By Glenn Naughton
When the New York Jets chose Penn State Quarterback Christian Hackenberg in the second round of the NFL draft, the reactions were predictably mixed among the Gang Green faithful. Some chose to focus on his early results, his 20 touchdown 10 interception freshman season under Head Coach Bill O’ Brien in his pro-style offense.
The skeptics dismissed his inaugural college season and put his regression over the next two campaigns under the microscope.
Seeing his completion percentage dwindle from 58.9% in year one, to 55.8% in year two, before posting a paltry 53.5% rate last season paired with taking over 100 sacks during hist time at Penn State had some fans shaking their heads in disbelief over the selection.
The two sides remain split. The optimists and the pessimists, but there was one thing that was almost unanimous among Jets fans, and that was that year-one should be a redshirt season for Hackenberg. Keeping him on the bench to learn the nuances of an NFL offense behind whatever quarterback lines up under center on Sunday’s seemed to be the general consensus.
In fairness, you can’t blame Jets fans for wanting to take it slow. Some are still shell-shocked from the nauseating performances turned in by Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith over their first two pro seasons as both were thrust in to starting roles immediately and combined for 89 turnovers while producing just 54 touchdowns. An average of 13 touchdowns and 22 turnovers per season. Good luck winning with numbers like that in today’s NFL.
Aaron Rodgers, the poster boy for letting a quarterback sit and learn as he did behind Brett Favre for so many years appears to be a popular reference point in how to go about developing Hackenberg. However, there are multiple examples of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks as well as a few highly regarded youngsters who played early and often despite being viewed as “unprepared” by many:
Ben Roethlisberger: The two-time Super Bowl winner and future Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler was chosen in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft out of the University of Miami, Ohio. A small school that rarely lined up against big time defenses. As a result, the Steelers plan was to sit the rookie behind veteran quarterback Tommy Maddox who was subsequently injured in week 3. With Maddox out, “Big Ben” was forced in to action and all he did was go 13-0 while earning a trip to the AFC Championship game. Pittsburgh relied heavily on their defense and running game as Roethlisberger threw 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while completing 66.4% of his passes.
Russell Wilson: A fourth round choice of the Seattle Seahawks out of the University of Wisconsin, Wilson was described on his NFL.com draft profile as a player that a team might “take a late flier on” despite an otherwise glowing report. The Seahawks had just signed free agent Matt Flynn to a three-year $26 million contract but Wilson wowed the Seahawks coaching staff from the minute training camp started, and with an excellent defense and running game led Seattle to an 11-5 record and a first-round playoff win before winning the Super Bowl one year later.
Joe Flacco: Like Roethlisberger, Flacco was a small school product out of the University of Delaware where the level of competition was nowhere near what he would see in the pro’s (or what Hackenberg would have seen at Penn State). Even still, he got the nod as a rookie and led the Ravens to an 11-5 finish. While Flacco undoubtedly benefited from Rex Ryan’s 3rd ranked scoring defense, he held his own, piloting what would be the 11th highest scoring offense in the NFL.
Three young quarterbacks who many, including their own team’s, expected to sit and learn but who had a great deal of success early on due largely in part to a strong defense and running game with veteran playmakers. Sound familiar?
The list of successful young quarterbacks isn’t limited to recent Super Bowl winners either.
Marcus Mariota: The Tennessee Titans selected Mariota with the second overall pick in last years draft out of the University of Oregon where he ran an up-tempo offense that required little decision-making and called on quick reads and throws. With that being the case, many pundits viewed Mariota as a multi-year project who was far from NFL-ready. Despite struggling with the deep ball, Mariota was very impressive in his rookie campaign, tossing 19 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions while completing 62.2% of his passes.
Derek Carr: A second-round choice of the Oakland Raiders out of Fresno State in 2014, Carr has quickly become one of the better young quarterbacks in the NFL. The strong-armed signal caller has piled up 53 TD’s through his first two pro seasons, out-performing Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles who was the 3rd overall choice in that same draft.
Blake Bortles: Yes, Carr has outperformed Bortles thus far, but that’s not to say Bortles isn’t another fast riser who many franchises, the Jets included, would love to have. Much like several of the aforementioned QB’s, Bortles played mostly lower level competition as a student at the University of Central Florida and was supposed to get the same redshirt treatment that Jets fans are hoping for with Hackenberg.
After being selected by Jacksonville, the Jaguars said their plan was to sit Bortles for a full season to let him develop the “right way”. Well, that full season on the bench lasted all of 3 games. Bortles was the Jaguars starter by week four of his rookie season after playing just two full seasons at UCF and he hasn’t looked back. After a promising rookie season, Bortles looked even better in year two, throwing 35 touchdowns.
So while keeping a QB off the field may feel like the “safe” way to go, recent history has shown us plenty of examples of quarterbacks who have thrived in the NFL when put on the field sooner than expected wnen the supporting cast was strong enough to overcome the deficiencies that go along with a rookie quarterback.
Should the Jets entertain the notion of doing the same thing with Christian Hackenberg?
It may be a bit too early to rule out the possibility as offensive coordinater Chan Gailey was asked about the rookie at a recent charity event and had this to say according to newsday.com:
“He retained a great deal from the pro-style type of offense that Bill [O’Brien] had,” Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said Monday of his newest quarterback. “So he’s ahead in that respect, but he’s behind in seeing what’s going to happen to him defensively in the NFL.”
Maybe the Jets should try something different this time around.
Don’t hand the starting quarterback job to any of the QB’s in camp. Hold a legitimate training camp competition. Geno Smith, Hackenberg, Bryce Petty, and Ryan Fitzpatrick should he return. Let the fight it out, and If Hackenberg, the rookie, is the best of the bunch, put him under center and march forward with what is hopefully, once and for all, the solution the Jets decades-old search for a franchise quarterback.