HomeCareerHow Christian Hackenberg is trying to rebuild his career in the Alliance of American Football
How Christian Hackenberg is trying to rebuild his career in the Alliance of American Football
February 24, 2019
It hasn’t been the easiest thing to watch. Likely not the easiest thing to go through, either. That much is clear two weeks into Christian Hackenberg’s first time as a professional starting quarterback, with the Memphis Express of the Alliance of American Football.
He has been hit. A lot. One, on a scramble Saturday night against the Arizona Hotshots, was so vicious that Hackenberg felt like he’d run into a concrete wall. He has been sacked six times and scrambled away from defenders on eight other snaps.
Hackenberg is constantly under pressure. Receivers have dropped passes and been slow on routes. His statistics — he has completed 24 of 58 passes for 189 yards, 1 rushing touchdown and 1 interception in two losses — aren’t good. He has thrown for less than half of the 393 yards that the league’s leading passer, Orlando’s Garrett Gilbert, threw for Sunday afternoon.
It has been rough, both from his own play and what has gone on around him. Of course, this is why Hackenberg is here as the quarterback for the winless Express in the nascent AAF. To prove he had conquered the throwing issues that plagued him with the New York Jets, turning a 2016 second-round pick into a player who has yet to take an NFL regular-season snap. To show that he can still play.
“I just view it as the chance. Right now it is the opportunity that’s at my door,” Hackenberg said last month, before his two woeful starts. “And I think as a player, as a person going through life, you can’t worry about the next chance or the chance that came before or what happened before.
“If you’re worried about all that stuff you’re going to miss what’s standing there knocking in front of your face.”
He has shown improvement from his first week to his second week, but he’s a long way from where he wants to be — the NFL.
While Hackenberg has been an NFL prospect for years — starting with his freshman season at Penn State in 2013 – he’s still only 24 years old. It’s why Hackenberg decided to go to the AAF. He needed reps. He needed to show he could still be valuable and that his career was closer to its beginning than its end, despite being traded from the New York Jets to Oakland in May and then bouncing around the NFL.
A little over a year ago, his throws lacked any control, and he needed to figure out why. During his exit interview with the Jets following the 2017 season, coaches said he had a significant flaw in his throwing motion. They didn’t know where it started. They didn’t believe it was fixable.
Hackenberg didn’t believe that.
“I’m a perfectionist when I think about things,” Hackenberg said. “If I can do this so many times in a row and then there are those three or four where it’s like, ‘Where did that come from?’ Why does that happen?
“I was searching and searching and searching for answers, coaches, and no one was giving me anything that necessarily worked.”
Hackenberg wasn’t sure what happened in New York, only that he was broken. He, his family and his agents, Rich Rosa and Noel Lamontagne, had a conversation after the Jets’ revelation.
Someone had to be able to fix him. Lamontagne reached out to NFL contacts. They returned with a name, longtime NFL quarterbacks coach David Lee, who agreed to look at Hackenberg. Lee met him for a weekend. He diagnosed the problems, which in layman’s terms were elongations in his throwing motion starting in college and gradually worsening over time. It caused Hackenberg, subconsciously, to be altering his release point and occasionally flipping the ball. He thought he controlled where the ball went. Too many times, he didn’t.
Lee knew someone who could help and passed along a name: Jeff Christensen, who worked him out in Chicago a week later. Christensen played college football at Eastern Illinois and was a fifth-round pick by Cincinnati in 1983. He has worked with quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes and Jimmy Garoppoloin the past.
“After two days of [throwing] and looking at the film, I said, ‘Hey, here’s what you’re doing. Here’s why you’re doing it. Here’s what’s causing it,'” Christensen said. “So basically, if we don’t get it here, and I showed him the appropriate films of guys that do it properly.
“I said, ‘Do you see the difference?’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, completely.'”
Hackenberg had no choice. He had to trust Christensen or else his career could be kaput. In case Hackenberg didn’t totally understand, Christensen made it clear.
“I said, ‘OK, well, if we don’t get you here or close to here, your career is over. You’re done,'” Christensen said. “I say that to a lot of guys, and most of the time, it bothers him. He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Yeah. I know that.'”
At dinner over halibut that night at Wildfire, an Oak Brook, Illinois, eatery that is a Christensen favorite, Hackenberg showed his seriousness about fixing his problem. Hackenberg asked about the next day. Christensen told him they would throw at 10 a.m. and then watch film.
