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The Backward Career of Christian Hackenberg

Charting the strange path of how a top-tier talent became an unplayable NFL quarterback

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The vast majority of humans will die without having thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game. In that regard, Christian Hackenberg will not end up being considered particularly special. However, unlike Hackenberg, most humans haven’t been selected as a quarterback in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.

Hackenberg, picked in the second round by the Jets just two years ago, was signed to the Bengals’ practice squad on Sunday. During this offseason, he has been traded once and cut twice. He’s been on four teams in four months. Hypothetically, he could play his way onto an NFL roster, but we should know better than to expect that from Hackenberg at this point. It seems more likely that he will be the first quarterback since 1980 to be drafted so highly and never play a game — and at least the last guy, Gene Bradley, played in the USFL.

Other quarterbacks have busted, but few high draft picks have been so obviously awful that coaches have deemed them unsuitable for public consumption. Here at The Ringer, we will not be writing stories about every human who fails to throw a pass in an NFL game — as previously noted, there are too many of us in that club. But Hackenberg’s odd career deserves note. He is the quarterback who kept getting worse. It’s the curious case of Benjamin Buttonhook.

You have to start high to fall, and Hackenberg started nearly as high as any quarterback could. He was the no. 1 quarterback recruit in the high school class of 2013, according to ESPN, and a five-star prospect per 247Sports’ composite recruiting rankings. You might scoff at high school recruiting rankings, but the guy ranked above Hackenberg in those composite rankings went on to win a Heisman Trophy; the three guys below him were all first-round NFL draft picks.

Hackenberg could have played his college ball at any school in the country, but he chose Penn State, and at a complicated time. He committed just shortly after the revelation that longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had raped dozens of children. Just a month before Hackenberg’s commitment, the recently fired Joe Paterno had died. At that moment, nobody was quite sure what “Penn State football” meant — What did it look like without Paterno? Did loving it make you a bad person? Did it directly cause evil, or was it just evil-adjacent? — and here was this incredibly talented high schooler who decided he wanted to be part of Penn State football.

The main factor in drawing Hackenberg to Happy Valley was then–head coach Bill O’Brien, a quarterbacking guru who had worked with Tom Brady on the Patriots. O’Brien sold Hackenberg on his ability to turn the young QB into a player who would succeed at the next level.

When the NCAA sanctioned Penn State, many players and recruits ditched. But Hackenberg stayed and was widely credited with helping the Nittany Lions land other recruits. “More than a blue-chip QB recruit,” Bleacher Report wrote, “Christian Hackenberg is Penn State’s savior.” Like a sapling sprouting after a forest fire, Hackenberg promised new life in the wake of a disaster.

Hackenberg was quickly named Penn State’s starting QB, just the third player in program history to get that role as a true freshman. He would play the first game of his college career against Syracuse in MetLife Stadium, the building where he would one day play his professional ball. (Or, you know, stand on the sideline with a clipboard while being paid.) One thing was clear from the beginning: The kid had an arm.

Hackenberg’s best game as a freshman was his last. As 24-point underdogs against 14th-ranked Wisconsin, Penn State navigated a 31–24 win as Hackenberg went 21-of-30 passing for 339 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions:

Hackenberg was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, having completed 58.9 percent of his passes for an average of 7.5 yards per attempt with 20 touchdowns.

All would be career highs.

After Hackenberg’s freshman year, O’Brien left Penn State to coach the Houston Texans. Gone was the man Hackenberg had hoped would mold him. In his second game under replacement James Franklin, Hackenberg was seen yelling “I don’t know what the fuck we’re doing!” into a sideline phone. From Week 3 through the end of the regular season, Hackenberg threw four touchdowns and 11 interceptions. There was a stretch of five straight games in which Hackenberg completed 50 percent or less of his passes. But Hackenberg’s season ended with a four-touchdown showing in a come-from-behind overtime victory against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl, the first bowl game the school had been allowed to participate in after its Sandusky-related ban. It was the last clear highlight of Hackenberg’s career.

