FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Bryce Petty will make his fifth career start for the Jets on Sunday in New Orleans because Josh McCown has a broken left hand and because, as Todd Bowles said, "Bryce is the next man up."
That's a nice, tidy coach-speak way of avoiding the obvious truth about that decision: Starting Petty makes very little sense at this point for the 5-8 Jets. They need to see Christian Hackenberg play.
Think back for a minute to the summer of low expectations, when the world thought the Jets would go 1-15. Remember the thought process before the euphoria of McCown leading the Jets to the edge of the playoff race. Back then, as the Jets began anew after gutting their roster, everyone knew the whole point of this season was to get a look at and grow all their young players.
And nothing - nothing - was more important than figuring out who their Quarterback of the Future would be.
They're not worse off for what happened next. McCown was fantastic, not only as a player, but a leader. Jets fans were excited - and frustrated - by their team's surprisingly good play. Many of the players around McCown - like the offensive line, receiver Robby Anderson, running back Elijah McGuire, to name a few - got better under McCown's direction. They learned things they couldn't have learned with a lost, young quarterback leading the way.
But all that is over now. The Jets, while mathematically alive, are out of the playoff chase. There's nothing left to play for. They've done enough growing.
It's on to 2018 and they need to know what they have in Hackenberg before they begin their offseason quarterback plans.
Remember, Hackenberg isn't some third-round pick who came with a vague plan to someday make him the quarterback of a distant future. He's a second-rounder, the 51st-overall pick. He's also in his second year and the Jets passed over plenty of quality quarterbacks in the first round of the last draft that could have easily replaced him. For whatever reason, they clung to him and his potential.
If he never takes a snap and the Jets move on, that's a colossal waste.
Sure, it looks like the Giants are going through the same thing across town, where they might not play rookie Davis Webb at all the rest of the season. But the Jets' situation also more complicated than that of the Giants. The Giants will be picking second in the next draft, most likely, maybe third. Taking a quarterback there is an absolute no-brainer. The consensus around the NFL seems to be that USC's Sam Darnold and UCLA's Josh Rosen are special, "franchise" caliber quarterbacks. The Giants know you don't pass on those when you have a chance. It would be malpractice for a team to do that, especially with a 36-year-old quarterback on their roster who might not want to be back next year.
Jets don't have that kind of easy choice. What they know is McCown is 38, unsigned for next year, and recovering from a broken hand and they've been in a years-long search for a young franchise quarterback. And right now, they'd be picking 10th. Maybe they end up a little higher, but they'd still have to give up a kings' ransom to get in position for Darnold and Rosen. Honestly, the way quarterbacks go in these drafts, they might have to give up a lot to move up to get Josh Allen or Baker Mayfield, too.
Do they do it? And before that, by early March, they'll have to decide whether to throw $25 million per year at Kirk Cousins. Or do they make a play to trade for Alex Smith? Do they consider Eli Manning if he's available? Or do they go into the draft hoping they can move up?
That would sure be an easier decision to make if they knew at least a little something about what they have in Hackenberg.
They already know about Petty. The 26-year-old former fourth-round pick made four forgettable starts and two relief appearances last season and didn't do anything that flashed signs of stardom. He completed 56.4 of his passes for 809 yards with three touchdowns and seven interceptions. Granted, the team around him was a dysfunctional mess. But it's still enough of a sample to get a fair evaluation.
Hackenberg, nearly two years into his NFL career, hasn't taken a single snap. Maybe that says something about what the Jets see in practice. But they won't truly know what he is until he's in a game.
So they should take advantage of this bad break for McCown and turn it into a good break for the future of the franchise. They've seen Petty. Now they need to see Hackenberg because a small look is better than nothing. If they want to play Petty in the hornets' nest that is the Superdome against a very dangerous New Orleans Saints team, fine.
But the last two weeks, at home against the Chargers on Christmas Eve and then in New England on New Year's Eve, they owe it to themselves to give Hackenberg the ball. They know Petty isn't their future. Maybe Hackenberg isn't either. But if he's not, they've got a major decision to make in the coming months. Really, there's only one way to truly find out.