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Josh Allen Is Both a QB Evaluation Enigma and the Bills’ Best Playoff Hope

Ahead of the 2018 draft, Allen was considered a big-armed passer without many positive stats to speak of. His progress in his second season may provide a window into modern quarterback development—and Buffalo’s franchise future.

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Josh Allen isn’t built like a typical quarterback. On this Tuesday in late October, his hulking 6-foot-5 frame is folded into a chair in a back office of the Bills practice facility in Orchard Park, New York. He’s wearing a gray T-shirt and a pair of blue shorts that (a) look straight out of an ’80s NBA game, and (b) are decidedly too small for a guy who weighs 237 pounds. Allen is a rocket-armed passer with a defensive end’s body and a tight end’s wheels, and that combination makes him one of the most physically imposing quarterbacks in the NFL. But there have been times during his first two seasons when those gifts haven’t felt like such a blessing. “I think coach [Bill] Parcells would say this to his quarterbacks with strong arms: ‘Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness,’” Allen says. “Trying to fit balls in when they shouldn’t be fit in. Trying to make the deep throw when you’ve got a guy underneath just standing there. Trying to put it in your mind that you don’t have to play the superhero on every play.”

When Allen was selected with the no. 7 pick in the quarterback-heavy 2018 draft, the Wyoming product was considered a toolsy prospect without the pedigree or history of production of draftmates like Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold, or Josh Rosen. Two of those QBs won the Heisman Trophy, Darnold won a Rose Bowl, and Rosen had entered UCLA as a five-star recruit who was once billed as the next Peyton Manning. Allen, for his part, completed just 56 percent of his passes in his two seasons as a college starter. He seemed to have the arm strength to rip a football through a brick wall, but there were questions about whether he could hit the wall in the first place.

That scouting report translated to Allen’s play as a rookie. He flashed the same athleticism he’d displayed on tape, finishing the season with 631 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. During his second career start, Allen leapt clear over Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr on a run, a move that wide receiver Zay Jones deemed “sick as shit.”

As a passer, Allen mixed power and volatility to produce both spectacular and erratic throws. He completed a league-worst 52.8 percent of his passes in 2018, though the Bills’ emphasis on deep throws was partially to blame. (Allen heaved the ball 20 or more yards on an NFL-high 19.7 percent of his passes.) And while he enjoyed some undeniably thrilling moments—his 46-to-1 deep attempt to touchdown rate ranked behind only Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, and Mayfield—his all-or-nothing approach resulted in more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (10). This offseason, as Allen and the Bills staff evaluated his tape, their goal was reining in Allen’s ambition without discouraging it. “Last year, every time I dropped back it was, ‘I can make this throw,’” Allen says. “‘I can throw it 50 yards downfield and try to put it on [the receiver]. I think I can squeeze it in there.’ But in reality, you don’t have to do that. … My mind-set has changed from ‘How can I throw a touchdown?’ to ‘How can I get a first down?’”

That change didn’t happen overnight, and Allen has still had plenty of growing pains this season. But his development as a passer has been obvious. His last interception came in a 14-7 victory over the Titans in Week 5. After throwing for three touchdowns and running for another in last week’s 37-20 win over the Dolphins, Allen was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week. The Bills enter this Sunday’s matchup against the Broncos at 7-3, with FiveThirtyEight giving them a 71 percent chance to make the playoffs.

It’s easy to get distracted by Allen’s physical prowess, as so many executives and scouts did before the draft. Listening to him dissect the position, though, it’s clear that his self-evaluation has involved intense reflection and a healthy dose of unflinching honesty. As Buffalo continues its postseason push, Allen hopes to reconcile others’ perceptions of him with the refined, restrained quarterback he wants to be. That pursuit may provide a window into how unpolished but talented quarterbacks progress in the NFL—and could ultimately decide the fate of this era in Buffalo.

Buffalo’s brass first met with Allen at the 2018 Senior Bowl. He had just finished his second season as a starter at Wyoming, and though his college numbers didn’t compare to those of the other quarterbacks in the class, the Bills saw him as a strong-armed passer with smooth movement skills. That raw potential was intriguing enough for general manager Brandon Beane to schedule a half-hour meeting with the QB in Mobile, Alabama. Allen came across as shy in that initial interview, but made a different impression when a Bills contingent visited Laramie, Wyoming, for a private workout that spring.