Hackenberg’s junior year started with a game against Temple in which he went 11-of-25 passing for 103 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. In that 27–10 loss, he was sacked 10 (ten!) times. It was the Nittany Lions’ first loss against the Owls in 74 years. Things wouldn’t improve as the season went on: Hackenberg would complete only 60 percent of his passes just twice in 13 games.

Some blamed Hackenberg’s drop-off on Franklin. Notably, Hackenberg blamed his drop-off on Franklin, reportedly telling NFL teams that the coach was responsible for his dip in production. (“Despite the fact that it’s probably true, you don’t want to hear a kid say that,” an anonymous scout told Sports Illustrated.) Another big problem was Penn State’s porous offensive line. Here’s Joey Bosa winning a game by blasting a pass-protecting back into Hackenberg:

And here’s the time Temple rushed two men against six Penn State blockers and still managed to sack Hackenberg:

For every sack that seemed to be the fault of the offensive line, though, there was another that looked like the result of Hackenberg seeming to forget quarterbacks are supposed to throw the ball. He declared for the draft after his junior season, famously thanking former coaches, trainers, video assistants, PR guys — but not Franklin. His tenure was remembered more for its meaning at a critical time for the school than for his play: “He might not be one of Penn State’s best quarterbacks,” Josh Moyer wrote for ESPN, “but he has still been one of the most important.” The Nittany Lions lost the final four games of his career; they won the Big Ten championship the year after he left.

Having played as a true freshman and having left school as early as possible, Hackenberg was just 21. And yet, the sense of decline had already set in. Somehow, his completion percentage had dropped every season he played at Penn State.

In 2015, ESPNs Todd McShay placed Hackenberg atop of his 2016 “way too early” mock draft. “He’s a big-time talent with a pro-style skill set,” McShay wrote. ESPN’s Trent Dilfer said Hackenberg would be taken with one of the first five picks of the draft. “Scouts and GMs and coaches will drool over Christian Hackenberg,” Dilfer said. “He’s very, very, very similar to Troy Aikman. They’re the same body type, thrower, personality, competitors.” Greg Cosell of NFL Films seconded the Aikman comparison.

In 2016, Pro Football Focus made the case that Hackenberg should not be drafted. “There isn’t a more inaccurate quarterback prospect in this draft. … Hackenberg is inaccurate at every level of the field, on all throws and against all coverages,” PFF’s Sam Monson wrote. “I have never seen a quarterback consistently miss as many wide receiver screens as Hackenberg.” His assessment was backed up with three years of data and GIFs of Hackenberg’s silliest misses and most egregious mental errors.

As the 2016 draft approached, Hackenberg became the most polarizing player on the board. Talk of him going no. 1 overall died off, but there were still those who saw his body and arm and argued that he could be a first-round pick. There were also those who assessed the tape of Hackenberg’s increasingly poor play and told everybody who would listen to run for the hills. I pride myself on having been in the latter camp.

The Jets, unfortunately, found themselves in the former group. As Sports Illustrated revealed, the Jets’ entire power structure wanted to work Hackenberg out, but only if they could be guaranteed absolute secrecy, so as not to muck up contract negotiations with Ryan Fitzpatrick. The plan hit a hitch when, after the workout, the group decided to get lunch with Hackenberg in public at a local State College brewery. Despite criticisms about Hackenberg’s inability to adjust under pressure, the quarterback managed to make small talk with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey about the Masters.

There was another dumb reason that the Jets drafted Hackenberg: According to the New York Daily News, general manager Mike Maccagnan got antsy when O’Brien’s Texans traded up to the 50th spot in the draft, one ahead of the Jets. He became worried that O’Brien had homed in on his former protégé. The Texans went on to take a center, not Hackenberg, but Maccagnan wouldn’t wait another minute to take his guy.

There was ample evidence that Hackenberg would become a horrendous NFL player, but the Jets took him because he was capable of shooting the shit about golf, and because they were briefly worried that another team would draft him and that worry somehow endured even when the other team didn’t draft him. I’m a Jets fan and I hate it.

