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The Lessons From Josh Allen’s Breakout Season, According to Josh Allen

From mistake-prone rookie to MVP candidate, Allen’s meteoric rise has vindicated the Bills’ faith in their 2018 draft pick and made a lot of his critics look foolish

AP Images/Ringer illustration

I am an idiot. I knew this well before Josh Allen made me look like one, but there’s no going back now. I was among the many NFL pundits who did not see Allen coming: His unprecedented year-over-year improvement since he entered the league in 2018 makes him an anomaly in NFL history and, as of last season, a genuine MVP candidate quarterbacking a Super Bowl contender. I went to Buffalo in search of answers about one of the greatest individual leaps in the history of the sport and everything that comes along with it, according to the people who did see Allen coming. I wanted to know the lessons that everyone—GMs, coaches, maybe even the media—can learn from Allen for the next time there is someone like him. If there is ever someone like him again. So I first asked the expert in such matters. His name is Josh Allen.

“I think patience is probably the main thing,” Allen says on a recent, overcast day in Buffalo. “Obviously, Year 1 wasn’t fantastic. Coming from where I came from, I think that was kind of the plan the Bills had when they drafted me. They knew it might take some time.” Bills coach Sean McDermott has a theory on patience, borrowed from his old Carolina Panthers boss, Dave Gettleman. McDermott thinks that in the old NFL, when teams had near unlimited practice time, you could say for certain what a player’s trajectory was after their second year. Now it might take a year longer than that. “Then,” Allen begins, “look at the consistency I’ve had: same head coach, same offensive coordinator, bringing in a guy like [Bills quarterback coach] Ken Dorsey who has been here for three years, same general manager. Then what they did Year 2 revamping the offensive line, Year 3 getting some weapons. And now Year 4. It’s go time. Patience, consistency of developing around a young quarterback. I think that the Bills did it the right way.”

The right way, as Allen puts it, involves building a stacked roster around a quarterback who has transformed himself since Buffalo selected him with the no. 7 pick in 2018: Allen threw uncatchable balls at some of the worst rates in the league in his first two seasons, ranking 36th by that measure in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2020, he cut the number of uncatchable passes in half and was among the best in the league at throwing catchable balls. Last season, his completion percentage improved 31 percent from his rookie year; he more than doubled his touchdown percentage and raised his passer rating by almost 60 percent. His statistical trajectory—getting significantly better in basically every stat each season he’s played—is virtually unheard of. Before last season, Pro Football Focus’s Kevin Cole did a study on quarterback improvement and found that almost every star quarterback improved most from Year 1 to Year 2—prior to Allen, Troy Aikman was basically the only superstar quarterback whose major breakout occurred in his third season. Allen’s third-year breakout in 2020 was the highest improvement in the history of football, surpassing Aikman. Allen finished second in MVP voting to Aaron Rodgers and led the Bills to their first division title since 1995, a year before Allen was born. Patience is indeed the main thing.

How did Josh Allen happen? “Well,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane tells me. “It starts with Josh. His DNA. Beyond the physical stuff. A lot of these guys have the physical stuff.” It also involves the story of modern football: giving a young quarterback everything he needs to be successful, from an offensive line to receivers, cap space, a solid defense. “Oh wow, we could be here for two hours,” McDermott says with a laugh when I ask him what he learned about the quarterback position from Allen’s journey in Buffalo.

With superstar quarterbacks, you can stare into the abyss of their worst-case scenario. What if Patrick Mahomes was drafted by Mike Mularkey in 2017, or Matt Patricia hadn’t passed on Lamar Jackson in 2018? Geography is destiny in football. Mahomes landed with one of the best offensive minds in the history of the game and became the best quarterback in football. Jackson is with an organization that accentuated his many talents. It is football’s version of the chicken-and-egg dilemma—these questions are mostly unknowable, except I can say with absolute certainty that Josh Allen is where he belongs.

Beane says that when he became Bills GM in the spring of 2017, “the two biggest things we had to do were get the cap in order and find a quarterback.” These two things are linked, of course—if you draft a quarterback in the modern NFL, you have to immediately start planning how to pay him (more on this shortly). By clearing Buffalo’s salary cap ahead of Allen’s rookie season, Beane ensured his quarterback would play his first season with a skeleton crew. “We had close to $60 million in dead money and he felt the pains of that too, with what we had around him,” Beane says.

