It was mid-April, but it was also Buffalo, so it was snowing on the day in 2018 when Josh Allen had his predraft visit with the Bills. Allen was supposed to fly to New York City that night for visits with the Giants and the Jets, but the snow kept coming down, delaying his departure.
With an open evening in town, Allen went to dinner with two Bills scouts and two members of the football operations department at Bar-Bill Tavern, a memorabilia-lined, cash-only restaurant and bar 10 minutes from the stadium where regulars can wash down wings or salt-and-caraway-seed-flecked beef on weck sandwiches with pitchers of Labatt Blue. At the time, it was Allen’s first visit, but now he has his regular order down pat: 10 cajun honey-butter BBQ wings, 10 hot wings, and shoestring fries with extra blue cheese. As the group talked and ate from the plastic baskets lined with checkerboard wax paper, Allen felt no rush to leave Buffalo and get on his way to his next stop.
“It’s a spot that I fell in love with,” Allen told me. “I had the best wings I’ve ever had. I just, kind of, knew that it felt right here.”
A local news station picked up Allen’s visit to Bar-Bill, ramping up speculation that the Bills might select the Wyoming quarterback with their first-round draft pick, no. 7 overall, that spring. Allen likes to keep a low profile, but he didn’t mind this kind of attention; Buffalo had a specific small-market fervor that felt similar to what he’d experienced at the University of Wyoming. In talking to Allen and to the scouts who took him out that night, Bills general manager Brandon Beane noted that Allen seemed to be enjoying his time in Buffalo. Inclement weather is part of life in Western New York, and Beane pays attention to how prospective players respond to the setting, though he worries less about a snowstorm during a visit with a potential draft pick than he does a meeting with a free agent—college prospects can’t choose their destination. “Listen,” Beane said, “unless you’re from Buffalo, it’s not a destination city.” What Beane means is that Buffalo is unlike most NFL cities. Local stores shut down during games and the team’s raucous tailgating scene, led by the “Bills Mafia,” more closely resembles a college town. There are also, of course, long, cold winters. Some players love it; others pining for brighter lights and warmer climates may not do their best work there. (“Everybody wants to talk about the snow and the winters. What they don’t know is that the spring and the summers here are some of the nicest in the country,” said Allen.)
If that snowed-in evening at Bar Bill was Allen’s meet-cute with Buffalo, they’re now in a full-blown love affair. The Bills drafted Allen weeks later, tying their franchise hopes to a quarterback with tantalizing skills but whose performances at Wyoming made him no sure bet to thrive in the NFL. Whether that was an unfair evaluation or Allen is simply defying the odds placed on his success, the results thus far this season are undeniable: Allen is a borderline MVP candidate, the Bills are 4-1 and in first place in the AFC East, and Buffalo has been validated in its affections for the baby-faced passer.
“Everybody’s proud of Josh because he has fit in here from day one,” Beane said. “Even if there were people who were critical of him on the outside they’ve been very defensive of him even if, maybe, some of the people were right about some of the flaws that they’d mention.”
Allen won his defenders’ support, flaws and all, with charm, talent, and moxie. This season, with the right players around him and an offense that suits him, he’s playing like they were right to believe all along.
In 2018, Allen was a Rorschach test for quarterback evaluators. Scouts found his 6-foot-5 build, strong arm, and rare athleticism a tantalizing combination. Analysts who rely on advanced metrics saw a boom-or-bust prospect who, based on his inaccuracy and propensity for mistakes, was more likely to land in bust territory.
Beane saw something else: a smart player who needed time to develop but had more room for growth than most quarterbacks he’d have considered with the seventh overall pick. He thinks one of Allen’s traits that was discounted was his ability to quickly process and retain information, which Beane and the Bills rated the best out of all the top 2018 quarterbacks.
“No one was smarter than Josh,” Beane said.
Beane saw Allen as a quarterback who, once he understood the Bills offense, would be able to read defenses quickly and make good decisions about where to throw the ball. In theory, that would help him complete more passes even if his college film didn’t show him throwing with great touch or anticipation. Beane’s assessment required a good deal of projection: Allen completed 56 percent of his passes at Wyoming, which doesn’t often translate to NFL success. Still, Beane thought Allen could be an outlier.
Part of that reasoning was based on the circumstances of Allen’s development. In an era of early specialization and private quarterback coaches, Allen grew up playing whatever sport was in season in his hometown of Firebaugh, California. He spent one year at junior college before playing in the Mountain West Conference at Wyoming, where his arm strength often obscured his lack of NFL-caliber touch.
