FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Christian Hackenberg will swap his sweats for shoulder pads and a helmet on the New York Jets’ sideline Sunday.
That actually counts as progress for the rookie quarterback, who’ll be active for a regular-season game for the first time in his NFL career.
While some fans and media spent the last several days clamoring for Todd Bowles to start Hackenberg instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick in the season finale against Buffalo , the second-round pick out of Penn State will remain patient and wait for his turn to play.
“We want to compete and that’s our job, but ultimately, that’s not my decision,” Hackenberg said Wednesday. “My job is to come in and be the best player, the best teammate that I can be.”
The argument to start Hackenberg has been echoed repeatedly on sports radio and social media: Why not get the young guy’s feet wet?
Bowles reasoned that Fitzpatrick is the backup and players don’t just leapfrog others on the depth chart. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall agreed with his coach’s decision, saying it doesn’t make sense to just throw Hackenberg out onto the field at this point.
“I think that’s kind of something that’s out of my realm,” Hackenberg said. “What I have control over is coming in and preparing and learning and practicing and do everything right from that standpoint.”
He entered league with lots of questions: Hackenberg was the 51st player drafted , a spot that many pundits thought was too high for a player who struggled in his last two college seasons and had questions about his mechanics and makeup.
The Jets stuck him firmly in the No. 4 spot, behind Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith and Bryce Petty — with plans to not have him play a single snap in a regular-season game as he uses his rookie season as a “redshirt” type of experience.
“Yes, I think that was pretty much the understanding,” Hackenberg said of what he was told by the Jets. “So far, some of those things have worked out where now I’m the next guy in line heading into this week. I think that’s been communicated and I’ve been working as hard as I can to take full advantage of that.”
Dysfunctional situation at QB for Jets: The reason Hackenberg is in the headlines now is because of the Jets’ dysfunction at the quarterback spot.
Fitzpatrick was a bust after a career-type season last year, and has been benched twice. Smith was set to take over and try to reclaim the starting spot, but didn’t even make it to halftime of his first start because of a season-ending knee injury.
Fitzpatrick started two more games before an injury caused Petty to replace him for a game. But Bowles went right back to Fitzpatrick for the next two games. With the losses piling, the Jets then wanted to see what Petty, a fourth-rounder last year, could show in the final four weeks of the season. But he went down with a season-ending shoulder injury last week, so now it’s back to Fitzpatrick — with Hackenberg an injury away from playing.
“We’ve been doing a good job preparing,” Hackenberg said. “I’ve had plenty of time to learn, so I feel like I have a good grasp of the offense and those types of things.”
Hackenberg has mostly taken scout team snaps during practices this season, but he took a few first-team reps for the first time Wednesday.
“It’s been awesome,” he said, smiling, “just being able to operate again and work within the system that we run.”
Jets fans frustrated at not seeing Hackenberg play: Hackenberg was the fourth of 15 quarterbacks drafted this year, and the highest selected to not play in a game yet.
Four quarterbacks taken after him — Jacoby Brissett, Cody Kessler, Dak Prescott and Kevin Hogan — have all played. Prescott, a fourth-rounder, has thrived as Dallas’ starter, leading the Cowboys to an NFC-best 13-2 record that has former starter Tony Romo on the sideline.
That has some frustrated Jets fans wondering why Hackenberg hasn’t been able to sniff the field.
“I don’t think ‘frustrating’ is the correct word,” Hackenberg said when asked about his thoughts on the situation. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat and there’s a lot of ways to get to whatever your goal is at the end of the day. Whether that’s starting from Day 1 or starting in two years or three years or whatever it is, you’ve seen a lot of really good players do that.”
He's optimistic he's made progress: Hackenberg is optimistic about the progress he has made throughout the season, with a few small tweaks to his mechanics. There will be plenty more work to do during the offseason.
And, with Fitzpatrick and Smith unlikely to be back next season, Hackenberg could be in line for a lot more time on the field.
“I think I’ve grown in a lot of ways,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot, been able to sit back and observe and kind of focus on some little things out at practice each week for myself, from that standpoint, and that’s been good.”