Todd Bowles is still a ways away from making a final decision on who will be his starting quarterback, and if you had to guess right now, this competition still leans toward veteran Josh McCown over Christian Hackenberg.
But at least Hackenberg provided some reassurance that this less-than-fully-open competition can perhaps turn into an open question by the time Bowles is ready to name his No. 1 passer.
The well-traveled 38-year-old McCown has primarily been the starter through the early part of training camp, although Bowles and first-year offensive coordinator John Morton gave Hackenberg some work with the first-team offense this week. McCown got the start Saturday against the Titans and drove the Jets 78 yards in eight plays on their first possession, including a perfectly thrown 53-yard pass down the right side to Robby Anderson. He finished it off with a four-yard touchdown pass to Charone Peake.
But the rest of the night belonged to Hackenberg, as the Jets got their first extended look at the second-year quarterback since a woeful night against the Eagles in the final preseason game of 2016. An ill-advised throw deep in Eagles’ territory and a 90-yard touchdown return by safety Ed Reynolds was the salient moment that night, and the Jets never let Hackenberg near the field in the regular season.
He was essentially red-shirted for his freshman NFL season, with the Jets deciding he needed a year’s worth of looking and listening before actually contributing on the field.
But if Saturday night’s performance was any indication, at least there was progress. At least he looked as if he belonged on the field and in the huddle, his eyes focused down the field and not dazed in the headlights.
To be sure, Morton kept the training wheels on most of the game, keeping Hackenberg’s attempts mostly in mid-range territory and having him spray the ball to either side. He attempted one deep throw down the right sideline to Frankie Hammond in the second quarter, but the ball was overthrown. His next pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage and nearly intercepted. There was only one more deep attempt, and that one fell incomplete, too.
So, progress yes. But let’s be clear: There is still a long way to go before the Jets can get a definitive read on whether Hackenberg can become a legitimate NFL quarterback. For all the improved confidence and delivery — especially compared to last year’s debacle in Philly — he failed to put any points on the board and got the Jets in position for just one field goal attempt — a 55-yarder that was missed by Chandler Catanzaro. Hackenberg finished 18 of 25 for 127 yards. More importantly: no interceptions.
There’s nothing wrong with Bowles sticking with McCown for now and letting Hackenberg become better acclimated to the position. McCown will never be mistaken for Tom Brady, but there is a veteran presence that can serve the Jets well in the interim. Or at least until Hackenberg can be trusted to perform at an adequate level once the games count.
That said, this is the time the Jets need to play Hackenberg as much as possible. Keep putting him out there to take the bulk of the action in the preseason, and try and get a better feel for when he might be ready. Even if the Jets aren’t comfortable with him starting the season, getting him as many snaps as possible is the way to go.
Those who suggest Hackenberg should simply be anointed as the starter, especially given the low expectations for this year’s team, need to be mindful of the possibility he might drown in his own self-doubt should be struggle at the start. Remember, too, that the Jets have one of the most inexperienced receiving corps in the NFL, and the loss of Quincy Enunwa to a season-ending neck injury further complicates the situation.
At some point, the time will be right for Hackenberg to get his chance, but there is still plenty of time to let the situation sort itself out. In the meantime, the second-year quarterback can take comfort in the fact he has come a long way since that dreadful night in Philadelphia.
Even if he hasn’t come along quite enough just yet.