Christian Hackenberg’s football world changed forever on Jan. 3, 2014.
That’s the date when the news broke that Bill O’Brien was leaving Penn State to accept the head-coaching job with the Houston Texans.
For O’Brien, it was the culmination of a football dream to coach at the highest level in the sport.
For Hackenberg, it was beginning of a football nightmare that shows no signs of ending.
Before that fateful date, the quarterback appeared destined for pro football stardom.
Since that date, Hackenberg’s career has floundered to the point where he now finds himself unemployed.
It’s a rather stunning fall in just 4½ years.
A promising start: Before O’Brien left PSU, Hackenberg’s career trajectory seemed pointed straight to the top.
As a true freshman in 2013, under O’Brien’s tutelage and running an NFL-style offense, Hackenberg thrived.
Playing behind a solid, veteran offensive line and throwing to a pair of future NFL receivers, wideout Allen Robinson and tight end Jesse James, Hackenberg completed nearly 59 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 134.0 passer rating. He helped PSU to a surprising 7-5 season, despite crippling NCAA sanctions imposed after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
There was much buzz that in a couple years Hackenberg could be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.
That turned out to be the high-water mark of Hackenberg’s football career.
Committed to O'Brien: When O’Brien left, he took his NFL pedigree with him. O’Brien had made his bones orchestrating the high-powered New England Patriots’ offense with Tom Brady behind center.
O’Brien’s NFL background helped lure Hackenberg to PSU. He believed that the coach would give him the best chance to realize his NFL dreams. It’s why he stuck with the Nittany Lions after the program was throttled by sanctions during the summer of 2012.
Hackenberg had just verbally committed to PSU at that point. After the sanctions were announced, he could’ve backed out and signed with another school, and no one would’ve blamed him.
Still, the blue-chip recruit stuck with O’Brien and PSU.
For a year, it was a marriage made in heaven. Then O’Brien left and everything changed.
Struggling during Franklin years: James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley and tried to accommodate Hackenberg’s talents as best he could, but it was never a good fit. It was a square peg trying to get pounded into a round hole.
Franklin liked the spread offense that is all the rage in college football these days, and he completely changed to that style of attack — quite successfully — as soon as Hackenberg departed for the NFL after his junior year.
The Hackenberg-Franklin partnership was never compatible. Hackenberg’s passing numbers, especially his accuracy, dipped noticeably under Franklin and the frustrated young QB, on various occasions, vented his emotions for all to see on the sideline.
It also didn’t help that Hackenberg was forced to play behind an offensive line that was among the worst in the Big Ten. The fact that he seldom had decent time to throw obviously hindered his performance and his confidence. Often fearing for his life, his pocket presence deteriorated badly. He was — justifiably — often worried more about getting hit than finding open receivers.
His development not only stalled, but actually regressed. Without O’Brien to guide and develop him, Hackenberg looked lost.
Going to NFL: Not surprisingly, his draft stock dropped, but it didn’t plummet.
Despite his struggles, the New York Jets drafted him in the second round of the 2016 draft, enamored with his size (6-4, 230 pounds) and his obvious physical gifts, especially his strong arm.
His accuracy issues, however, continued to plague him in the NFL. Reports soon leaked out of New York that Hackenberg was performing poorly in practices, often unable to hit wide-open receivers. Over two years with the Jets, he never took an NFL regular-season snap — something nearly unheard of for a second-round choice, especially for a team that was in desperate need of decent QB.
This spring, the Jets traded Hackenberg to the Oakland Raiders for a conditional seventh-round pick — an indication of just how far Hackenberg’s stock had fallen.
Three weeks later, the Raiders released him.
Now Hackenberg is looking for a job. He reportedly worked out recently with the Patriots, but they have yet to sign him.
The future: Hackenberg may yet regain the form that made him a freshman sensation in 2013, but at this point that would be a major surprise. Too much time, and too many incomplete throws, have passed since then. The young QB with complete confidence and limitless potential is nowhere to be found.
A career that seemingly held boundless promise in 2013, now seems destined for unfulfilled disappointment.
Unfortunately, the tipping point for that sad saga can be traced back to one date — Jan. 3, 2014.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.