Rarely do the main stream media outlets and draft Twitter agree on prospects at any position, but no position is this more evident in than at quarterback. This year is no different when it comes to the likes of big names such as Christian Hackenberg. Since Hackenberg came on the scene as a high school All-American and a can’t miss recruit, he has been a conversation point for many evaluators. Between his prototypical size and all-world arm talent, fans of his have been punching his ticket to Canton since before he could vote. This continued when he hit the national spotlight by standing by his commitment to play at Penn State under coach Bill O’Brien, in spite of the penalties handed down in relation to the Jerry Sandusky incident. By most accounts, Hackenberg thrived as a freshman in O’Brien’s “pro-style” offense and appeared to be poised to roll through the college ranks as smoothly as he did high school. Then O’Brien left for the Houston Texans and James Franklin brought his spread offense to State College. Since then, whether you accredit it to the coaching staff change or Hackenberg himself, the consensus has been that there wasn’t much development and to some, a regression. Hearing this from credible analytics researchers such as Pro Football Focus (who graded Hackenberg somewhere in the -20 range for his sophomore season), coupled with respected albeit lesser known personalities, I decided to take a closer look at him for myself.
Written and Researched by: Brandon Fox
My goal in this study was to figure out what the issues were with Hackenberg and Penn State that led to the perceived drastic change between his freshman and junior seasons. The first thing I do before forming an opinion or even writing anything down is to watch at least one cut-up from DraftBreakdown. This goes for any prospect. I like to watch the player to get a sense of how he plays and how he flashes before I start writing anything down. Since everything has been negative of late, I wanted my starting point to be as neutral as possible (or just the opposite because I enjoy debating). To do this, I decided to take Hackenberg’s best game of the season; the bowl game versus Boston College. By just looking at the stat line, his passing yards total was the second highest of the season, had the most touchdowns, zero interceptions and the second best completion percentage (by .1 percent). With all of the numbers above, the biggest thing I noticed was actually drops.
So after watching Penn State versus Boston College and noticing the drops, I decided to chart it. Hackenberg was at a 68 percent completion rate in the box score and I wanted to see if it was one of his best games. Do the numbers really show you the whole story? I’ve seen some that chart all sorts of information, but in this instance I was looking for very specific information, so it was a simple charting system:
I could have potentially made it even simpler for the purpose of this research by not even charting where the throws went since I wasn’t going to really use that information anyway, but since I was watching every play anyway I decided to get an idea of tendencies, areas of success and play calling as well. I also want to put the disclaimer out there that drops are subjective based on the person reviewing them and the situation. Because of my playing and coaching experience, I’m able to change how I view each play based on the perspective of offense versus defense. If I’m watching a guy on offense, I’m watching it with the mind set of an offensive coach. So, if the quarterback hit the wide receiver, the wide receiver catches the ball with both hands (regardless of official ruling of a completion), and the defender bats it away, as an offensive coach that’s a drop. Yes, the guy made a great play and that’s how most will see it, but that’s the wide receivers ball and he had it, but didn’t bring it in.
