Christian Hackenberg — a former five-star recruit and Penn State record-holder turned NFL castoff — is looking to resurrect his football career. But Sunday wasn’t much of a step forward.
Hackenberg looked shaky at best in his Alliance of American Football debut. Starting under center for the Memphis Express, one of eight teams in the new league, he completed 10 of 23 passes for 67 yards and threw an interception in a 26-0 loss to the Birmingham Iron at Legion Field. He was replaced by Troy’s Brandon Silvers with four minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Memphis’ offensive ineptitude wasn’t all on Hackenberg. The former Penn State quarterback, who was drafted into the newly-founded football league in November, had a 39-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown pass negated by an illegal formation. Memphis’ receivers failed to create separation, the offensive line looked lost on delayed blitzes, and the play calling was vanilla and predictable.
However, Hackenberg’s first-quarter interception was a poor decision; he threw it right into traffic. The Virginia native also missed high on a few passes and was late on a comeback route.
Hackenberg, when speaking to the CDT prior to the AAF’s draft, said he just needs “to get out there and play ball.” Sunday was an opportunity for him to do that after a few frustrating years in the NFL.
After landing with the New York Jets in the second round in 2016, Hackenberg never took a regular-season snap. Instead, Josh McCown, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bryce Petty and Geno Smith earned starts in that two-year time frame.
In May, Hackenberg was traded by the Jets to Oakland. Raiders head coach Jon Gruden thought highly of the Penn State passer in his ESPN film room show, but that previous opinion and the quarterback’s play wasn’t enough to stay on the roster. Hackenberg was waived by Oakland in June, signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, completed 7 of 16 passes for 69 yards and two INTs in a preseason game against the Jets and was released the following day. Hackenberg landed on the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad in September only to be cut in November.
However, Hackenberg believed entering Sunday’s game that improvement was on the way. Speaking to PennLive’s John Luciew, the quarterback said he hasn’t “thrown the football this good ever.” Memphis Express quarterbacks coach David Lee — who previously worked with the Bills, Jets and Browns — called Hackenberg’s old motion an “elongated backward release,” causing inaccurate throws, more “severe” on short throws.
“There’s nothing wrong with him mentally,” Lee said. “It’s just a mechanical flaw. ... I think he’s fixed, but we’ll get into the games and see.”
Added Hackenberg: “I wish I had this five years ago. ... Now it’s just about going out and playing.”
The former Nittany Lion had his first chance in the AAF to show off that new release. He’ll be hoping for a better turn out when Memphis faces the Arizona Hotshots next Saturday.