New York Jets Passing Game – Mission Impossible

Joe Caporoso with a look at the impossible situation the New York Jets coaching staff was put in at the quarterback position and where their passing game goes from here…

Todd Bowles formally announced Josh McCown as the New York Jets week 1 starting quarterback yesterday, a decision that was likely from the second he signed his one year, six million dollar contract with the team. With the trio of quarterbacks given to Bowles by General Manager Mike Maccagnan, this summer’s competition was never going to have an overwhelming positive result. McCown is the least worst answer in the short term after an odd, haphazard and ultimately not that surprising preseason from the team’s three quarterbacks. 

It is abundantly clear that the directive given to the coaching staff this summer was to give Christian Hackenberg every opportunity to win the starting job. This makes sense considering they invested the 51st overall pick in the NFL Draft on him in 2016 and since his competition was a 38 year old journeyman and a 2015 4th rounder with a ceiling as a career backup. The Jets started camp with McCown as the de facto #1 but gradually gave Hackenberg more reps in practice, culminating with McCown starting the first preseason game but only playing a single drive before giving way to Hackenberg, who played the majority of the game.

Hackenberg’s performance against the Titans was wildly overrated by most. He had a shiny completion percentage and avoided any interceptions but when you scratched beneath the surface you saw a putrid YPA, an unsustainable offensive strategy, a fumbled snap and two botched timeouts. Despite this, the de facto talking point became “look at how much progress he made! This is a process the Jets should be lauded for.”

The Jets clearly bought into their own hype and did a poor job of self scouting the Tennessee tape. Hackenberg’s plan was accelerated and he was given back to back starts and entire first halves in the Jets next two preseason games. The amount of reps he received in practice was increased substantially while McCown’s were limited.

The Jets threw him in the deep end, at least in regards to what he had previously shown. Hackenberg had never played against a first string NFL defense but would now get the opportunity to face two in a row. It is hard to blame the Jets too much for accelerating, it is his second season and we have seen other rookie quarterbacks hit the ground running, namely Patrick Mahomes and DeShone Kizer.

The results were not surprising if you watched Hackenberg at PSU, last preseason and took more than a cursory glance at the Titans game. Despite not game planning, the Lions defense shredded Hackenberg to pieces, confusing him with basic blitz packages and squatting on his one read, three step drops. Against the Giants, one of the league’s best defenses, it got worse. In the two halves against first string defenses, Hackenberg put up inconceivable stat lines, throwing two pick sixes, maintaining a YPA under 4 and producing zero touchdowns.

By halftime of the Giants game it had become apparent it was not fair to Hackenberg or to the rest of the team to continue putting him out there. He can’t protect himself and his teammates are not blind. They know he is the third best quarterback on the roster and if he continues to be played, it would create a fertile situation for a divided and angry locker room. You cannot build a new culture by gift wrapping a job to somebody unequipped to take it, especially when it does not allow a proper evaluation of your young offensive linemen, receivers, running backs and tight ends.

This writer has (sadly) watched Buttfumble Sanchez, Behind The Back Geno, Bumblin’ Bollinger, Chuck and Duck Clemens, One Hop McElroy, and Fredo Simms but has never seen a NFL quarterback less equipped to start than Hackenberg this preseason. The Jets staff have apparently made their peace with this also, as Hackenberg will begin the season as the third stringer on the worst roster in the NFL, with the worst overall quarterback situation.

Where does the passing game go from here? Third year veteran Bryce Petty began camp as an afterthought, struggled mightily in garbage time in the preseason opener but showed progress in the second half of week two. Against the Giants, he played a terrific second half of football, even with the caveat it was against their backups and third stringers. Unfortunately he was banged up late in the game, which has been a recurring problem for him throughout his short career. With his practice time limited in the coming days, the decision to go with McCown for week 1 was basically made for Bowles. You can’t play Hackenberg after what you saw the past few weeks and you can’t start Petty with limited practice time when he has such a limited history of first team reps.

Of course it is far from ideal to be starting McCown, who is thoroughly mediocre, with limited practice time under his belt. He isn’t Tom Brady. He needs reps. Yet, considering the team’s current situation, rolling the dice on Hackenberg being ready at the cost of McCown’s practice time was a reasonable enough gamble.

In the meantime, McCown is competent enough to run a huddle, set protections and allow the Jets to get some semblance of an evaluation of the rest of their roster. He will likely allow them to be competitive (and maybe even win) a few early season games against Buffalo, Jacksonville and Cleveland. It is only a matter of time until he is hurt or struggling enough to be replaced by Petty, who has now earned the chance to be the first man up. At some point this season, all three quarterbacks are likely to start despite none of them likely being the 2018 starter. The goal for Petty is to show he can be the long term backup here. The goal for Hackenberg is to show he belongs on a NFL roster next season. The goal for McCown is to show he should be kept in a mentor role for whatever quarterback the Jets draft next season (he shouldn’t, unless he is coaching but you never know with this team).

The Jets offensive line has problems but is being made out to be way worse than they are thanks to Hackenberg’s problems. We will get a better gauge of Brandon Shell, Kelvin Beachum and Wesley Johnson with McCown or even Petty under center.

The Jets receivers are a group of no names but there is potential talent there if a quarterback can get the ball out a reasonable rate. Robby Anderson is consistently getting himself open but being under thrown. Austin Seferian-Jenkins is apparently having a resurgence in camp but we can’t see it in action if the ball doesn’t get to him when the opportunity presents itself. ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen flashed against the Giants but if the quarterback is only throwing behind the line of scrimmage, their development will be stunted.

The Jets passing game has been severely hindered by the misreading of several players, namely Ryan Fitzpatrick and Christian Hackenberg. In 2017, the best hope is to salvage a degree of competency from a current journeyman (McCown) and a future journeyman (Petty).

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Author: Joe Caporoso

Joe Caporoso is the Owner and EIC of Turn On The Jets. His writing has been featured in the New York Times, Huffington Post, MMQB and AdWeek. Caporoso played football his entire life, including four years at Muhlenberg as a wide receiver, where he was arguably the slowest receiver to ever start in school history. He is the EVP of Content at Whistle Sports