It's Belichick. It's cold. It's another defining moment for Josh Allen.
The Bills go as Allen goes, and he's been mostly spectacular. We check back in with Hall-of-Famer Kurt Warner, who was critical of the quarterback one year ago. (He still has some doubts.)
When we launched this newsletter 14 months ago with a series on Josh Allen, Western New Yorkers were fairly stunned to hear the owner of the team coveted Patrick Mahomes ahead of the 2017 draft.
Before anyone else, Terry Pegula wanted Mahomes. Badly. He saw superstardom in the Texas Tech quarterback, but refused to go full Jerry Jones and force his hand as the owner.
And once fans worked through the shock of this, emotions seemed to be directed toward Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. Because despite an MVP-caliber season, despite shattering Bills records, to Warner, something was still… still… missing. He needed to see Allen hit the “layups” with more regularity. He needed to see his eyes work one to two to three in the coverage because, in the playoffs, it’s unbelievably difficult to rely purely on physical traits against smart defensive coaching.
He made some compelling points, too. Part II is here, icymi. Warner may watch more film of quarterbacks than any ex-player who’s crossed over to the dark side and can really force you to rethink the position. Most of us are enamored with a singular physical trait. I love Lamar Jackson’s elusiveness, Allen’s powerful right arm and Kyler Murray’s spontaneity as much as anyone but we should also view “upside” and “ceiling” through a mental lens. Not just the 4.3-the-40 lens.
Go Long is a newsletter dedicated to enterprising pro football journalism. Free and paid subscriptions are both available. You can support this publication best by subscribing here.
How does a quarterback’s brain process an insanely fast game in real time? In the playoffs, coaches are going to do everything in their power to make you pause for a split-second in the pocket and that slight pause can neuter any superior physical trait. Against man-to-man defense, Warner noted a year ago, “it’s just ‘pick a matchup that you like, and go.’” Staring down more zones and more pre-snap confusion — against better teams in January — it’s harder to detonate for 300 total yards at a time as a QB.
“If you’re playing against three good defenses,” Warner said then, “and you think you’re going to make enough plays ad-libbing to beat them, it’s probably not going to happen.
“So when I say, ‘What is your ceiling?’ I want to know: How complete can your game be? Not how athletic you are and how far that can take you. But how complete can you be? … That, to me, becomes the ultimate question with this new-era of quarterback. How long can they sustain what they’re doing to have their statistical success before it’s going to have to adjust?”
Warner predicted that defenses would force Allen to process in the playoffs, and he was right. Allen was not the same indomitable force in the postseason. Both Baltimore and Kansas City shut him down. Now, Allen gets another crack at it. He’ll face Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots for a third time on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium and a Super Bowl appearance, without question, is the bar for this $258 million-dollar man. One way or another, Saturday night will be another defining moment.
This past week, I checked in with Warner again for a Joe Burrow feature we’ll have on Friday at Go Long. He loves the Bengals’ second-year quarterback because, to him, Burrow does have this ultra-rare, sky-high mental ceiling.
On the other side of the spectrum, Warner first points to Jackson and Murray. To him, they’re still learning.
“They have to become surgeons when it comes to dropping in the pocket and making the layups and understanding the reads and that’s a hard thing to do at this level,” Warner says. “They’ll always have a level of success because they’re more athletic and more gifted than a lot of other people. But will it transcend to the greatness that we’re all searching for? That’s yet to be determined for a guy who’s primarily an athletic guy and plays the quarterback position secondary as opposed to the guys who play the quarterback position first and then allow the athleticism to become the secondary piece of it. I’m always watching these guys to figure out, ‘OK, what are they going to be? Ultimately, when their careers are over, how are they going to be defined?’ I think most of the great quarterbacks — the guys that are in the Hall of Fame — most of them are guys that played the position within the pocket and played it mentally first. And then they added whatever athletic prowess they had — arms or talent or accuracy, whatever — to it, and we haven’t seen a lot of transcendent athletic guys raise their games to that level because it’s hard to survive being more of an athlete than a pocket passer.
“Again, we’re seeing more of those guys now than we ever have. So, you have to believe the trend in the future will be more Hall of Famers that are those athletic guys. But I do believe they’ll have to transcend the athleticism and become more complete players because that is ultimately what will elevate them to the championship level and allow these guys to elevate themselves to an MVP level.”