At the end, I came out with seven drops. Another went through a receivers hands but he was laid out like Superman, so I didn’t count it. While I was looking for drops, I also noticed a number of situations, which would happen for any offense, where there is pressure or no one is open and the quarterback throws the ball away. Now from an offensive coach stand point, this isn’t a negative and in some cases it’s a positive. That being said, I decided I didn’t want to punish the completion percentage. Now I don’t have a membership to all the different advanced stats sites and I’m sure this is already something others are using, but I decided to use an adjusted completion percentage in hopes that would give me a better idea of how accurate Hackenberg was throughout the games I watched. To do this, I put the players and the plays in a vacuum and assumed all drops were catches, adding them in as completions. For throw aways, I simply subtracted those from the attempts. For the math guys:
This is a bit of a simplified version of Pro Football Focus (PFF). In comparison to PFF, I consider spikes as throw aways. Battled passes are on the quarterback to me, so I didn’t factor that in. The other thing to note was passes disrupted on hits which I also didn’t factor in. Now with this formula and the numbers:
Box score Comp %: 34/50 – 68%
Adj Comp %: ((34 + 7) / (50 – 0)) x100
(41/50) x100 = 82%
When I saw the difference of 14 percent I was taken back because that was a much larger variance then I had even anticipated. I decided to continue with the study but instead of the good games, I turned to those that would be considered bad games based on completion percentage. I decided to do each game with a completion percentage under 50 based only on how bad that looks on paper. Those additional games were Michigan State, Northwestern, Indiana, Temple and Maryland. Over the six games, his average adjusted completion percentage was 13.7 percent higher than the box score percentage. Without creating an algorithm to factor in that these were mostly bad games which could have magnified the variation, if you adjusted his total completion percentage for the season, he was a 61.4 percent passer. That means those six games increased the entire season total by 5.6 percent. Over just the charted six games the percentage jumped from 50.2 percent to 61.7 percent, a difference of 11.5. The rest of the numbers and notes from the games that I charted look like this:
Comp % – 12/26 = 46.2%
Drops – 2
Sacks – 2
Throw Aways – 0
Adj Comp % – 14/26 = 53.9%
Diff – 7.7%
INT #1 – Out route to the TE, throw was behind and got tipped to the defender
INT #2 – Rolled right to throw wheel route back to the left to RB, pressured and threw off back foot fading away, ball under thrown
Comp % – 12/29 = 41.6%
Drops – 7
Sacks – 3
Throw Aways – 1
Adj Comp % – 19/28 = 67.9%
Diff – 26.5%
INT #1 – Bubble right that the safety rolled down and jumped, pick 6
INT #2 – Through RB hands into defenders
Comp % – 21/45 = 46.7%
Throw Aways: 1
Adj Comp % – 25/44 = 56.8%
Diff – 10.1%
INT #1 – WR caught jump ball in the endzone but before he came down the DB (Trae Waynes) tipped ball out and got INT
Comp % – 18/42 = 42.9%
Drops – 2
Sacks – 5
Throw Aways – 5
Adj Comp % – 54.1%
Diff – 11.2%
INT #1 – miscommunication w/WR on vertical, WR went to the seam and throw was to the sideline
(INT called back – Screen, TE tried to cut DE but DE defeated block, jumped into passing lane and INT)
Comp % – 22/45 = 48.9%
Throw Aways: 1
Adj Comp % – 27/44 = 61.4%
Diff – 12.5%
INT #1 – Slant, didn’t see LB
Below is all the info in excel and me showing my work for the yearly estimations:
*142-119 = 23 additional completions X 6.2 y/a = 142.6 additional yards over the 6 games –> 2977 + 3120
*23 completions / 6 games = 3.83 comp/g X 7 uncharted games = 26.81 additional completions X 6.2y/a = 166.22
*3120 + 166 = 3286 (estimated adj. total passing yards) – 2977 (actual total passing yards) = 309 additional yards
Now at first when you see the numbers 2,977 next to 3,286 the difference doesn’t seem eye popping. But if you think about it, Hackenberg missed out on a full game worth of passing yards because of drops, throw aways and pressures. That game would have tied for his fourth best game of the season. Again, this assumes that there were no spikes in production because of a big play because it’s measured with only the average yards per attempt.
