Back To The Future: What If Hackenberg Is Actually Good?

Our brand new podcast “Play Like A Jet” will debut at Turn on the Jets Digital on June 2 and each week we will be taking a look back at the biggest moments in Jets history.  This will include games, seasons, player’s careers, and other special events.  I’m excited to get started with the show and I look forward to getting your feedback on Twitter @playlikeajet1.

However, being that on “Play Like A Jet” we will be going back in time, I thought it might be fun to take a look into the future.  There has been an incredible amount of chatter in Jets fan circles about how the team is in shambles and is about to embark on a multiple year rebuilding project.

That’s likely true.  But, what if it isn’t? Put another way, what if Christian Hackenberg turns out to be good. What might the Jets look like, then?

Joe once said he believes Hackenberg’s ceiling to be Jay Cutler minus the attitude problems. With that in mind, we jump forward to mid-February 2018.

Hackenberg played surprisingly well in the 2017 pre-season and to the shock of many, won the starting job over Josh McCown.  Since we are using Cutler as the ceiling, in this scenario, Hackenberg has duplicated what Cutler did in his first full season with Denver in 2007: 20 TDs, 14 INTs, a QBR of 67.2, a completion percentage of 63.6, and a yards per attempt of 7.5.

Hackenberg made his share of mistakes – there was a back breaking INT thrown during a potential game-tying drive week 5 against New England, and a horrendous week 14 game on the road against Denver where he threw 3 INTs – but overall, he showed great poise for an inexperienced QB and showcased all the physical tools that made Maccagnan want to draft him in the second round in 2016.

The team only went 7-9 overall, but for the first time in ages, Jets fans are giddy over the fact that they finally have a young QB with whom this team can grow and maybe become a real factor in the AFC for years to come.  In fact, Hackenberg performed so much better than the naysayers thought, that the entire staff at TOJ chipped in and bought Joe his #5 jersey as a Christmas present (and we got him one of those really expensive authentic ones, too……no cheap knockoffs, fellas, so start saving up now in case this all actually happens!)

The following is a column I have written under this theoretical scenario as the Jets head into free agency and gets ready for the 2018 draft:

What a difference a year makes, eh?

Last year we were all talking about the hopeless future of the Jets.  Tear it all down, we said.  Start from scratch.  No more half-measures.

We all knew there would be plenty of pain and ugly football along the way, but a few years of misery was the price that would have to be paid if there was going to be any chance of this ship being righted.

Of course, the biggest reason for this was the quarterback position.

Jets fans realized they would be forced to sit through Josh McCown and be bored to tears while the team lost game after game until Christian Hackenberg would finally be tossed in and fail just as badly, if not worse.

The biggest fear of the entire fanbase was that they would do exactly what they usually do: be bad, but win just enough games to not be in position to draft a quarterback.  No Sam Darnold.  No Josh Rosen.  Maybe not even Lamar Jackson.

Then we would go through another pointless season of some McCown like veteran “holding down the fort” or Hackenberg stumbling all over the place, much the way Geno Smith did in his sophomore season.  All the while we would collectively hold our breath while we hoped that, this time, the Jets WOULD actually be bad enough to draft the QB who would finally be the answer to their prayers.

This was what we all expected.  But a funny thing happened along the way.

Christian Hackenberg, the guy we all criticized Mike Maccagnan for “overdrafting” in the 2nd round.  They guy we all watched play embarrassingly last pre-season.  The guy whose college tape showed so many mechanical flaws that they almost outnumbered the amount of times Rex Ryan guaranteed Superbowls.  The guy who was so invisible last year that most of us wondered if actually existed?

Well, shock of all shocks, he turned out to be pretty damn good.

To be fair, it was only one season, and there are no guarantees Hackenberg will build on 2017 or even be able to sustain it.  But if nothing else, what we saw in 2017 was one hell of a start.

Sure, there were moments when Hackenberg’s accuracy was questionable or he looked downright lost.  The pass he threw right into Devin McCourty’s chest when the team was driving to tie the game in week five was not his finest moment.  Nor were the three INTs he threw and five sacks he took in a week 14 thrashing in Denver.

But for a guy in his first season who most of us saw as a sunk cost?  There was a lot to like.

The overall numbers tell much of the tale:  20 TDs, 14 INTs, a QBR of 67.2, a completion percentage of 63.6, and a yards per attempt of 7.5.  More than that, though, some of the game to game moments we watched were plenty of reason to fill us all with tremendous optimism going forward.

For starters, how about his shocking outdueling of Jameis Winston in a surprise win against a Tampa Bay Bucs team that won the NFC South?  Or the game-winning drive he led against Miami in week three with less than 90 seconds left on the clock, in which he completed five passes in a row en route to setting up the go ahead field goal?