Beane thinks that the 2018 season—when the Bills were paying roster castaways like Marcell Dareus, Kelvin Benjamin, and Tyrod Taylor significant money not to play for them—hampered Allen early. One of Allen’s early flaws, Beane thinks, was trying to do too much. So after the Bills cleaned out their cap after the 2018 season, “I could tell him, ‘OK, I’m gonna get you some [help]. Let these guys help you.’ That’s probably the biggest thing he’s done, not try to win the game in the first quarter.”

“What we had to do was first protect him,” Beane says of an overhauled offensive line that featured free-agent additions like Mitch Morse and Jon Feliciano. “We had that transition year his rookie year where we had to get the cap cleared up, and we’re subbing some guys, but we got the line squared away. Then we slowly added pieces. Smoke [John] Brown, [Cole] Beasley—the big one was [Stefon] Diggs.” The plan was to give Allen easy completions, using veterans who could get open and make Allen’s life as comfortable as possible.

If there is anything more singular than Allen’s leap, it is his reaction to it. We live in what could be called The Last Dance era—a million athletes looking at mean tweets on their iPads while saying in unison, “And I took that personally.” Screenshotting old scouting reports, digging up old terrible headlines. This, of course, is wonderful and should continue because it is usually deeply funny. Allen, however, has not taken any victory lap. He simply doesn’t care. Everyone else in Buffalo—his teammates, coaches, scouts, and fans—vividly remember the insults leveled in Allen’s direction before his leap.

“I think I’m very logistical in that aspect. I understand why people say things. But I am self-driven. I’ve always been that way. In Little League, if, during all-stars, I wasn’t the highest-graded guy, I’m pissed at myself. It is more about the perception I have of myself than what other people have,” Allen says.

I asked Brandon Beane whether the criticism ever pissed him off on Allen’s behalf.

“It did,” Beane says. “Not of me taking him, but [the criticism] of him. Because I felt like people were looking for him to fail. … Look at his rookie year. If you actually watched the tape and not look at the stats, and look at what we had around him, or go back to college what his [completion] percentage was. But you have to watch every play, you have to watch the tape, you can’t just look at stats. How many times did Josh get out of a mess and throw the ball away? That’s an incompletion. That was probably the hardest thing, the stat people.” He thought the evaluation was simple: Allen had tremendous natural ability, but needed to clean up other aspects of his game like his footwork and other technique issues. “We just felt like he would take that part on, being so competitive. And he’s done it, and he did it again this offseason,” he says. Beane explains that Allen is pissed off, but just that the Bills lost their last playoff game to the Chiefs.

There are no victory laps at all for Allen. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll thinks Allen has kept his underdog mentality but retained his humility and self-motivation. Allen says that when he scrolls Twitter, he simply moves past any article or mention about himself. He learned in college that if you look for bad things to try to motivate yourself, you’ll find enough good and bad comments that it “messes with your mind” a little bit. So he does not dunk on the haters, so to speak, because he tries to avoid knowing who the haters even are. “I go straight past anything about me on Twitter because I don’t care. I care about the team, the locker room, and what they think about me,” he says with a shrug. “They see me busting my tail and leading by example and not being vocal until I’ve proven myself. That’s kind of how I’ve done it. Still, the internal motivation I have is that I want to be the best. I feel like I have the tools to make it happen.”

Allen said many of the throws he missed last year came when receivers were cutting inside from right to left and on shorter underneath routes that went from left to right. “Those were giving me fits, being able to turn my shoulders.” So he worked this offseason on his mechanics, his footwork, and different arm angles to use if he’s not in perfect position to make a throw. He has a firmer grasp on how to improve than he once did. “The more I throw the better I get,” he says. “I can feel myself now when I make a mistake, when they do happen. I feel really good with my stroke right now.” He says he can more easily store good throws in his brain and is able to better interrogate the pros and cons of a throw he just made. Simply put, he understands exactly what he’s doing. There has always been chaos in a Josh Allen game, and that will continue—he’s just learned how to control it better.

There is a Josh Allen play. Just like there is a Patrick Mahomes play and a Lamar Jackson play. Each of their trademark plays is wildly different, but what they all have in common is that if you took a freeze-frame of the play at the beginning and guessed how the it ended you would very often look stupid. Allen’s ability to navigate in chaos has become one of his defining traits and part of the reason his draft evaluation was so strange. A Josh Allen play can start well and end badly, or start badly and end well. Now look, there are thousands of normal Josh Allen plays, dropbacks that quietly find their target. Then there are Josh Allen plays where anything that’s ever happened in football is on the table to occur in a single 10-second play. This was most on display in the Houston Texans playoff game two years ago, where Allen would extend plays and make things happen, not all of them good. More recently, the Josh Allen play features far more good endings than bad. He plays with a type of improvisation and urgency that would probably help a lot of good quarterbacks.