With all of that being said, my non-analytic analysis is a bit different. Hackenberg has the type of arm talent that can’t be taught. His deep ball is nice and can be handled easily by jump ball receivers. If he was around “contested catch” players like Dez Bryant or Alshon Jeffery, they could make each other a lot of money. I’m not saying that’s the only thing that he’s going to be successful with. I don’t think we are analyzing Kyle Boller here. His ball placement on short to intermediate throws was inconsistent at best during 2014. The games that I watched were his bad games, but it was consistently inconsistent throughout. There are small mechanical things like follow through and foot placement that should be able to be coached out of him with regards to short game inaccuracy. I believe this has a lot to do with the style of offense. Many of the screens and short plays are meant to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands as quickly as possible and abandon traditional mechanics like getting your feet set under you, shoulders pointing at the target or even something like grabbing the laces. Another observation is he rarely puts touch on the ball throughout the season. When he did, it’s usually good. I get the sense that he doesn’t like the feeling of uncertainty when you loft a touch pass, so he just fires everything in there. It’s also possible that he simply doesn’t trust his guys to make the play. Naturally when you’re over throwing, the result is often balls sailing on him. This is something similar to what Cam Newton has been dealing with since back in his college days.
He tended to yell at teammates out on the field when they did something he didn’t want/expect and kind of show guys up. He did that a lot more than I expected and additionally, I saw a few clips of him ‘talking loudly’ out of frustration with/at the coaches. This can be spun either way: “He’s a fiery competitor who is worried about winning” or “He believes he’s better than those around him and feels everyone should be on his page.” This is a character trait many quarterbacks have (see Phillip Rivers, Tom Brady), but winning cures everything. So as long as he’s successful and isn’t yelling at Bryant, there shouldn’t be any real issue. Being right when you yell at someone is also an important part, so he will need to type of player that comes in knowing more than some veterans (which should really be the case for any quarterback coming in).
Looking at the numbers from 2015, his passing yards and completion percentage went down, his yards per attempt and TD-INT ratio rebounded. What I take away from this is that his decision making within the system improved. You still saw plenty of interceptable passes and errant throws, but they were cut down from his sophomore season. Another thing was the protection. Penn State gave up 43 sacks in 2014 and was able to reduce that to 38 in 2015. If you think about how Temple was able to get 10 in their first game, it puts the season’s protection into a bit better perspective. I think my favorite stat that I came across when I was compiling the information was Hackenberg’s TD-INT in games with four-plus sacks. This past season his ratio was 4-1 in the 4 games with 4+ sacks and the only interception came in that first game vs Temple. While I didn’t chart every pressure from this past season to evaluate the decision making on that play, this also leads you to believe that he was making better decisions with the ball while under pressure in comparison to his 3-8 TD-INT ratio from 2014.
First things first when we’re talking about the 2015 season; the Temple game was embarrassing from a play calling perspective. Yes, the offensive line struggled to slow anyone down, sure Hackenberg ran into some sacks and struggled with accuracy, but it was mostly the coaching staff. The game really changed with the pick six by the Temple defensive end as the score went from tied at 10-10 with about 1:00 minute left in the third quarter to 24-10 by the time there was 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. They couldn’t block anyone from the first drive to the final whistle, but even before the big momentum swing they continued running route combinations that had wide receivers going seven-plus yards vs the blitz/four-man rush and many times didn’t have a hot read or check down which forced Hackenberg to eat it. Play calling issues were a trend I did notice throughout the time with James Franklin’s staff.
If you check out the Michigan State game there were some issues, but despite the score of the game, Penn State didn’t have their worst game offensively. Early Hackenberg threw a deep ball to the endzone when he should have hit one of the receivers to the trips side that were running a pair of hitches but at the time he went through their part of the reads, they were still blanketed and the middle of the pocket was getting pushed into his lap. I hope that it wasn’t a read that Hackenberg made pre-snap because the cornerback was playing eight yards off and bailed for the deep zone, so he was staring at the quarterback the entire play. The second interception of the game was a pass that was tipped at the line and returned for six by a defensive lineman. I put batted passes on the quarterback as much as the offensive line, but that’s a forgivable interception.
The Illinois game was one that I was interested in because it was one of his best performances of the season. Yes, they blew them out and were most likely just a superior team, but the biggest difference that I saw was the play calling. There was much more under center plays with traditional drop backs. Hackenberg was getting into a rhythm with his receivers on the timing of their routes and was able to hitch and get the ball out. They were able to run play action and attack the intermediate areas and also the middle of the field. Even the shotgun snaps used some drop backs to get his feet and timing in sync, so he was able to hitch up in the pocket like he’s designed to do.
