for Hackenberg was abundantly clear: Better safe than sorry.

A new set of expectations awaits next week.


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