The Bills knew this and did not want Allen to have to play as early as he did as a rookie in 2018. Beane would have loved to have signed a solid veteran quarterback to serve as a bridge while schooling Allen up, but Buffalo was in the middle of an aggressive salary-cap reset and was swallowing $40 million in dead money, so Beane had limited resources. He hoped he could buy time and save money with A.J. McCarron and Nathan Peterman as the team’s quarterbacks; if Allen’s development looked promising, maybe he could play in the final third of the season. It didn’t work out that way. McCarron didn’t make the final roster—Buffalo traded him to the Raiders right before final cuts—and Peterman got shellacked Week 1 in a 47-3 loss to Baltimore. Allen came into that game and wound up getting his first start in Week 2. No one thought he was ready, per se, but Beane and head coach Sean McDermott thought he gave the Bills the best chance to win on athletic ability alone.
“We felt like if we didn’t do that we would lose our locker room,” Beane said.
That early start marked the beginning of the Josh Allen Experience in Buffalo, a roller coaster currently in its third season. Allen makes throws few players in the NFL can, hurdles defenders, and scored the Bills’ first playoff touchdown since 2000 on a trick play in the wild-card round against Houston. He has also completed under 60 percent of his passes, taken far too many unnecessary sacks, missed on throws he shouldn’t have attempted in the first place, and turned the ball over in ways that would make Jameis Winston blush. Pro Football Focus tracks negative plays that, for a quarterback, can range from a bad throw to an unforced fumble; Allen’s negative play rate was the highest among starting quarterbacks last season.
A low point came in last year’s Week 4 loss to the Patriots, in which Allen threw no touchdowns and three interceptions. After that game, Allen told the Bills coaches he’d stop thinking “home run first.”
“I got so frantic during that game. I just wanted it so bad,” Allen said. “I had to tell myself, ‘I don’t need to do this.’”
This season, Allen has been more efficient without losing his go-for-broke ethos. His completion percentage is 69 percent and he’s thrown 14 touchdowns to three interceptions. He’s worked with offensive coordinator and play-caller Brian Daboll and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey on thinking about throwing short first, then going deep if there’s the right opportunity, and slowing down the timer in his mind that tells him to take off and run. “Smart, but not conservative,” has become their mantra.
Allen was the original-formula Four Loko of quarterbacks; reining him in slightly was akin to removing some of the caffeine but leaving the malt liquor, sugar rush, and 24-ounce neon can. In a 35-32 win against the Rams in Week 3, Allen threw for four touchdowns, ran for a fifth, converted a third-and-22 with a perfect pass to Cole Beasley, and threw the game-winning touchdown with another. He also threw an interception, lost a fumble, and got called for a face-mask penalty while dragging a defender to the ground—while he was still in possession of the football.
“He’s learned a lot since he’s been here,” Daboll said. “The ones that he escapes and makes a play and throws it 35 yards down the field on a rope to get us a first down, that’s when people are like, Yeah! Then he does the same thing and happens to get a sack. I mean, I’m never going to take his athletic abilities, his instincts away from him. It’s what makes him a good player.”
The good, the bad, and the ugly have always been present in Allen’s game; it’s the balance between them that’s shifted. Allen’s best moments—a 75-yard touchdown pass to Robert Foster or a third-down conversion where he hurdled Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr in 2018, an off-balance touchdown pass over the middle to Beasley against the Cowboys last season—have been spectacular from the start. Overall, though, while he put together that dazzling highlight reel, Allen also accumulated one of the worst statistical records for a starting quarterback through his first two seasons.
It’s a paradox that leads supporters to do what statisticians call “arguing the ceiling.” Allen’s defenders are quick to point out that if he made more of his best plays on a regular basis, well, he’d be fantastic. Those who look at football through the lens of objective data have pointed out that the sum total of a player’s performance is more predictive than just the top end.
At its core, it’s a debate over the degree to which accuracy can be taught and learned. “You can go get the shortstop and teach him to play QB easier than you can make someone accurate,” Mississippi State coach Mike Leach once famously said, a theory backed up by scouts and statisticians.
While Beane and Daboll say that Allen gained command of the offense and made better choices with the ball through his first two seasons, his accuracy did not significantly improve. His completion percentage rose from 52.8 percent to 58.8 percent from his rookie season to his second year, and that was with a better offensive line and the additions of wide receivers like Beasley and John Brown to help him. On plays from a clean pocket, normally one of the more stable and predictive measurements of a quarterback’s play, Allen’s performance through two seasons ranked in the eighth percentile.
It wasn’t all bad—PFF graded Allen among the league’s best on passes up to 19 yards downfield last season—but there was a healthy skepticism from PFF and other analytically inclined groups that achieved public enemy status with Bills fans.
“It was like, ‘PFF hates Buffalo, we hate the Bills, we hate Josh Allen,’” said Sam Monson, the lead analyst for Pro Football Focus. “‘They’re just out to get the Bills, they don’t appreciate any of our good players.’ It was just a never-ending bombardment of Bills Mafia people hurling abuse in our direction.”
