New York Jets  

 

Christian Hackenberg learning to wait for time to shine with Jets

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Christian Hackenberg is sitting on a steel bench in the Jets' field house Monday, reliving the first snaps he's taken as an NFL quarterback.

He's analytical. He smiles. (For the record, he is not smiling as broadly as his head coach did after Hackenberg's first touchdown pass as a Jet; we'll get to that later.) Hackenberg is sporting a semblance of a mustache, which is standard operating procedure, or something like that, for quarterbacks around here.

"It's mandated," he said.

He's joking.

These are interesting times for Hackenberg, who never missed a start in his three years at Penn State, beginning with his first game as an 18-year-old freshman. If 2016 goes according to the Jets' plan, he may not so much as suit up for a contest this season.

"Ultimately, I have to control what I can control, and that's coming in every day and being the best pro I can be and preparing as if I am the starter, as if I am playing Week 1 against Cincinnati," he said. "[I want to] get in the habit of that, because when that opportunity is presented to me, I don't want to have to make changes. I want to already be there [in terms of routine]."

All of that might be a year, perhaps two, away.

But there is this Thursday: Coach Todd Bowles said second-year pro Bryce Petty and Hackenberg will split the quarterbacking duties in the preseason finale in Philadelphia. Starter Ryan Fitzpatrick and backup Geno Smith will sit.

The goal for Hackenberg? Look comfortable, Bowles said, "and command the offense and make less mistakes than he made the week before."

On Saturday against the Giants, Hackenberg became the last of the quarterbacks in the 2016 draft class to play in a preseason game, evidence of the Jets' crowded depth chart at his position.

In a four-headed quarterback room, Hackenberg is the one who is told occasionally to get the coffee. (A rather gentle rookie initiation, isn't it?) He's also the one asking the most questions.

Before Saturday, Hackenberg hadn't entered a football game in relief since he was a freshman in high school. The last time he counted a veteran quarterback as a teammate was ... never.

As in never.

"I've always kinda been the 'older' guy, even when I was the younger guy," Hackenberg said. "Having that now, with three other [perspectives], has been great."

Hackenberg is particularly grateful that Fitzpatrick, a well-traveled 11-year veteran, is wholly willing to share his experiences and wisdom. "An awesome resource," Hackenberg said.

Fitzpatrick has spoken kindly of Hackenberg's mental aptitude and physical tools, comparing him to a Madden video-game creation "with the height and the size and the arm strength and all that."

In the first two preseason games, Hackenberg stood and watched and listened and learned. He found patience.

"It was a unique opportunity for me to gather as much information as I could before I went in there," he said.

Hackenberg got the call with 12:06 remaining Saturday night.

His first drive ended in a touchdown but started ominously -- with two incompletions and a delay-of-game penalty -- until he hit tight end Zach Sudfeld with a 16-yard strike.

"I thought the one incompletion was a good ball," he said. "Every time we had run that play, I'd never gotten back to that read. It was a situation where [the Giants] were running the right defense for it. And I had to get all the way back to my fifth progression.

"The delay of game was what it was. [But] once Zach made that play, a great grab in tight coverage, that kind of jump-started everything."

On successive passes, Hackenberg connected with undrafted rookie Robby Anderson for 27 yards down the left sideline on a corner route and then for a 10-yard touchdown, on a tighter corner route to the end zone.

"It was just like I was just reacting," Hackenberg said. "For me, it's been a while since I was just reacting. And it felt really good just to be super-confident in what I was doing and super-confident in what the defense was giving me and being able to just throw the football and not think about anything else. It was refreshing."

(My take: Hackenberg was sacked 84 times the last two seasons. A clean pocket that allows him to set his feet likely qualifies as "refreshing.")

On the touchdown, Hackenberg saw a hurried defense as the play clock was running down.

"It was the right coverage to get Robby the ball and he beat his guy clean," he said. "We had been working on that play pretty much all of training camp. You've been to practice; the emphasis was red zone, and it was that route. It was just cool to see that come to fruition."

The Jets' sideline erupted. Bowles, usually the definition of stoic, smiled from ear to ear.

"It was a good drive," Hackenberg said. "A good way to start the career."

In a press conference, I told Bowles he's never looked happier.

"I hope not," Bowles said, laughing. "I'd like to think I've had happier times in my life."

He added: "I was happy for the kid."

Hackenberg finished the game completing 6 of 16 passes for 105 yards, along with a costly interception thrown deep in his own territory that allowed the Giants to score the game-winning touchdown.

"Definitely something to learn from," Hackenberg said. "[I will] try not to make that [mistake) again."

As for Bowles, he and the Jets are going to give Hackenberg, their second-round draft pick, every chance to succeed. That means not rushing him, allowing him time to unlearn bad habits and grasp the NFL game. He is their future, and their future is not now.

Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports.

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