John Morton addressed the media for the first time as the Jets’ new offensive coordinator at OTAs in May, and eight seconds into his opening answer, the 47-year-old football lifer offered one of the pillars of his philosophy: “Take care of the ball.”
That message has been driven into the minds of the Jets’ three competing quarterbacks, particularly second-year signal-caller Christian Hackenberg, who showed a commitment to avoiding turnovers by not throwing an interception in 11-on-11 action during the Jets’ first eight practices of training camp.
But those days are long gone now.
For the second straight practice Wednesday, Hackenberg threw two interceptions in team drills, bringing his camp total to four. The 2016 second-round pick out of Penn State has appeared more willing to fire the ball down field in the last two practices, forcing some throws into tighter windows that led to picks or near-picks.
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Earlier in camp, Hackenberg seemed content with taking sacks, scrambling or throwing the ball away to live for another play.
However, on Thursday of last week, Todd Bowles said Hackenberg needs to “get rid of the ball quicker” when he was asked about the young QB finding a balance between taking shots and making good decisions. Since that point, Hackenberg has certainly looked less timid. He’s also completed more passes to defensive players.
Bowles, though, isn’t concerned about the picks.
“It’s practice,” Bowles said. “The defense has got to get turnovers. I’d be concerned if they weren’t. They got two today, but we’re cleaning some things up, and we’re learning as we go. It’s going to be up and down every day, so we’ll just go from there.”
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Hackenberg and Bryce Petty are set to receive significant playing time in the preseason opener Saturday night, and so they received the bulk of the reps Wednesday. Hackenberg led all three quarterbacks with 27 reps – not including three plays that ended in penalties.
For the first time this camp, Hackenberg was under center for the opening 11-on-11 series. McCown had previously started each 11-on-11 period of camp. It was during that initial series that Hackenberg threw his first interception. Tight end Eric Tomlinson ra a seam route with a linebacker trailing him, and Hackenberg tried to loft a pass over the top. But he didn’t see safety Rontez Miles ball-hawking on the play. The throw was behind Tomlinson, and Miles sprinted ahead and secured the interception.
Hackenberg avoided a turnover for nearly the rest of practice but threw a pick on the final play. Running the two-minute drill, Hackenberg unleashed a fastball over the middle of the field. Cornerback Dexter McDougle jumped the route and snatched the ball away from the intended receiver, tight end Jordan Leggett.
Bowles said he hasn’t seen anything different from Hackenberg in the last two practices.
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“The defense is making some plays,” he said. “It’s going to be back-and-forth all training camp.”
As always, Hackenberg provided some highlights along with his struggles. In his second series, the 22-year-old flicked a pinpoint floating touch pass to Robby Anderson down the left sideline. And in red-zone drills, Hackenberg recovered from a bobbled snap to find Frankie Hammond on a fade route in the left corner of the end zone.
Hackenberg finished 12-of-20 passing with a TD, two picks and a sack. Petty played the best of the three quarterbacks in his 20 reps, completing 9 of 12 passes, including two long touchdowns. McCown received a training camp-low 12 reps and completed 4-of-5 passes.
Bowles said he hasn’t decided who will start at quarterback Saturday night, when the Titans come to MetLife Stadium. He also said he hasn’t formulated a plan for how the QB playing time will be divvied up for the preseason opener.
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“Everybody’s going to get their fair equal shots to play,” Bowles said, “and we’re just going with our plan.”
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