To those hoping for a Christian Hackenberg-Bill O’Brien NFL reunion: It was a nice story, but not a logical one.
O’Brien’s Houston Texans are set to sign quarterback Brock Osweiler per multiple reports. Up until Wednesday afternoon, the 6-foot-7 quarterback seemed all but ready to take the reins in Denver from Peyton Manning after the latter announced his retirement this week.
Osweiler’s contract will reportedly span four years and be worth $72 million, quite an investment for a backup with seven starts under his belt and one that sends a message: O’Brien is not taking chances with his team.
That’s his prerogative, of course — and since when has O’Brien operated outside of that?
The not-so-secret theory floating through the Penn State community (blown a bit higher when O’Brien was seen watching Hackenberg run through his drills at the NFL Combine in late February) was that the former head coach of the Nittany Lions, in whose system a young Brady-esque prodigy flourished to help bring an entire program back from the brink, would swoop to the rescue of the now-dubious draftee to lead his pro team.
Except in real life, such a move could possibly be the ruin of Hackenberg and O’Brien both.
After cycling through various backups last season, O’Brien scraped together a handful of wins, all of which laid bare the most essential need of the team: A starting-caliber quarterback.
For O’Brien, this year’s crop of draft-eligible quarterbacks is not ideal. He’d have no chance at bringing in the coveted Carson Wentz or Jared Goff, so his next-best option was to pick from the slim pool of free agents. A quarterback who spent the past few years under one of the greatest to ever play the game is indeed both an alluring and sensible choice.
And after his sophomore and junior seasons, during which Hackenberg took a literal and figurative beating, was on the run constantly from dooming pressure and had to adjust his game more often than letting his true talents shine through (the long ball, the meticulous precision of passing, the mind for the game), the 21-year-old is not a starting NFL quarterback.
He will be, but he isn’t now, and he won’t be by September. He is instead a project, with plenty of upside and intriguing potential. Hackenberg needs time to develop behind a veteran and a good mentor in a solid system — a Ben Roethlisberger, a Drew Brees, a Tony Romo, a Joe Flacco, a Carson Palmer — and it would be in his best interest to be drafted by an organization where he can do just that.
Say Hackenberg is picked up by O’Brien anyway as a backup come April’s NFL Draft. What good would that be, to learn under a starting quarterback who is still learning the ropes himself? Plus, there are now 72 million reasons why O’Brien will stick with Osweiler as long as he can.
So it’s likely they’ve missed each other, then, O’Brien and Hackenberg. One needs a starting quarterback, and the other needs time behind one.
Which, interestingly enough, brings us back again to Osweiler.
Much like Hackenberg, Osweiler came out of a volatile “situation” (as the analysts like to say) in college with mediocre numbers (he only played 25 games in three years, completing 60 percent of his passes with a 33-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio as Arizona State declined rapidly under Dennis Erickson), but the physical gifts and raw talent were there.
It’s clear now that he needed time to mature behind Manning before teams saw enough in him to offer him an absolutely enormous opportunity and the paycheck that comes with it.
Osweiler had to exercise patience and resilience in his waiting and training and, possibly most important of all, he had to throw himself into being a student of both the game and the signal-caller in front of him.
Unlike the theory that has surrounded Hackenberg since O’Brien left Penn State, it’s quite logical to assume that, given the chance and the right fit, the young quarterback can do the same.