In the summer of 2016, I started having office debates about one question: At what age would Jets quarterback Christian Hackenberg, born in 1995, become more valuable to an NFL franchise than Tom Brady, born in 1977? Would, say, a 30-year-old Hackenberg be more valuable in 2025 than a 47-year-old Brady? Would a 35-year-old Hackenberg be more valuable to an NFL roster than Brady in his early 50s?
It didn’t take long to figure out the answer: The age limit did not exist. It quickly became apparent that Hackenberg would never surpass the Patriots legend and his former AFC East rival. But more surprising than how quickly Hackenberg flamed out is how long the man who picked him remained employed by the Jets. Long enough for Hackenberg to be traded, cut, and then cut twice more. Long enough for a new professional football league to form, for Hackenberg to join and fall from starter to third-stringer within it, and for that league to fold in strange and humiliating fashion. All of this happened while Mike Maccagnan was general manager of an NFL team.
The Jets fired Maccagnan on Wednesday, transferring his power to newly hired head coach and now interim GM Adam Gase. The move itself is not surprising, though the timing certainly is. It leads to more questions than answers—approximately the 10,000th consecutive Jets decision to do so. Still, it was a necessary step for the franchise’s ultimate path forward.
One bad pick does not make a bad general manager, but if one pick could make a bad general manager, then it would be the Jets’ selection of Hackenberg. There is a laundry list of factors that led to Wednesday’s move—we’ll get to many of them below—but the Hackenberg pick, no. 51 overall in 2016, encapsulates them all. If New York fans were asked to explain the 2015 to 2018 Jets in one minute, Hackenberg would be the first word out of their mouths. You could go through every decision Maccagnan made line by line, or you could simply say he’s the guy who drafted Hackenberg. Both explanations lead to the same conclusion.
There was no facet of that pick that didn’t apply more broadly to this era of the Jets franchise: Hackenberg was a bad player on a roster that included lots of them, a wasted mid-round pick during the most important era for mid-round picks, and a selection that caused a problem that the Jets committed a stunning number of resources to solve. These were all franchise trademarks. Most importantly, the Hackenberg pick suggested the Jets had no plan throughout Maccagnan’s tenure, a theme that extended all the way to his ouster and will probably continue after his departure. Maccagnan was canned nearly three weeks after he was given control of the organization’s 2019 draft, less than two months after he spent a virtual treasure chest in free agency, and a little more than a month after the Jets CEO said he was “terrific” at his job. The Maccagnan Jets were the Hackenberg pick; the Hackenberg pick was the Maccagnan Jets.
As a reminder, that pick came one year after Maccagnan made another terrible quarterback pick in the middle rounds of the draft. In 2015, his front office spent a fourth-rounder on Bryce Petty, who, like Hackenberg, is now out of the league entirely. Maccagnan took three QBs in his four years on the job, the last of whom is Sam Darnold, acquired via the 2018 no. 3 pick the Jets got as part of a deal with the Colts. Darnold doesn’t look like he’ll bust—he looks pretty good—but it’s hard to give Maccagnan much credit. If you lock your keys in your car twice before successfully pulling away from a gas station, not doing so a third time isn’t all that impressive.
Maccagnan was incredible at locking his keys in his car. A recent Over the Cap study showed that the GM’s picks have failed out of the league at an astounding rate. Thirty-three percent of Maccagnan’s second-round picks between 2015 and 2018 were on NFL rosters last year; the league average for second-rounders was 92 percent. Fifty percent of his third-rounders were on a roster; the league average was 84. Here that is in visual form:
Maccagnan’s greatest failure was his complete inability to build through the middle of the draft, where the players taken remain ludicrously cost-controlled for four years. Drafting well in the middle of the draft is the bedrock of efficient NFL franchises; just ask Bill Belichick. And while the Jets’ $100 million in cap space entering free agency this spring may have seemed like a luxury—as it was for the 2019 Colts—that wasn’t the case. It was a reality caused by a roster that had huge gaps and not enough good players worth paying to fill them. The Jets gave out more in guaranteed money than any other team this offseason. Then they fired the guy who gave it all out.
The Jets now have a pressing problem on their hands: Darnold, who showed flashes of legitimate talent in an uneven first season, is about to enter the second year of his rookie contract. A team has four years in which a drafted passer stays absurdly cheap before his inevitable payday, and maximizing that window by surrounding him with talent is crucial. Perhaps March’s Le’Veon Bell signing, which Gase was reportedly against, will help, as Bell is a pass-catching back who can bring much-needed dynamism to the offense. But there’s still a ways to go. The clock is ticking and the Jets will have just an awkward, half-offseason with their new personnel head before the next general manager can make his mark in the spring of 2020.
The post-draft firing of a GM is not unheard of in the modern NFL. The Bills fired Doug Whaley in April 2017, and the Chiefs axed John Dorsey two months later. The Panthers parted ways with Dave Gettleman in July of that year. Assuming Gase does not retain his Belichickian personnel power, New York’s top job may go to candidates like Eagles executive Joe Douglas or NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, two hugely impressive people with good track records. There is a path for the Jets to reach contention, but the way this all unfolded risks squandering the most important thing in sports—a good, cheap quarterback on a rookie deal.
Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier joked Wednesday that this move happened simultaneously two years too late and two years too soon. That’s accurate. Even when the Jets make the right decision, it’s still a little wrong.
In the days leading up to 2019 first round, I wrote a story titled “The Race to Make the NFL Draft an Exact Science.” While reporting, I interviewed two machine-learning experts who think the problem with NFL evaluators isn’t what scouts see, but rather that the biases inherent to scouting reports keep them from emphasizing what truly matters. For instance, if size is a knock on a wide receiver, that’s not a big deal; if a quarterback is good at completing only short passes, that’s a major red flag. To that end, take a look at the “Weaknesses” section of Hackenberg’s 2016 NFL.com draft scouting report, one that called for him to go as a second- or third-round pick: “Debilitating accuracy issues with atrocious 51.5 percent adjusted completion total (throws beyond line of scrimmage). Turns receivers into goalies. Even simple throws can be coin-flippers in accuracy department.”
Uhhh, what? How was this a projected second- or third-round pick? How was Hackenberg even draftable at all? Later on, the profile quotes an NFC executive as saying the tape from the QB’s final two seasons in college “is terrible,” though he “has traits and leadership.” Hackenberg would go on to never even attempt a regular-season NFL pass.
It’s hard to gauge who the worst draft pick in NFL history is. In 1982 the Buccaneers selected a player who wasn’t even their intended pick. Some players—like 1986 first overall pick Bo Jackson—never signed with the team that drafted them, and the team later forfeited their rights. Pat White, the West Virginia quarterback whom the Dolphins grabbed in the 2009 second round, also didn’t complete a regular-season pass, but his selection is explained by the fact that he was supposed to be part of Miami’s grand wildcat experiment. Hackenberg is in a different category altogether. He isn’t the worst pick ever. He’s the funniest. And his trajectory was capped by a profanity-laden AAF stint:
Christian Hackenberg keeps forgetting that he's mic'd up pic.twitter.com/dYgQKHHh2Z— Pick Six Podcast (@picksixpod) February 10, 2019
“I don’t think you would look at it as a success,” Maccagnan said last year of the infamous Hackenberg pick. Well, yeah.
Hackenberg has been gone for a year, and the guy who took him is gone as of this week. The goal now is to build a franchise that won’t make the same mistakes—with the Jets, that’s never easy.