At dinner the night before his classroom and throwing sessions, Allen was engaging and confident in front of a potentially intimidating audience: Beane, the Bills’ owners, and head coach Sean McDermott, among others. The next day, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll gave Allen a 30-minute tutorial about the Bills offensive system before putting him through a rapid-fire quiz about the material. His recall and acumen left a serious impression on Beane and others. At that point, he had checked the majority of the boxes that Buffalo was looking for in a franchise quarterback. His physical skill set was apparent, and now he had charmed the team’s leadership and aced the mental test.

Of course, Allen had plenty of detractors in the draft community, many of whom shared concerns about his college production. He completed just 56.3 percent of his passes as a redshirt junior, a mark that ranked 83rd out of 100 eligible FBS passers. In Wyoming’s three highest-profile games (against Iowa, Oregon, and Boise State), Allen went 44-of-91 passing with one touchdown and five interceptions. Wyoming went 8-5 in 2017 largely because of its defense: It allowed 17.5 points per game, ninth nationally, while the Allen-led offense scored 23.5 per game, tied for a lowly 104th. “Coming out of college, it was the accuracy issues: You only completed 56 percent in college,” Allen says. “Big arm, whatever. People have their opinions. It doesn’t bother me.’”

There were also the usual small-school factors. While Darnold threw to JuJu Smith-Schuster at USC and Mayfield led an offense filled with NFL talent at Oklahoma, Allen was the only player from the 2017 Wyoming offense to be drafted. When judging college QBs, different evaluators can take the same information and come to vastly different conclusions. Allen became a quarterback evaluation Rorschach test. Some teams probably saw a quarterback whose scattershot arm would never lead to NFL success. Others saw a future star. When asked about Allen, ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper famously said, “Stats are for losers.”

The Bills attributed Allen’s completion-percentage woes to his habit of trying to make difficult throws to lift an otherwise anemic offense. They mostly saw a staggeringly talented passer with brains and the right makeup. So when Beane got an opening to trade up to the no. 7 pick and snag Allen as his QB of the future, he pounced.

Buffalo thrust Allen into action almost immediately. He replaced starter Nathan Peterman in the second half of Week 1 last year and held on to the job for most of the season. Though a sprained elbow ligament knocked Allen out for four games, the Bills still had 11 games to see what he was capable of. For the most part, Allen looked liked many expected: He found early success with shots outside the numbers, but often faltered in the underneath and intermediate areas of the field. Allen finished the season with a 48.8 percent completion rate on passes from 10 to 20 yards.

After one season, his arm strength was apparent, and two things were clear: Allen still needed a good deal of smoothing around the edges, and Buffalo might have to orchestrate a wholesale offensive overhaul to help him do it. “I’m a big believer in accountability and really understanding your strengths and your weaknesses,” Allen says. “I think that’s the first and foremost thing that a leader needs to have, is to really understand himself or herself. To go up to a guy and say, ‘That’s on me. You ran a great route. I need to be better on that.’”

Washington Redskins v Buffalo Bills
Josh Allen
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

During one of the Bills’ first team meetings this spring, Daboll took a survey of his offense. He asked every player who’d been a starter the previous season to stand up. Just three guys—Allen, left tackle Dion Dawkins, and fullback Patrick DiMarco—rose from their seats. In a single year, Buffalo had turned over more than 70 percent of its offensive personnel.

Beane and his front office went into free agency last March with the resources and the motivation to retool the supporting cast around their young quarterback, and came away with a considerable haul. The Bills offered former Cowboys standout Cole Beasley a four-year, $29 million deal, believing he could be the ideal slot receiver and underneath option for Allen in Daboll’s offense. They inked speedy wideout John Brown to a three-year, $27 million contract a year after pursuing him in free agency. (They lost him to the Ravens in 2018 because of uncertainty surrounding Buffalo’s QB situation.) The Bills extended a lucrative offer to former Chiefs center Mitch Morse before filling out their offensive line with cheaper pieces like Quinton Spain, Jon Feliciano, and swing tackle Ty Nsekhe. (They later added tackle Cody Ford in the second round of the draft.) Buffalo also turned over its running back room, bringing in Frank Gore and rookie Devin Singletary and releasing LeSean McCoy at the end of fall camp.