Last season, some Bills fans made a “Buffalo vs. PFF” T-shirt. Monson bought one. This season, a “Josh Allen Apology Form” has been circulating online. The form allows former Allen doubters to select one of six reasons for their disrespect; after the Bills won their fourth game of the season against the Raiders, and Allen got his first PFF grade over 90, Monson printed out the form and checked the box that says “Mercury was in retrograde.”
Josh Allen apology form if you know any haters #BillsMafia pic.twitter.com/5z4uKT5ojn— D.G. (@Bi11sMafia) September 21, 2020
The gusto with which Bills fans mount their defense is on-brand for Buffalo. There’s a certain alchemy to the relationship between a player who inspires as much hope as Allen can and a downtrodden fan base that’s been sharing a division with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick for 20 years that elicits such impassioned, full-throated defenses.
“You’re clawing for any vague hope that you might finally be able to challenge, beat, and overcome that and Josh Allen, I think, gives you that hope in a way that Tyrod Taylor or any of the other quarterbacks they’ve had before that doesn’t,” Monson said. “Tyrod Taylor was not a bad quarterback, but he was never going to go toe-to-toe with Tom Brady and the Patriots and knock them off their perch. Allen at least gives you the glimmer of hope that that can happen.”
While those fans were planting their hopes on Allen, he was still working on cleaning up basic aspects of his throwing technique. Entering his rookie season, Allen had a tendency to bounce up and down on his toes with his feet close together when he got set to throw. That gave him a narrow, unstable base and added unnecessary movement to his dropbacks, which made his throwing motion inconsistent.
Allen and Jordan Palmer, his private quarterback coach, spent that offseason working to eliminate that habit. Before the 2019 season, their focus was on throws with anticipation. For Allen, that meant taking a little off the ball but throwing with touch, understanding where a receiver was going rather than waiting for him to be open and then lasering a ball to that spot.
This past offseason, the focus was on honing consistent mechanics in Allen’s upper body. He and Palmer did many of their throwing sessions on the beach, since throwing off of sand meant that Allen could never count on grounding his lower body on a stable plane.
“You push away, and your foot slides a little bit, and your left foot is on a hill that you didn’t really see, so every single time your feet are jacked up,” Palmer said. “What happens is you have to fix things from your hips up, in your upper body, and you have to get really consistent there. He plays with a really consistent base now.”
When Palmer watches some of Allen’s best throws from this season—the third-and-22 conversion to Beasley, a touchdown on an option to Stefon Diggs earlier in that game—he notices that Allen’s feet aren’t necessarily planted in the same spot every time. His arm and his upper body, though, pass through the same motion consistently.
“Everyone saying he was going to be a bust because of his inaccuracy. They weren’t wrong that he was inaccurate, but they were wrong in projecting that he wouldn’t fix it,” Palmer said.
It’s unusual for a quarterback to take such a big leap as Allen has this year, especially after his sophomore season. It’s possible that hindsight will reveal some factor the analysts missed, or strengthen the argument that Allen’s limited experience with operating sophisticated offenses in college should have changed how some evaluators saw his potential for growth. It’s also possible that there is no tidy explanation, and the best interpretation of Allen’s success will remain that he was a long-shot bet who rewarded the Bills’ faith. Monson has been thoroughly surprised by Allen’s play this season and, though he’d like to see him sustain it for a longer period, doesn’t see him regressing to the level of his first or second season. Even in last week’s loss to Tennessee, the Bills’ first and Allen’s worst game so far this year, he completed 63 percent of his passes, better than his season-long average in his previous two seasons.
“I think he’s fundamentally different right now,” Monson said.
In 2019, the Bills won 10 games for the first time this century and made the playoffs, but Beane wasn’t satisfied. Sitting in a box at Houston’s NRG Stadium for Buffalo’s wild-card game last January, Beane felt a nervous vexation that had been stinging him since the trade deadline in October.
“I still felt strongly that our defense was playing well, but we weren’t scoring enough points and it was going to catch up with us,” Beane said.
The Bills built a 16-0 lead in the third quarter against the Texans. The coaching staff called the game conservatively, playing for field goals and trusting the defense. Beane came out of the franchise’s salary cap renovation project and quickly built one of the best rosters in the NFL with one of the league’s better defenses to take pressure off of Allen, but the Bills’ strategy against the Texans that day seemed like an honest reflection of their limitations: They couldn’t trust their offense to win games. The Bills scored under 20 points per game last season and, as he watched the Texans make their comeback, Beane saw a group that was missing an element.
