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

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The Ringer 03 August, 2021 - 05:30am 48 views

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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

“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.

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.

Stop comparing your team’s young QB to #Bills Josh Allen. Your team’s young QB can't do this. pic.twitter.com/DI2gOtY1yH

“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.

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Code Of Conduct: Is Josh Allen As Good As Russell Wilson?

Buffalo Rumblings 03 August, 2021 - 10:45am

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The list of accomplishments is nothing short of spectacular. Wilson is just one of four quarterbacks in the history of the league to boast a career passer rating over 100. He’s been to two Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl XLVIII. He’s the 2020 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award recipient. He’s been selected to 8 Pro Bowls out of 9 seasons in the league. He also holds the record for most wins by an NFL quarterback through nine seasons with an impressive record of 98-45-1 as a starter. In 2020 he became just the third quarterback in NFL history to throw for 30 touchdowns in four consecutive seasons. So its clear to see why the Seattle Seahawks awarded him with a 4-year, $140 Million contract extension in 2019. And it’s also clear to see why he is respected league-wide as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

However, even with a list of accolades that can reach the moon and back, the quarterback has never received a vote for the MVP Award. There has never been real consideration for the dual-threat QB. Last season, despite a scorching hot start that led his team to a 6-1 start throwing for 26 touchdowns and dominated his division early, he didn't receive a single vote. He was on pace to break Peyton Manning’s single season touchdown record until He and the Seahawks took a trip to Orchard Park in Week 9.

Wilson had a good game on paper, throwing for 390 yards in a 44-33 beat down by the Buffalo Bills and 2020 MVP Runner-Up Josh Allen. Wilson threw two interceptions and surrendered two fumbles that allowed the Bills defense to capitalize. On the other side of the field, Josh Allen posted a mind-blowing stat line of 31 completions on 38 attempts with 415 passing yards. Add three touchdowns with a cherry on top of a 138.5 passer rating. After that game, the eventual runner-up for MVP was the only quarterback in NFL history to have 400-plus passing yards, three-plus passing touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of at least 130.

So is the optimism in Buffalo real? Is Josh Allen fairly being mentioned in conversations with the best quarterbacks in the league after one dominating season? While Allen has yet to accomplish many of the achievements on Wilson’s list, in just his third year Allen has received more MVP votes (4) than Wilson has combined for his entire career.

You read that right. Russell Wilson has never received a single MVP vote for his entire career.

So where does Allen truly rank on the list of the best quarterbacks in the league?

Dayna O’Gorman, Senior NFL Writer for Our Turf Football joins the Code Of Conduct with JSpenceTheKing to discuss. Let us know your thoughts in the comments. Where does Josh fall on the QB ranking?

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