In a single offseason, the Bills orchestrated a full-scale reboot of their offensive roster. That’s produced promising results. Beasley has touchdown catches in three of the team’s past five games. After racking up 137 yards on nine catches against the Dolphins last Sunday, Brown ranks ninth in receiving yards (817) and is tied with Tyler Lockett for 13th in yards per route run (2.19). Last season, Allen was pressured on 43.4 percent of his dropbacks—the second-highest rate in the NFL. This year, that number is 35.7 percent, 17th among qualified QBs.

As Allen has grown more comfortable with both the Bills’ new personnel and his progressions in the offense, he’s been able to tailor his decision-making in a way he couldn’t as a rookie. He points to a play from a 31-21 win over the Dolphins in Week 7, in which he dumped a short pass to DiMarco on a second-and-20 and the fullback rumbled for a 27-yard gain. Allen admits that last season he likely would have spent too long fixating on the play’s deep option and never made it back to DiMarco. That maturation derives from the ongoing conversations he’s had with Daboll about surviving to play another down. “We’re really focused on no. 1 situational awareness,” Daboll says. “We’re still working on that to this day. Doing whatever we’ve got to do to keep us in positive percentages.”

When tight end Lee Smith was considering a return to the Bills as a free agent this offseason, he consulted former teammate Kyle Williams about how the organization had changed since Smith left for Oakland in 2015. Along with praising McDermott and Beane, Williams gave the team’s young quarterback a glowing review. “Kyle played with a lot of [quarterbacks] in 13 years,” Smith says. “His dream would have been to have a Josh Allen when he was young and play with him his whole career, instead of just having that revolving door. He raved about him—just the person he was, the worker he was, the upside he thought he had.”

As Allen describes the steps he took to improve his throwing mechanics this offseason, he compares the process to a much calmer, gentler sport. An avid golfer, he says the development of his swing has born a strange resemblance to his growth as a passer. “Always in my mind, when I was growing up as a quarterback, I thought, ‘Throw it hard, throw it hard, throw it hard,’” Allen says. “Same thing with golf. ‘Swing as hard as you can.’ Now, it’s like, ‘How can I hit my 5-iron and get it to draw from right to left?’ It’s just an easier swing. And that’s how I feel like I’m throwing the ball now.”

Growing up, Allen spent time playing multiple sports. In addition to football, he was the best player on his high school basketball team and a pitcher on the baseball team. He didn’t attend any well-known quarterback camps or play much seven-on-seven. “I was behind the eight ball,” Allen says. “Everybody in the league probably did year-round football and was throwing the ball 50, 100,000 times a year.”

He stresses that while his throwing motion was already established by the time he got to the NFL, some of the finer aspects of quarterbacking eluded him. He made minor tweaks to his mechanics as a rookie, like swapping his front foot while in shotgun to improve his rhythm. Heading into his second season, though, Allen still felt like he lacked the feel for certain pass arcs and touch in the short and intermediate areas. His primary goal this offseason was to improve the way he shaped throws to the sideline from 12 to 22 yards past the line of scrimmage, so he and Brown began working together tirelessly after practice. Allen would routinely direct Brown to stand at a spot in that range on the left sideline, and he’d pepper his receiver with 50 identically lofted passes. “You just kind of feel that rhythm, how your body adjusts to it, the way it’s coming off your hand, the angle of your shoulder, the bend in your knees,” Allen says. “After about 25 throws, once you kind of find that rhythm, it all kind of locks in.”

That focused approach has reaped noticeable rewards this season. Allen specifically points to a throw he made in the Bills’ Week 7 win over Miami. On a first-and-10 with Buffalo trailing late in the third quarter, Allen lofted a perfect 18-yard throw on a crossing route to tight end Duke Williams that went for a 23-yard gain. “Last year, I couldn’t have made that throw,” Allen says. “The touch I put on it, the location of where it was, that’s what I’ve been working on.”

A year after consistently struggling to place intermediate throws, Allen has been one of the league’s most accurate passers in that area of the field. He’s completed 64.7 percent of his throws between 10 and 20 yards this season—a jump of nearly 16 percentage points from his first season. Allen’s biggest gains in 2019 have come where he faltered most as a rookie.

