FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Christian Hackenberg lined up inside the 10-yard line, took the snap and faded back in the pocket. Looking to his left, he found wide receiver Frankie Hammond in the corner of the end zone and lofted a perfectly placed pass where only Hammond could get it.
A few minutes later, on the final play of practice, Hackenberg took the snap near midfield and looked over the middle for tight end Jordan Leggett. He fired the ball toward Leggett, but cornerback Dexter McDougle was right there with tight coverage.
It was a microcosm of the second-year quarterback, whose performance this season almost certainly will determine whether he becomes a part of the solution or whether the Jets will be forced to look — again — for a long-term answer at the sport’s most important position.
The uneven performance came on a day Hackenberg again took snaps with the first-team offense, an indication that the team is willing to consider him as the opening day starter over Josh McCown. This was the first day in Hackenberg’s time with the Jets that he was the No. 1 quarterback at the start of practice; it was McCown before that. So it was particularly instructive to see how Hackenberg handled himself.
The net result: some promising moments, followed by some troubling ones. The fact that he threw two touchdown passes and two interceptions in each of his last two practices tells you what you’ve got in Hackenberg.
There’s no question he has a live arm and a prototypical drop-back delivery, and he can make the throws you need to make at this level. But then there are those mental errors that lead to incompletions or interceptions.
Todd Bowles wouldn’t say whether Hackenberg would work with the first-team offense in Saturday’s preseason opener against the Titans, but that certainly would make sense. After all, you know what you have in the 38-year-old McCown, who is a calming presence but a game manager at best. There is still a chance he goes into the season as the starter if the Jets aren’t comfortable enough with Hackenberg.
But why not get a look at what you have with Hackenberg by giving him meaningful work in the preseason? The results don’t count, so there’s no pressure to win, but there is value in seeing what Hackenberg can do in game-type conditions.
Chances are he’ll play like he practices, which means there will be some bad with the good. But give him as much experience as possible to try to judge where his game is at and whether he’s capable of carrying a full load to start the season. Bowles needs to find out what he has, even if he is not quite ready to commit to Hackenberg as his opening day starter.
Hackenberg won’t lobby for playing time, but he is excited about the possibilities.
“We get the opportunity to see certain things and get to know one another,” he said about the first several practices of training camp with a revamped roster. “I think that’s what has been most exciting about this camp, kind of the unknown, but also seeing the progress and seeing the success and learning from the things that didn’t quite work out, learning the why and then solving that problem. I think that is what has been one of the cooler parts about camp.”
Making Hackenberg’s learning curve even more challenging is the lack of experienced receivers, especially with Quincy Enunwa out for the season with a neck injury. But it is an opportunity nevertheless, and he can show just how ready he is.
Or is not.
“I’m just excited and focused and ready to go,” he said. “It’ll be interesting, and I think everyone’s kind of itching (to play).”
The answer can’t come soon enough, and Hackenberg’s chance to prove he belongs is here.