Every Hackenberg preseason performance was a disaster in its own unhappy way. In his first game, on August 27, 2016, he went 6-of-16 passing with an interception, a throw that rocketed directly into a Giants defender:

In his second game, on September 1, he went 11-of-31 for 54 yards — less than 2 yards per attempt!!! — and threw a pick-six in the red zone instead of taking a sack:

Hackenberg was inactive for almost the entirety of his rookie campaign, sitting behind Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, and Bryce Petty. But heading into his second season, Hackenberg was given the opportunity to win the starting job. Despite that, the team still had him run with the backups in practice, reportedly because the Jets were scared that making bad plays against the first-stringers might shatter his confidence. (“He’s good enough to start, but playing him for a few snaps against other good players might go so poorly that it will permanently warp his brain” is some unassailable football logic.)

Unfortunately, when Hackenberg did eventually play against first-string NFL players, those NFL players were mean to him. Hackenberg got to start a preseason game, against the Lions on August, 19, 2017. Within a few series, this happened:

Later, in a preseason game against the Giants, he threw two pick-sixes, including this light lob to Landon Collins.

In six preseason games across two seasons for the Jets, Hackenberg went 59-of-121 (48.4 percent) for 531 yards (4.39 per attempt). He threw three touchdowns and four interceptions, three of which were returned for opposing touchdowns. He was sacked 10 times (on 7.6 percent of his dropbacks) and fumbled six times, losing three.

Needless to say, Hackenberg did not win the starting job. In fact, he wasn’t even the backup. He ended up winning (losing?) the third-string job. “I know there’s talent inside me,” he had to clarify to reporters in September 2017.

In 2017, Hackenberg was the only quarterback on the roster who could conceivably factor into the Jets’ long-term plans: The other two QBs were 38-year-old Josh McCown and Petty, a sixth-round pick who underwhelmed every time he took the field. But the Jets steadfastly refused to put Hackenberg in games. “This isn’t Triple-A,” quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates said.

During last season’s Week 17 game between the Jets and Patriots, I realized that Hackenberg would never see regular-season minutes. McCown got injured in Week 14. His replacement, Petty, was dismal, completing 49.1 percent of his passes for just 4.86 yards per attempt with a touchdown and three interceptions in the four games he played. In the last game of the season, the Jets were getting whupped, down 21–3 at the half. And yet, Hackenberg remained planted on the sideline. Head coach Todd Bowles said he never even thought of subbing the quarterback into the game.

Hackenberg wasn’t just bad. He was “can’t play for a 5–11 team down three scores in Week 17, even though the starter is garbage” bad. The Jets decided to shield the world from that badness, which is a real bummer: I’d love to know how bad that is.

In May, the Jets traded Hackenberg to the Raiders. It made sense — Jon Gruden liked him in QB Camp! Just two years after using a second-round pick on Hackenberg, the Jets got a conditional seventh-round pick in exchange for the quarterback. Or, well, they would have, if Hackenberg had made the Raiders’ roster — instead, Oakland ended up cutting Hackenberg. “Since we were further along the road with some of our other guys, we didn’t have the space,” Gruden said. (Of note: Last week Gruden cut every backup QB on his roster to trade for AJ McCarron, so it doesn’t always matter how far down the road you are with him.)

The Eagles signed Hackenberg in August as their fifth quarterback. Hackenberg seemed to know that he wouldn’t make the final roster, but said that trying was “better than sitting on my couch.” His first day of practice went poorly:

But the good news is Hackenberg would get to play in the preseason finale against the Jets. An opportunity for revenge! Except Hackenberg’s appearance in that preseason finale was perhaps his worst-ever on-field performance. At one point, he was 1-of-5 with two interceptions. He later lost a fumble:

This was in Week 4 of the preseason, against the deepest reserves of one of the worst teams in the league. It is tough to imagine how much worse Hackenberg could get. All I know is that he will. It is the destiny of this once-promising 23-year-old to forever decline. I thank the Bengals for giving him the opportunity to probe the depths of the sport.