In the first quarter of Buffalo’s wild-card win against Indianapolis—the first Bills playoff win since 1995—quarterback Josh Allen dropped back to throw, but couldn’t get his feet set before receiver Stefon Diggs got open downfield. With, seemingly, the flick of his wrist, Allen still tossed the ball 36 yards down the middle of the field into Diggs’s outstretched arms.
It’s a throw that might have had disastrous results earlier in Allen’s career—a high-risk attempt into a tight window. His questionable decision-making and poor accuracy had combined to end many Bills drives in his first two years as Buffalo’s starter. This season, however, Allen has the fourth-best completion percentage in the NFL while still pushing the ball downfield in coordinator Brian Daboll’s offense. Allen completed 69.2 percent of his passes in the regular season, two years after he posted a 52.8 percent completion rate as a rookie in 2018. It’s the greatest two-year improvement in NFL history, topping then-Seahawks quarterback Jim Zorn’s progress from 1977 to 1979 when he upped his own completion rate from 41.1 percent to 56.4. Allen is one of the NFL’s most striking examples of successful player development in a long time—he threw for 4,544 yards this season, up from 2,074 in 2018 (and 3,089 in 2019)—and his progression has changed the landscape of the AFC. The Bills have built a stable foundation around Allen, fine-tuning their roster and playbook to suit his strengths, and he’s fulfilled—perhaps even surpassed—the organization’s belief in him. He’s also challenging the notion that quarterbacks can’t drastically improve their accuracy.
“It’s been a work in progress since he got here, and he’ll be the first one to tell you that it takes a village,” Daboll told me in October, when we spoke for a story about Allen. Daboll was hired roughly three months before the Bills selected Allen with the no. 7 pick in the draft and has been instrumental in his development. Allen’s improvement took specific mechanical adjustments and lots of work and time; Buffalo’s collective organizational buy-in is the essential context for understanding Allen’s growth and the Bills’ rise to becoming a genuine Super Bowl contender.
Allen completed 56 percent of his passes as a college quarterback at Wyoming, which was one of the major knocks against him as a draft prospect. Jordan Palmer, a private quarterbacks coach who has worked with Allen since 2018, told me the first thing he wanted to work on was Allen’s footwork. Allen “bounced on his toes” and kept his feet too close together when he threw in college, which affected his accuracy. “One, you’ve added movement that you don’t need, and two, every time you stride you’re going to overstride, which means your foot is going to land a little differently and every ball is going to come out a little differently,” Palmer said.
Allen kicked the toe-bouncing habit and widened his base throwing position through drills and strength training. Once he’d developed new habits for his lower body, Palmer turned the attention to making throws with better touch and anticipation.
“This offseason it was a lot on controlling the football, less about his feet and more about getting his arm to pass through the exact same spot every single time,” Palmer said. “So, what you’ll see if you pull up his 10 best throws of the year this year, his feet are kind of different each time. They’re not all in the same spot but his arm, his upper body is in the same spot every time.”
This offseason, Allen and Palmer practiced throwing on the beach, where it’s difficult to get your feet set, and using biometric cameras to map Allen’s upper body movements and discover where there were inconsistencies with his technique. Allen improved his passer rating on deep balls from 64.4 in 2019 to 103.0 this season.
Mechanical adjustments, though, don’t tell the entire story. General manager Brandon Beane knew Allen’s game required technical refinement when he drafted him, but he thinks the bigger factor in why Allen has gotten so much better is a greater understanding of the Bills’ offense—both from Allen and the players around him.
Beane told me earlier this season that he saw Allen as the smartest quarterback in his draft class, but it still took time for Allen to learn the ins and outs of Daboll’s offense, which Beane described as “complicated, with a lot of stuff.” Allen made mistakes, but Beane and the Bills coaching staff understood the offense well enough to know when the fault should be laid at Allen’s feet and when it belonged elsewhere.
“Some of the issues that we had in Year 1 that Josh would never say a word about, we had receivers that didn’t always run the right routes and didn’t maybe run them to the right depth,” Beane told me in October. “We’re not going to publicly criticize those guys but there were plenty of times when people were getting onto Josh when it wasn’t Josh’s fault.
“I think a lot of people put accuracy into just dropping back, setting your feet, getting your shoulders right, arm angle, all those things which, they’re important, I’m not dismissing them, but if you don’t know how to check into the right play versus that defense or who’s running the hot route, it doesn’t matter,” Beane said.
Beane and head coach Sean McDermott trusted Allen, Daboll, quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey, and Palmer to make the necessary improvements. Beane’s focus was on giving Allen stability by keeping those coaches in place and identifying and meeting roster needs.
“You look at young quarterbacks and the best thing you can do is provide continuity,” Beane said. “We have that here—starting with the same head coach, same coordinator, quarterback coach [Ken Dorsey] in Year 2, so we have a lot of stability there for him.”
Maybe Allen’s 2020 season will end up being an anomaly, but his career arc appears to be evidence that a young quarterback can improve his accuracy with the right instruction and organizational support. His college completion percentage was a red flag, but it has not become a prohibitive obstacle in his development as an NFL quarterback. Perhaps teams shouldn’t expect any young quarterback to improve his completion percentage at a historic rate just because Allen did, but considering some of the criticism leveled against him early in his career—that his inaccuracy would always be a liability—perhaps some humility is in order, too. Developing a young quarterback requires a dash of daring, and a bit of belief, kind of like an off-balance Allen pass when it’s unleashed—you never know what might happen.