FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - The memories of Christian Hackenberg from last season are few and not very good. He had two ugly preseason performances and then was buried on the depth chart, only resurfacing to occasionally misfire in practice. His future didn't appear bright at all.
That's why all eyes will be on Hackenberg when the Jets open up their preseason slate against the Tennesssee Titans at the Meadowlands on Saturday night. He will play and he'll probably play a lot. And given the poor first impression he made last season, it wouldn't hurt if he also played well.
"It's only important if he gets better," Jets coach Todd Bowles said after practice on Thursday. "You want to see him getting better. I don't expect him to go out there and be Roger Staubach. If he is, so be it. We're trying to get him better."
In fact, there may be nothing more important for the Jets this season than trying to get Hackenberg better and trying to get a real gauge for exactly how good the former Penn State quarterback can be. The Jets desperately need to find out if he has any shot at being their Quarterback of the Future. The Jets know that won't be the 38-year-old Josh McCown, and they're pretty sure it won't be Bryce Petty.
That makes Hackenberg the most important player on the Jets' roster, and the more they see of him the better.
That's why he smartest thing the Jets can do this preseason is give the 22-year-old as many snaps as they possibly can.
Bowles wouldn't commit to how much he plans to play Hackenberg on Saturday night. He wouldn't even officially name his starter. It will probably be McCown, who'll likely be the opening day starter. And yes, if he is, he needs to get ready for the regular season too.
But McCown is in his 15th NFL season, so he knows how to get ready by now. And really, his readiness is not what matters most since the Jets know they're in for a difficult season and they know McCown's job is mostly to keep Hackenberg's seat warm.
This entire Jets season is about only two things: Rebuidling the roster with young talent and finding a quarterback of the future. Hackenberg, last year's second-round pick, is the only one on the roster with a chance to be next year's starter. Either he's it or the Jets will take one in the first round of next year's draft.
So the more they see of him the better. And it has to start in the preseason games.
"He's 22 years old. The kid's got to get a chance to play and make some mistakes and grow from it and come back from adversity and make good plays," Bowles said. "We just want to see his overall play, and as the preseason goes we want to see him progress."
There was no progress last summer. Hackenberg played in only the final two preseason games and was equally lost in both of them. He completed 6 of 16 passes for 105 yards, one touchdown and one interception in the third week against the Giants. Then he went 11 of 31 for just 54 yards and an interception the next week in Philadelphia.
The Jets saw enough right there to know they couldn't possibly use him last season. But now they don't have a choice. They need to see what he can do, for better or worse, before they throw him into the fire in the regular season. And they will do that at some point this season, no matter how things are going. So he needs to be prepared.
The Jets' four-game exhibition schedule has to be The Christian Hackenberg Show.
"You want him to get better every week," Bowles said. "You can't compare last year to this year. He barely played. He's barely played this year. This will be his first time out. If he commands the offense and does the things he's supposed to do, that's progress. Then we go from there."
Bowles' point seemed to be that everyone should be patient with Hackenberg, that they shouldn't put too much emphasis on one preseason game.
"I'm not really hoping for Christian to have a breakout or non-breakout game," Bowles said. "I hope we make strides as an offense and as a team, and whatever game Christian has, he has. I'm not basing this game solely on Christian's star debut as a movie-theater actor."
Maybe not, but that only works if Hackenberg gets plenty of time in the spotlight all summer long. Maybe he becomes that star. Maybe he doesn't.
But the Jets have to use this summer to begin the process of finding out.