“He said, I don’t leave for two days, can we throw in the afternoon? I said, ‘You want to throw twice a day?'” Christensen said. “He goes, why not, I’m here. So you want two-a-days? He’s like, ‘Yeah, my arm doesn’t ever get sore, so yeah, I want to get this fixed.'”
So it began.
Over the next 90 days, Christensen said he and Hackenberg held 137 practices. Christensen worked a variety of 30 different drills — he declined to give specifics of his process — to work on reversing Hackenberg’s messed-up motion.
Whatever felt comfortable to Hackenberg at the beginning was wrong. He needed to go through the unlearning and correcting process of pushing and prodding with different drills in order to reconstruct his game.
Hackenberg committed. Every week, he would fly in and stay at The Drake Hotel, work out with Christensen, then head home for the weekend. He spent his birthday last year, on Valentine’s Day, with Christensen in Chicago. They FaceTimed his fiancée. She supported him. His whole family did.
They understood what it meant. By the fifth day, Christensen said Hackenberg bought into the process, designed with the thought that there’s only one way to throw the football — similar to Tom Brady, Dan Marino, John Elway and Joe Montana.
Somewhere between practice No. 90 and 95, Christensen saw what he needed. He knew Hackenberg got it. Christensen filmed every throw of every practice. There was a two-day stretch during those five practices in which Christensen said, “it just kind of all changed.”
“He threw three in a row, like here’s what we’re doing and he threw it and kind of looked at me,” Christensen said. “I’m like, ‘That’s it, bro. Again.’ He looked at me again, and every time, his eyes got a little bit bigger. That’s it. He threw the last one and it was perfect, and I said, ‘OK, look at it.’ We don’t ever do this, but I told the receivers to go get a drink, come here, Christian, and said, ‘Look. Look.’ I replayed the films, and I never replay the films of the workout.
“I replayed the throws during the workout and his eyes got really big, and I said, ‘Do you understand now?’ He goes, ‘Yep.’ It’s starting to feel a little better now, right?”
The receivers said they were Hackenberg’s best three passes all day. Velocity, accuracy and spin were all on point. The next three weeks, there were small deviations on his first day back working with Christensen.
Since then, there hadn’t been.
“I watched the tape, compared, saw things, saw myself get better and started to understand the why behind those things,” Hackenberg said. “So now I don’t have that anxiety of, like, ‘Why’d I miss?’ I’m like, ‘Now I know.'”
While his AAF numbers haven’t showed it yet, his mechanics have stayed consistent with what he reworked, Christensen told ESPN.
Just because Hackenberg’s motion is fixed doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed success. The past two weekends proved that. In the past year, Hackenberg went from the Jets to the Raiders to the Eagles to the Bengals, and now to the Express. Lamontagne said he could have signed a futures deal with an NFL team, but he chose to go to the AAF to get reps.
The Express, for now, are his best chance at success. Memphis’ offensive philosophy so far has appeared conservative — Express coach Mike Singletary said they are still searching for an offensive identity — rarely allowing Hackenberg to take downfield shots when he has time to throw.
Lee is his quarterbacks coach in Memphis, so he knows where Hackenberg was and where he is now. Hackenberg beat out Brandon Silvers and Zach Mettenberger in camp and got what he craved: a chance to play; show he’s a different quarterback. So far, Hackenberg remains the Express starter despite the team’s early issues. Singletary said they won’t have a “knee-jerk response” if he continues to struggle and calls it a “delicate balance” between his growth and trying to make it come at a faster pace.
“We still have to do a good job of continuing to find out what makes him comfortable, what he likes, and at the same time the things that we have to do to help our offense grow and expand it,” Singletary told reporters Monday. “I think he’s coming along well, and he made considerable improvement from Week 1, and we’re going to try and build on that.”
There have been signs of progress amid the struggles. The fourth quarter against the Hotshots — when Hackenberg led Memphis on a touchdown drive — is the best he has looked so far.
Hackenberg likely hasn’t done enough to get another shot in the NFL, but in an era in which quarterbacks stick around in the NFL until their mid-30s or later, he still has a chance.
If this works, he has a lot of football left and a career he can save. It’s just a big if.
“All the experiences, being cut, being drafted, ups, downs, highs, lows, all those things have kind of put me here right now,” Hackenberg said before his first game. “And I think mentally I’m at peace with it, and I’ve never been, I think, in a better spot from a physical standpoint but also from a mental standpoint combined in my career.”