Now let’s go back to his freshman year. I saved this for last because I wanted to bring us back to the player that I believe Hackenberg actually is, which is the player we saw his freshman year with Bill O’Brien and an offense that he fits into better than James Franklin’s spread attack. Between 2014 and 2015, Hackenberg’s ball placement and accuracy have been questioned and in many cases has been considered to be poor enough for some to question whether he’s even draftable. If you turn it back to his first career game vs Syracuse, he simply looks more polished and more poised. As a freshman, he was stepping into and following through on his throws. His third, fifth and seventh step drop backs are smooth and the ball is out on time and accurate allowing the opportunity for yards after the catch. His footwork overall was just significantly better and there is much less falling away from throws than we see currently. He also looked very accurate on play action and rollouts.
While much of the accuracy concerns seem to stem from footwork and setting a good base, the decision making isn’t something that I’m able to figure out. So much goes into how, when and where a ball is thrown that I couldn’t begin to narrate what might be going on in the head of Hackenberg or the coaching staff. Some of the problems might be pre-snap which I’m sure you would hear coaches say they would be able to work with. The issue that I have is in post-snap by not taking what the defense had given him. This showed in his freshman year and didn’t seem to be something that got any better. He tried forcing a lot of balls down the field into coverage when there were plenty of yards left wide open and uncovered in many circumstances. The only excuse for this could be that the staff coached them on situations that they wanted to push the ball down the field regardless of the coverage in order to generate some big plays.
Games watched: Temple 2015, Michigan St 2015, Illinois 2015, Michigan St 2014, Northwestern 2014, Indiana 2014, Temple 2014, Maryland 2014, Boston College 2014, Syracuse 2013, Eastern Michigan 2013, Wisconsin 2013, Michigan 2013, UCF 2013, Nebraska 2013, Minnesota 2013, Kent St 2013
- Arm talent
- From under center, his drop back was smooth and play action fakes are pretty
- Timing and rhythm passer
- Stands tall in the pocket when throwing under pressure and delivers the ball
- Gives guys a shot – WRs in the NFL aren’t going to get separation the same way that they are at other levels so the QB has to be willing throw into coverage. He’s not afraid and has shown he can do it with accuracy
- Accuracy issues deriving from reestablishing based when moved – needs to hitch forward to right the ship
- Falls away from throws in GUN with 1 step drop – keeps them almost square to LOS or opens up and ball tends to come out inaccurate
- Mechanics have deteriorated in spread offense – see Bryce Petty/Baylor QB concerns
- Pre snap/post snap reads or read progression design? – seemed like there were too many plays were decided pre snap to go deep rather than hitting a wide open man underneath. Most evident with out-corner and vert-hitch combos
- Would need to pick his brain to find out if he really sees the field real time and trusts his eyes
- Deep ball consistency – Under throws when DB is beat and over throws when they’re running together too often
- GHOSTS! Needs to stay calm under pressure – runs into sacks which compounds on already troublesome protection
- Refuses to throw the ball away – tries to keep play alive, run or takes that sack
If we try to conclude the reason(s) the team and Hackenberg struggled offensively, it can be narrowed down to a few things in my opinion:
- Either his play calling and scheme sucks (which I think it did)
- Hackenberg trying to hold the ball even if the first read is open so he can take a longer shot
- The players around him weren’t overly impressive (besides his freshman year)
- Or all of the above
Now of course I don’t have any hard evidence to support the idea of him holding the ball because I don’t know the reads, but he did seem to pass on open shorter routes which seemed to be designed to get the ball out quick in order to attempt to drive the ball down field a little more. That doesn’t necessarily mean throwing the vertical instead of the hitch, but sometimes passing on the hitch that was open in order to hit the dig behind it. This very well could be something that’s coached and a part of the game plan or the play itself and he was actually running the designed play, as it looks odd when you come off an open wide receiver. It is also an interesting idea when hearing the stories of players not buying into the coaching staff and scheme.