“I think from a young age, in Pop Warner, I was quarterback and coaches saw I could throw the ball,” Allen begins, “but in Pop Warner we didn’t have the biggest linemen, so it was constant movement, [getting] off platform, and training myself as a young kid when I didn’t know what was going on. I’m just going out and making plays and having fun and playing football. I think being able to develop that, and playing multiple sports in high school—even when I was younger, I played literally everything and anything I could. So I think that’s helped me develop different traits and tools that not many other people have. You see a lot of these quarterbacks who just do the quarterback carousel and they focus on one thing. I was playing basketball, baseball, and football year round, travel basketball and baseball in the summer when I wasn’t at football practice, and just developing physical traits that have translated to what to do.”

I asked him if things might have been different for him if he’d grown up in more of a quarterback hot bed instead of his Central California hometown of Firebaugh, or if he’d been identified as a highly rated quarterback prospect at a younger age and perhaps been guided by a private quarterback coach like some of his peers. “I could see [being] more structured, but I wouldn’t be able to move and extend plays. I definitely see it that way, if you’re just kinda on a field working on footwork and throwing motion and mechanics [from a young age,]” Allen says. “Playing quarterback is an art as well as a science.”

How to pay for Allen’s mixture of that art and science is the next step. His rookie contract expires after his fifth-year option in 2022. There’s a complicating factor in negotiations for Allen and others in his 2018 quarterback class, which includes Baker Mayfield and Jackson, in that the salary cap declined this year due to the pandemic. It’s been set at $182.5 million in 2021 and is expected to rise dramatically in the next few years with new TV deals, though exact figures are unknown. This means there will eventually be a lot of money to spend—but there isn’t much now, meaning settling on exact numbers is tricky. “It’s a little bit of a wrinkle. That’s made it harder, and I almost think that’s why you haven’t seen any of the other [2018] quarterbacks get done,” Beane says.

Beane said he started to plan for Allen’s extension at the end of the 2018 season. He said every Bills contract from then on was negotiated with one thought in mind: “Let’s structure it so that assuming he does what we think he can do, we can handle it,” Beane says. That meant limiting bonuses that can wreak havoc on a salary cap and maintaining maximum flexibility. Beane says he hates when good teams have major cuts looming due to a cap crunch, and wants to do everything he can to avoid situations like that.

He’s doing well so far. At the start of this offseason, Beane focused on re-signing Bills players who could have left in the offseason like offensive tackle Daryl Williams, linebacker Matt Milano, and guard Jon Feliciano. “Then, the biggest thing that maybe haunted us at times in the [AFC championship game versus the Chiefs] was we didn’t get enough pressure with our front four,” he says. “Where can we do that? Free agency wasn’t really the right place for us. If there would have been this great trade option maybe we would have looked at that, but we didn’t see that route. And we knew all fall in the college process that there were going to be some pass rushers. So we tried to get everything else other than pass rusher prior to the draft.” Beane did not think he was going to take two pass rushers with the team’s first two picks, since 2020 second-rounder A.J. Epenesa got better as the season went along, but the board fell to them and they took Miami’s Greg Rousseau with the 30th pick and Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham Jr. at no. 61.

Like all general managers with extensions to give out, Beane’s closely monitoring the unpredictable salary cap situation. “We stay in contact with the league. I think that the biggest thing is that it’s $182 [million] and it should have been $215 [million], $220 [million],” he says. “So we’ve had to restructure some that we normally wouldn’t have to. That’s thrown a little wrinkle in it, but we’re just going to have to manage it until those leaps happen, we’re hoping in 2023. Next year, I’m told maybe it gets to $200 [million] and we can manage until those giant jumps.” He explains the key is to handle Allen’s future salary and the weapons around him. “It goes with how you structure contracts,” he says. “We can’t have it set up so that when we sign him to one of these big deals, we have to release these key pieces that helped him and us have success.”

All of the pieces, at the moment, fit. It’s the story of Josh Allen. It will be the story if there is another player like Josh Allen too. Though in Buffalo they think that’s a very big if.