These were special moments that showed an outstanding combination of strong leadership, terrific physical tools, and mastery of an offensive system that many believed he would struggle with.

Credit to John Morton and Jeremy Bates here.  After last season, nobody had any idea what to expect, but these two guys took a kid who had been wrapped in bubble wrap, taught him a brand new system, and helped turn him into an NFL quarterback.

Speaking of being an NFL quarterback, one of the most important traits any QB in the NFL has to have is an ability to trust and connect with the weapons around him.

Coming into the 2017 season, many believed the Jets’ offensive personnel was – at least on paper – the worst in the league, especially after Eric Decker re-injured himself in the pre-season and ended up missing three months.

In his absence, though, Quincy Enunwa and Robby Anderson stepped up dramatically, with both men reaching the magical 1,000 yard mark for the season.  Enunwa’s eight touchdowns – double what he produced in 2016 – was yet another step forward for arguably the team’s best young offensive player and Anderson’s 18 yards per catch clearly showed us the good things that can happen when you have a QB who actually has the arm strength to regularly get him the ball on deep routes.  Second year man Charone Peake continued to progress, while rookies ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen both showed signs that they could very well be keepers for the long haul.

To me, though, the two most impressive traits Hackenberg showed this year were the ability to know when to get rid of the ball on a busted play, and when he did, how to effectively use his safety valves.

Bilal Powell may still have been criminally underused in the running game why on earth Matt Forte got 70% of the team’s carries is still beyond me – but his emergence as a weapon for Hackenberg out of the backfield showed once again that he may just be the most underrated player on the team.  And while rookie Jordan Leggett may still have a long way to go with his blocking, his ability to get open on a dime and help bail Hackenberg out of some tricky situations was a very welcome addition to a Jets’ offense that has lacked that type of tight end for many years.

And on the defensive side of the ball?  Thankfully, Mo Wilkerson rebounded from a disastrous 2016 with a strong season, and combined with a now-elite Leonard Williams, and a vastly improved Deon Simon, the defensive line looks to be on solid ground.  Sheldon Richardson struggled again, which is disappointing, but at least the Jets will get a third round compensatory pick when he signs elsewhere in free agency.

The linebacking corps still needs some work, but the improved play of second year linebackers Darron Lee and Jordan Jenkins was a very positive sign, even if David Harris looked another step slower and seems to be headed for a pink slip sometime within the next few weeks.  The secondary also needs help at corner, with Juston Burris showing flashes but playing mostly erratic football and Darryl Roberts looking more like a good situational corner than a starter.  But the rookie safety duo of Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye looked to be as good of a combination as we’ve seen in a Jets defensive backfield since Erik McMillan and Brian Washington patrolled the safety spots in the early 1990’s.

All of that said, going forward, this team is not perfect.  While Brandon Shell played respectably, left tackle Kelvin Beachum was not able to stay healthy and was a virtual turnstyle when he did play.  The vast majority of QB pressures Hackenberg faced this season were because of Beachum and the Jets will need to make a move in free agency or the draft to rectify that issue.  Powell had an excellent season and should carry the ball more, but the team badly needs a fresh, young back who can carry much of the rushing load since Matt Forte appears to be old and broken down.  The Jets also remain in need of reliable starters at corner, an honest to goodness outside pass rusher, and a new starter at middle linebacker.

But those issues are all fixable problems.  The Jets own nine picks in the upcoming draft (all of their original picks plus a third round comp pick for Richardson and a 5th rounder they got from Dallas for a 2017 6th rounder) and have significantly more cap space than they did at the end of 2016.  Which is nice on its own, but is made even more so when you consider the fact that it appears the decades-long search for a franchise signal caller may have finally, and mercifully, come to an end.

It’s amazing what a franchise QB can do for your team’s long-term prospects, especially when that franchise QB succeeds when very few people thought he would.  Reminiscent of his mentor Charley Casserly’s shocking but correct assessment that Mario Williams would be a better pro than Reggie Bush, it seems Mike Maccagnan was right and the critics – like yours truly – who thought he was crazy for spending a second rounder on the former Penn State signal caller were completely, and utterly, shown to be fools.

And while I can’t speak for all of Maccagnan’s critics, he has shown definitively why he is an NFL GM and I am not, and I, for one, have never been happier to be wrong.

Note: Hopefully I am Nostradamus and that is how 2017 plays out.  In the meantime, make sure to join us to see how past seasons have played out when our new podcast “Play Like A Jet” debuts at Turn on the Jets Digital on June 2 and feel free to bombard me with your feedback about this column, the podcast, or anything else on Twitter @playlikeajet1.

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