It was the stat line etched in infamy. Christian Hackenberg — Penn State darling, quarterback of the Jets’ future — headed into Philadelphia last preseason with hopes of showing what he could do and instead showed all the things he couldn’t. Headlines highlighted his failures, sports blogs mocked his attempts, and, up until Saturday, Hackenberg hadn’t had an in-game snap since.
So yeah, the Jets were careful.
But despite the caution exercised with their second-year signal caller, Hackenberg came nowhere close to repeating the sins of yesteryear. Instead, he provided something that’s been in short order this season: A glimmer of hope.
“It felt good,” Hackenberg said after the game. “I think every rookie coming into the NFL, your first experience, you don’t really know what to expect, It’s a totally different game, a totally different feel, so I think just being able to go through everything that happened last year and learn and see and watch and observe and grow, I think it [helps].”
Despite a steady diet of short passes and a simplified offense, Hackenberg showed definitive signs of progress in over two quarters of play Saturday, part of the Jets 7-3 win over the Titans in their first preseason game of the season. Granted, it wasn’t flawless — his pass with 2:50 left in the second quarter, intended for Charone Peake, tipped off the offensive line and was nearly intercepted, and he added a turnover late in the third quarter, off a fumbled snap — but it did show why the Jets were so high on him in the first place.
He appeared less tentative than he’s been in the past, his mechanics were improved and his sideline rapport with Josh McCown was continuous. His line this time was 18-for-25, for 127 yards and no touchdowns, a far cry from last years when he went 11-for-31 for only 54 yards against the Eagles.
The Jets, too, kept to their professed game plan. McCown started the game and scored promptly, Hackenberg took over on the Jets second series, and things got a lot more tentative after that. Hackenberg’s average depth of target hovered around three yards until his final series, and he averaged 5.08 yards per attempt. Before that final series, where he was finally allowed to air it out a little more, he had only one deep pass attempt. That one, intended for Frankie Hammond with 2:55 left in the first half, was badly overthrown on the right sideline. His second long attempt, also to Hammond with six minutes left in the third quarter, was also overthrown.
Bryce Petty took over with a minute left in the third quarter and finished the game.
“He got some things to build off,” coach Todd Bowles said of Hackenberg. “He got some positives that he can look at and build from, he’s got some negatives that we’ve got to correct. We expect it in the first game . . . He was comfortable when he came out.”
Meanwhile McCown, in all of four minutes on the field, and countless minutes counseling Hackenberg off it, proved to be the veteran stopgap the Jets were hoping for.
He helped kick off the game with a near-perfect drive, going 78 yards in eight plays to score only 3:52 into the game. McCown hit Robby Anderson on a 53 yard rocket three plays into the game. Two plays later, McCown found Peake along the goal line for the four-yard touchdown, putting the Jets up 7-0. The Titans scored with 9:27 left in the third quarter, on Ryan Succop’s 36-yard field goal — facilitated by Alex Tanney’s 42-yard pass to Taywan Tyler.
And after he doffed the role of quarterback, McCown eagerly donned the role of mentor
“I’m so proud of Hack tonight because we had little hiccups here and there that happened that weren’t necessarily his fault but he kept battling through and played within the game,” he said. “I think it’s a good first game for [Hackenberg and Petty] and I’m real proud of Hack.”