Christian Hackenberg's honesty reveals hypocrisy of NFL draft process

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Dan Wetzel
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Christian Hackenberg apparently blundered during interviews with NFL teams in advance of next month's draft.

By telling the truth.

As a freshman at Penn State, the quarterback completed 58.9 percent of his passes, throwing for 20 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions. Some pegged him as an eventual No. 1 overall selection.

After that season however, Bill O'Brien left to go coach the NFL's Houston Texans. James Franklin took over with an offense that has traditionally skewed more to the spread than O'Brien's pro-style.

Hackenberg's numbers dropped to 12 TDs and 15 picks as a sophomore, only to rebound to 16 TDs, six interceptions as a junior. He isn't viewed as a great prospect anymore and is unlikely to be taken in the first round, let alone at the top of it.

Christian Hackenberg was considered a candidate to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. (Getty Images)
Christian Hackenberg was considered a candidate to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. (Getty Images)

Now he's dealing with interview issues. According to Robert Klemko of MMQB, at least two front-office executives said "when asked to explain his declining sophomore and junior numbers … Hackenberg has shifted blame to Coach James Franklin."

That has, according to the personnel sources, been a turnoff.

"Despite the fact that it's probably true," one source told MMQB, "you don't want to hear a kid say that."

Let's get a bunch of NFL draft caveats out of the way here.

This is two unnamed sources in a league with hundreds, maybe thousands of them. Even if these two didn't like Hackenberg's answer, their bosses (if they have bosses) might have loved it.

It also may have come across wrong. Or maybe Hackenberg has changed his answer for others. Or maybe it never even happened. Who knows? This is one side of the story and there is no context. A team might also be bad mouthing Hackenberg under the hope he drops in the draft to it. Far worse rumors have and will be floated.

For NFL teams in the weeks before the draft, the truth has no value. Nor, apparently, does it for potential draft picks.

For the sake of argument, let's assume the story is accurate and reported in context, because it sure sounds like something that would chap an NFL front office. It shouldn't, though.

As the quote itself suggests, teams want a player who will lie or downplay his true feelings – or ignore what actually happened – rather than just be a straight shooter. You know who was good at this? Johnny Manziel.

You can argue that Hackenberg should take all responsibility for everything himself and never speak ill of a coach, but what if it's, you know, true?

Hackenberg possesses a unique backstory. He was a five-star recruit out of Virginia who chose to play for Penn State mostly because of O'Brien, who'd just arrived from a stint as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots. Hackenberg wanted to be an NFL quarterback, and here was a coach who'd just spent five seasons under Bill Belichick and three working directly with Tom Brady.

Hackenberg was loyal enough to and excited enough about O'Brien that he maintained his verbal commitment to Penn State, even after the school was hammered by NCAA sanctions following the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal.

Crippling scholarship reductions meant he'd play in State College with few fellow playmakers and a thin offensive line. In purely football terms, the smart move was to run the other way. Hackenberg didn't care. He signed anyway. He was hailed for keeping his promise to Penn State.

That first year it looked genius, the perfect marriage of coach and player.

And then O'Brien went pro before Hackenberg could.

Christian Hackenberg (right) came to Penn State to play under Bill O'Brien. (AP)
Christian Hackenberg (right) came to Penn State to play under Bill O'Brien. (AP)

Franklin has been a successful college coach and done wonders in restoring Penn State's recruiting momentum and overall enthusiasm. This isn't about comparing the relative coaching abilities of he and O'Brien.

It just wasn't a good fit with Hackenberg, where personalities clashed as the offense struggled. When Hackenberg was finally able to turn pro after his junior season, he issued a statement that notably didn't mention Franklin by name.

He did thank Bill O'Brien, though.

So this was toxic, and everyone knows it. As such, what would the point be of pretending otherwise? What is it about modern society that wants, even demands, people play pretend rather than discuss the obvious?

It's a culture that lies, or at least embellishes just about everything. From social media posts and pictures designed to reflect a better reality to a college selection process that rewards joining clubs and organizations because it'll look good on the application, not because the student cared about any of it.

Everywhere truths are bent or shaded for politeness and political correctness. You can't really trust anything.

Only this time, you might. A draft prospect was blunt and direct. He noted that losing the coach and system for which he was perfect mattered. He admitted that trying to square peg himself into a round-hole offense, while surrounded by a Sandusky-decimated roster, didn't work as well.

Isn't there something admirable about that? Has it gotten so bad that acknowledging the undeniable is no longer allowed?

Sure, coaching changes are part of the transient NFL, so Hackenberg better get used to the concept. Yes, some of it is on him. It doesn't mean some players don't excel under some coaches. Who would deny that?

If NFL teams want draft prospects to not say what is "probably true," then it says more about those teams and their culture than it does about Christian Hackenberg.

The truth should set him free. Or, at least not cause to fall past the third round.

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