Part of Beane’s frustration stemmed from his attempt to trade for a receiver midseason. Diggs had been one of his preferred targets, but Minnesota wasn’t interested in trading him and nothing got done. The Texans won, 22-19 in overtime, and the Bills were eliminated. Allen made his share of errors, including an attempted lateral as he was being tackled to the ground, but Beane felt even more convinced he had to make a move.
This offseason, he surveyed his options at receiver again. It was a deep draft but, without a normal offseason program, Beane preferred a veteran who he could count on to play right away. He called Minnesota again and, this time, a first-round pick, a fifth-rounder, a sixth-rounder, and a 2021 fourth-rounder were enough to entice the Vikings to trade Diggs.
So far, the move has paid off. Diggs is averaging a career-high 102 yards per game and catching 70 percent of his targets. Allen, who had the NFL’s highest percentage of uncatchable deep balls last season, has completed 22 of 31 passes of 15-plus yards this season (71 percent), and Diggs has caught all 10 of his targets on those throws. From 2018 to 2019, Allen completed 33 percent of his deep throws.
Stefon Diggs caught Josh Allen rocking that Off-White for victory Monday @JoshAllenQB @BuffaloBills— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) October 5, 2020
(via @stefondiggs) pic.twitter.com/IgZNt1Yzlv
It’s not just Diggs, though. With the addition of a true “X” receiver, Buffalo’s entire offense has opened up. Daboll has the Bills using four-receiver sets more than any other offense in the NFL, and three-receiver sets nearly the rest of the time. He’s running a pass-heavy spread-style offense that also makes frequent use of motion to freeze defenders, create space, and fit his players’ strengths—personnel, quarterback, and play-caller all melding together.
Daboll understands firsthand what the Bills’ success means for Buffalo. He’s not surprised by how diehard fans have responded to Allen because he used to be one. Daboll grew up just outside of Buffalo, planning his weeks as a high-schooler around the Jim Kelly–era teams, riding regular-season highs and feeling the pain of Super Bowl losses.
“It’s a small town, it’s a town that’s very loyal and you feel so invested in what the guys are doing,” Daboll said. “Even though you’re not part of the actual team, you feel that way as a fan here in Buffalo.”
Allen is a big fan of Justin Bieber.
“I am a huge Belieber,” he said.
He is sincere and, lest anyone think otherwise, begins rattling off track titles.
“I think ‘Confident’ is one of his best songs. I don’t think it’s talked about all that much,” Allen said. He’s got an affinity for Bieber’s 2013 album Journals, listing “All That Matters” as another favorite as well as some later hits like “Sorry.”
“‘Backpack’ with Lil Wayne I think is also great,” Allen said. “It’s a banger.”
When he was a rookie, Allen had a habit of programming former Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander’s Google speaker to play Bieber just as Alexander was coming in off the field or from a training room. “He knows I don’t like Bieber,” said Alexander, who retired after last season, but Allen’s goofiness coupled with the self-assurance necessary to mess with a veteran teammate even during training camp can be endearing. The two built a close relationship based on “him just pestering me,” Alexander said. “Even though I could probably be his dad, that’s how we created our relationship and our bond over those times.”
Allen showed glimmers of maturity too. Alexander describes Allen’s sense of humor as “kind of like Bart Simpson,” but that silliness dissipated when he was struggling in practice or when the Bills were losing. He listened to advice. He took coaching to heart. He hated to give up on a play, even when he should have—Alexander said he finds himself yelling “Get down!” at the TV sometimes when Allen takes off running.
Alexander also watched Allen become fluent in Bills Mafia’s love languages, speaking in big plays, tough hits, and an everyman sensibility off the field. He recalled one afternoon during the summer after Allen’s rookie season when the quarterback further endeared himself to the fan base at a charity softball game hosted by safety Micah Hyde. Allen was crowned the home run champion and, when he walked from the dugout to home plate to accept his trophy, cracked open a beer can, chugged it in eight seconds, then tossed it to the side. The crowd, like birds responding to a mating call, whipped themselves into a frenzy of cheers for their quarterback who, at least for those eight seconds, had put Aaron Rodgers to shame.
“There’s a crazy side of Bills Mafia and how they pregame; I think that connected with a lot of them,” Alexander said.
If Allen and the Bills can win the AFC East and Buffalo’s first playoff game since 1995—before Allen was born—he’ll vault from folk hero to icon in Buffalo. He’s already got a cadre of supporters in Western New York ready to defend him on tenacity alone, mirroring the sublime irrationality Allen has, at times, displayed on the field. “Obviously everybody craves a winner,” Daboll said. “But I think everybody respects a competitor.” The Bills are winning, off to a 4-1 start, with the roster, coaching, and quarterback working in concert. And like a Pied Piper in Zubaz pants, Allen is gaining followers. “He’s going to find a way,” Beane said. “And the other 10 guys in the huddle with him, they believe it too.”