If you try looking at Hackenberg as a prospect from a bird’s eye view, there’s a lot to wade through. Hackenberg’s career statistics are somewhat of an anomaly in that his numbers progressively got worse, which is unnerving. He’s got all the physical ability you look for and when he works out in shorts, he looks like an all-pro. He looked the part in a pro-style offense that is considered difficult to operate for quarterbacks and he did so as an 18-year-old true freshman. The more we hear the question marks about his play, the more we hear from behind the scenes that everyone within the program is well aware that it’s due to a scheme fit rather than his ability. But when I look at quarterbacks, I try to find their issues and decide if they are going to be fatal or fixable.
His accuracy issues come up when he is forced to reset his feet. When he hits his 3, 5 or 7 step drop, hitches or double hitches and the ball comes out on time, it’s a thing of beauty and you see why he was so highly regarded. Hackenberg has problems reestablishing a good base after moving left or right to avoid pressure, when he makes quick throws from shotgun, or when moving to find a throwing lane. If he is forced to move but has the opportunity to set and hitch up again, it fixes the majority of the inaccuracies. I think that these are things that can be corrected, so they aren’t really a sticking point for me like they are for others.
My main concern is whether he has the decision making capabilities to be a great quarterback. At times he throws ball into windows that make your eyes pop out of your head. Then later that drive he passes up a throw to a crosser that doesn’t have a defender within 15 yards of him to force the ball vertical into tight coverage with safety help.
I try not to force comparisons because regardless of how you attempt to describe what you mean, they always seemed to be spun the wrong way. I only do them if it just comes to you. So my comparison right now for Hackenberg is somewhere between Jay Cutler and Cam Newton. Now this doesn’t have anything to do with athleticism in regards to the Newton comparison. I’m looking at it from a strictly quarterbacking perspective. Unrivaled arm talent but doesn’t always make those around him better (early in Cam’s career and Cutler’s entire career). Again, this could be that the players and coaches just sucked or it could have something to do with him, which is always the fun part about putting your name on a guy or drafting him into your organization.
I will flat out say that I think he’s a 1st-2nd round prospect and being that there is no consensus top quarterback prospect this season, I would be surprised if he makes it out of the first round. People can say what they would like to about his stats and overall success the program had during his reign, but when I put on the tape, it was very clear to me that those things were affected by the players and coaching staff around him. His accuracy and decision making are his only real question marks and although they are potentially large issues, based on what I’ve seen on film they can be corrected with coaching and film study.
A LITTLE BIT MORE?
A popular belief is that quarterbacks don’t get more accurate when they get to the NFL, which in theory makes sense, but I don’t like to assume something is true just because someone says it is. So I started compiling the data for starting quarterbacks in the NFL when I was working on some of the adjusted completion percentage stuff for Hackenberg. First I looked at completion percentage from their college career vs their NFL career completion percentage. I found that there were in fact 19 quarterbacks that had better NFL career completion percentages than career college completion percentages and 13 that had better college than NFL. I shrunk it down to look at the final year of college vs NFL career percentage, which showed 20 had better final years in college than NFL careers , which seemed to fall more in line with the belief you don’t get more accurate in the NFL. I would like to draw your attention to some of the names on the list who did in fact improve their completion percentage from college to the NFL. You might recognize a few of the names: Carson Palmer, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson, among others.
My point isn’t that players always get better when they get to the level, but simply that looking at the statistical results from college doesn’t always give you the answer you’re looking for when projecting to the future. This study showed me that when you evaluate the quarterback you must also evaluate the rest of the offense, and in some cases the coaching staff, in order to truly get an idea of what the player is and may be.