Which brings us right back to Allen.
This season, Allen put up monster numbers again. He finished with 4,407 passing yards and 36 touchdowns through the air and 763 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground. The Bills won the AFC East again and Allen destroyed Belichick’s Patriots in what might’ve been the finest game of his career. The stakes were high and he delivered in a stadium that’s eaten Bills quarterbacks alive most of the last 20 years. His usage as a pseudo running back may be the best thing this entire offense has going for it, too. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is calling designed runs and Allen has been more than willing than ever to tuck it and run it, too.
A quarterback’s legs have always been the ultimate back-breaker. Any defensive coach will tell you that a quarterback capable of running for nine yards on third-and-8 will keep them up at night. They can design and call the perfect play at the perfect moment and it does not matter. Plus, there’s never been a quarterback at Allen’s size who moves like he does in the open field.
Since the Bills lost to New England at home, the 6-foot-5, 237-pounder has rushed for 341 yards in five games.
And yet… it’s the playoffs.
And yet… it’s going to be very cold on Saturday night.
The forecast right now is calling for a low of zero degrees. Unlike a quarterback of similar freakish arm strength, Brett Favre, the Bills’ gunslinger regresses sharply as a passer in frigid conditions. As my pal Matthew Fairburn over at The Athletic noted this week, when the temps are 31 degrees or colder, Allen is 3-2 while completing only 50.3 percent of his passes for 166.6 yards per game, six touchdowns and seven interceptions. If he’s running for 100 yards, heck, it won’t matter. And the Bills have established a potent rushing attack out of thin air with Allen and Devin Singletary.
But it’s showtime now. If Belichick is able to control Allen the runner, can Allen the passer knife completions through the cold with consistency? Then again in the divisional round? Then again in the AFC title game? The three picks against Atlanta were worrisome.
Warner’s opinion has not changed.
“I don’t think he has crossed that threshold yet,” Warner says. “But he is getting there. He still has some ups and downs. He still has some technical stuff. The thing about Josh is he doesn’t quite make enough layups for me to say he’s there yet. Whether that’s the right read most of the time or, when he sees it, to make the throw he’s supposed to make. He still misses too many throws for me because of his technique. He still misses too many reads for me. He overcomes it a lot of times — especially against more average teams — because he’s a freak. I mean, he’s ridiculous. But he hasn’t quite crossed over that threshold yet for me to say he’s a really good pocket passer that has extra. I just think he’s a really good athlete right now who’s getting better in the pocket. He’s probably the best example we have right now of a playmaker that has evolved and gotten better as a passer to the point where he elevates this team and gives this team a chance, I would say, more often than these other guys against good competition.
“Because he’ll make more of the right plays but just not there yet for me to say that… The top guys in the league make those layups most of the time. Josh isn’t there yet where he’s in the ‘most of the time’ category where it’d really transcend himself to that next level.”
Allen’s style is unparalleled. That alone may be enough to overwhelm any defense in any game.
He sure was honest when speaking about the cold this week.
“It’ll be a challenge. I’s not fun getting hit in the cold. It’s not fun catching hard passes in the cold,” Allen said. “And getting off the ground is just, it’s a little more exhausting throughout the course of the game. So again, just trying to get used to that and it’s more of a, I think, mental barrier than it is a physical barrier, if anything. But again, we gotta do our best to not let the elements limit us in what we can do.”
Keeping his extremities warm and dry is critical. Allen’s toes tend to go numb in the cold.
When his mind is racing on the field, trying to decipher Belichick’s X’s and O’s, he said he doesn’t expect to be thinking much about it all.
“It’s not a crazy, difficult thing to overcome.”
Round 3 vs. Belichick is incoming. He beat Mahomes earlier this season. He won in Foxborough. Now, it’s the playoffs and who knows how long the Bills’ Super Bowl window will be this open?
It’s fun to watch Allen hurdle linebackers and throw it over them mountains but completing the boring pass again and again will matter more than anything.
Says Warner: “When you get to the playoffs against good teams, you don’t get the ability to have an off day. If you don’t hit those plays, usually you’re going home because you’ve got to do that three or four times in a row and most guys don’t fall into three or four games in a row of consistency and making the layups when that’s not who they are yet or what we’ve seen in the past.”
To learn more about Warner himself, here’s our Q&A from August…