Inside look at Christian Hackenberg’s debut: a short story
There were no “wow” moments and there were no scoring drives, but Christian Hackenberg showed enough Saturday night to make you want to see more. The young quarterback passed his first test in West Coast Offense 101 and, presumably, he will see extensive action in the second preseason game as the “Summer of Hack” continues.
It was his first game action in 346 days, dating back to his nightmarish outing in the 2016 preseason finale. Trying to build his confidence, the coaching staff kept it as simple as possible for Hackenberg, who attempted only three passes that traveled more than 10 yards in the air — all incomplete. Essentially, they set up a pitch-and-catch game, allowing the second-year quarterback to complete safe throws and build rhythm.
Check out the breakdown of his pass distances, based on our breakdown of the tape:
Throws to or behind the line of scrimmage: He was 6-for-6.
Throws in the 1- to 5-yard range: He was 8-for-10.
Throws in the 6- to 10-yard range: He was 4-for-5.
Throws in the 11-plus range: He was 0-for-3.
Hackenberg also had one ball batted at the line of scrimmage, making it an 18-for-25 night, 127 yards, with no interceptions and one sack (not his fault). Two of the incompletions were dropped passes.
The best way to describe his performance: a baby step.
“Some of it was by design,” said coach Todd Bowles, explaining the dink-and-dunk approach. “He was comfortable when he came out. Some of it was him being comfortable. He had some plays downfield that didn’t pan out and he got rid of the ball, so he did a good job of doing that.”
Hackenberg and the receivers saw a lot of “off” coverage, so he threw underneath instead of forcing the ball downfield. He hit a bunch of hitches, slants and check-downs, staying away from the deep middle of the field. Some of this can be attributed to the essence of the West Coast offense, which is predicated on a controlled passing attack.
In the regular season, the opposing defenses won’t be so kind. You can bet they’ll challenge the Jets’ group of anonymous receivers at the line of scrimmage, forcing the Jets to adjust by taking deep shots.
On opening night, Hackenberg missed only one open target, as far as I could tell. On a third-and-3, he had Charone Peake open on a quick slant, but his pass was batted at the line and nearly intercepted.
Hackenberg’s best throw came on his final possession, a third-and-12 conversion to tight end Jason Vander Laan. He was patient in the pocket, anticipated nicely and zipped a strike to Vander Laan, who ran an “out” route about three yards in front of the stick. He picked up the last three yards on his own for a first down.
A year ago, Hackenberg wasn’t able to complete 18 of 25 in practice, let alone a game.
“I think every rookie coming into the NFL, in your first experience, you don’t really know what to expect,” he said. “It’s a totally different game, totally different feel.”
Looking back on the year, Hackenberg said he tried to “learn, see, watch, observe and grow.” He did some growing on Saturday night. Now we need to see more.