He’s also been granted increased autonomy at the line of scrimmage. On a play early in the second quarter against the Dolphins last Sunday, Allen recognized Miami’s Cover 2 shell and checked to a spot concept with Brown as the lone receiver on the back side. At the snap, Allen moved the safety to the middle of the field with his eyes before rifling a perfect throw to Brown down the right sideline for a 40-yard touchdown. “It’s hard to give a young quarterback the freedom to get you in the right play,” Smith says. “And Dabs has given him that freedom this year. Disaster plays come when the quarterback either doesn’t have the freedom from the coaching staff or the ability to get you in the right play. He gets us in the right play on a regular basis.”

Yet for all of Allen’s strides forward this season, his efficiency on deep balls has taken a drastic step back. He enters Week 12 ranked 22nd out of 25 qualified quarterbacks with a 30.2 adjusted completion percentage on passes of 20 yards or more, and he’s routinely sailed throws well out of reach of his receivers. But Allen contends that he’s comfortable with how the process is playing out. He’s OK with his deep ball accuracy coming together last; just like his golf swing, he knows that as long as he’s hitting the ball straight, the length will eventually come. “I’m 100 percent OK with an overthrow compared to a pick under,” Allen says. “I’ll take that 100 times out of 100.”

Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills
Josh Allen
Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

On a first-and-10 late in the first quarter of Buffalo’s Week 2 game against the Giants, the Bills called a play-action pass and executed it perfectly. After faking the handoff, Allen gave a quick shoulder fake to his right, prompting the single deep safety to bite on a dig route to that side. With no help over the top, Brown dusted the slot cornerback and sprinted wide open down the middle of the field for a would-be touchdown. But when Allen finally uncorked the throw, it landed a solid 5 yards over the speedster’s head. Later in the game, with Buffalo holding a commanding lead, Allen approached his veteran wide receiver and apologized for the gaffe. “I said I owed him one, and he said, ‘Look at the score,’” Allen recalls. “‘I don’t care about any of that. We’re winning.’ To hear that from a guy who’s played in the league for so long—and a receiver no less. Those guys want to catches passes; they want to score touchdowns. He didn’t care about any of that. [Because] we’re winning football games.”

The Bills are winning, at the best clip they have in nearly 30 years. Their 7-3 record is the franchise’s best 10-game start since 1990, when Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Bruce Smith were leading the way. And while Buffalo has benefited from a paper-thin schedule to this point—outside of a win over the Titans, its six other victories have come against teams with a combined 8-42 record—it heads into a daunting home stretch (three of its next five are against Dallas, Baltimore, and New England) in position to grab an AFC wild-card berth. If the Bills make the postseason, the franchise will be about a year ahead of schedule.

Even after the offensive restructuring this spring, the Bills are still projected to have upward of $80 million in cap space in free agency next year—with 20 of their 22 starters set to return. Buffalo’s defense has fallen off a bit after a hot start, but McDermott’s group remains a well-rounded, well-coached unit that should finish 2019 as a top-10 passing defense. Beane’s main task come March and April will be adding another dynamic pass catcher or two to the mix, with the goal of pushing Buffalo into the conference’s top tier of contenders.

The Bills have the resources to put the finishing touches on a strong roster, but ultimately their future will be tied to Allen and his continued growth. Despite his tangible improvements this season, Buffalo’s passing attack has still been below average. The Bills rank 24th with a negative-3.3 percent passing DVOA. That may not seem all that impressive, but it’s a dramatic improvement from the negative-36 percent mark posted last season. Allen hasn’t been without his flaws in Year 2, but his issues aren’t the same ones that plagued him last season. He’s still a quarterback-evaluation enigma, but as Allen has chipped away at the deficiencies that haunted him as a rookie, the questions surrounding his game and perception have fundamentally changed.

During the draft process, the Bills saw Allen as a franchise cornerstone who could eventually put them over the top. He has a ways to go, but he’s proved to be both deeply aware of his faults and firmly invested in fixing them. “I don’t want to just be the best quarterback to come out of my class,” Allen says. “I want to be the best quarterback in the league at some point. I know it’s not going to happen overnight. I’ve got a lot of work to do. But it’s something that’s my goal.”

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