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Let Josh Allen be himself
The head coach and GM have now both told the world they want their quarterback to sanitize his game. Super Bowls should be the goal. And the last thing Buffalo needs to worry about is Josh Allen.
The public decree has been cranked to full volume. Both men in charge of the Buffalo Bills were not shy speaking to the NFL’s own media outlets to let you know — to let Josh Allen know — that his style of play has no place in the sport. All that was missing was a hall-monitor badge.
Even thinking about changing anything your most talented player does on a football field should slot in as the 2,789th most important item on your team’s to-do list this offseason. Far below eliminating the third-down train horn.
First, head coach Sean McDermott was forceful with his language. He told NFL Network, "I don't think that’s a healthy way to play quarterback in this league and it's undefeated that things are going to happen when you play that style, brand of football." He then continued the tisk-tisk by adding, “It has to get where it's workable” and “there needs to be an adjustment in that style of play."
Next, GM Brandon Beane echoed the same sentiment on NFL Radio. He told the tale of Allen taking off to run vs. Minnesota fresh off his UCL injury, and later added: “If it's the first quarter of Week 2, we don't need you trying to run over a linebacker or a safety.”
An odd point of emphasis. Since the Bills fell to the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC divisional playoff round, we continue to hear more about ancillary issues (the quarterback running, McDermott replacing Leslie Frazier as the defensive playcaller) than the primary issues currently preventing a very good team from winning it all (mediocre drafts, playoff meltdowns). Such deflection isn’t a bad PR strategy. But, in truth, everyone at One Bills Drive should operate with Stefon Diggs’ energy. The wide receiver’s honesty has been refreshing. He’s sick and tired of this numbing rerun each January.
Everyone should be pissed to a degree because — guess what? — this opportunity is fleeting.
If anyone knows, it’s the locals who’ve been effectively pepper-sprayed in the eyes by the play of this football team from 2000 to 2017.
The moves this team has made in March are great. The Super Bowl window remains wide open and it’s open because of Josh Allen… but not the BJ’s Wholesale knockoff version of Josh Allen. The Bills need Josh Allen, in full. The version that lifts you out of your seat in Section 301. The showstopping force of nature who’s proven to be unstoppable when he’s quarterbacking with such unbridled joy and ruthlessness and doesn’t have any voices in his head telling him precisely when and where he’s allowed to venture beyond the line of scrimmage. Allen is on the extremely short list of football players who resemble a pixelated figure on NBA Jam — when he’s hot, he cannot miss. If the Bills get that Steph Curry version at the perfect time, they’ll win their first Super Bowl.
Wasting any time trying to crawl inside his brain is counterproductive and foolish.
Let’s start with that “brand” of quarterbacking. It’s unique. More of an art form.
If Patrick Mahomes is smooth jazz, Josh Allen is hard rock. This is no cookie-cutter pocket passer and wasn’t that the allure of Allen to begin with?
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Unlike anyone else in the sport, the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder is obviously at his best playing spontaneously — with violence. His list of victims is long. He’ll leap over Anthony Barr and L’Jarius Sneed and Justin Reid. He’ll stiff arm Nick Scott and Kyle Van Noy. He’ll blast through the teeth of the Dallas Cowboys defense on Thanksgiving evening. He’ll take those needed shots into double-coverage that terrified checkdown quarterbacks past. And now, play to play, Allen is supposed to envision red tape enclosing particular swaths of the field in certain game situations? The ask is bizarre. Any team interested in winning Super Bowls, instead of division titles, doesn’t pretend a warm-and-fuzzy middle ground exists seven years into the career of its franchise player. As noted last week, the mountain only gets steeper in 2023. Standing in Buffalo’s way is Mahomes. And Joe Burrow. And Trevor Lawrence, Justin Herbert, perhaps Lamar Jackson.
The Bills need a special quarterback to win a Super Bowl. An untethered quarterback who’s getting right into the face of 311-pounder Christian Wilkins — this is the specimen that won an entire fan base’s heart.
Hey, don’t take it from me. Pro Bowler Matthew Judon — that predator dragging most opponents into his own dimension — put it perfectly this week. In detailing Allen’s game to NFLN, Judon began by saying how effective Allen can tear defenses apart with his arm from the pocket before emphatically adding:
“But, he can also use his feet. Josh Allen is a big quarterback. Big build. And he’s fast. He can move and he can run. If you ever give him a lane, he takes it. It’s not, ‘This guy might run.’ He is going to run. When Josh runs, he usually gets to the sideline. So, with that, it’s hard for DBs to be like, ‘OK, is he going to step out or is he going to finish the run. So I think what Sean is talking about… ‘Just slide. Just get down. You don’t have to finish every run. But I think Josh is such a competitor and he’s such a bruiser, he likes to finish every run. Because he gets up, it hypes his team, it hypes the crowd and it hypes him. He plays better like that. It’s tough because you’re a quarterback. But the only big injury he had was the elbow and he got that throwing the ball.” (More on that later.)
Judon sounded like a rival who’d be very, very happy if Allen followed his coach’s orders. A tame Allen would be easier to tackle. Ben Roethlisberger, in his prime, could shrug off defensive ends and linebackers with ease… but he never turned on the jets and became such a weapon upfield.
Hits do add up and that’s an inherent risk Buffalo must accept. The downside of changing the Allen that Judon describes is worse. This feels a lot like comedians watering down their acts so they don’t get cancelled. The beauty of comedy is the fact that the best of the very best always pushed boundaries, crossed lines, made people uncomfortable. For ages, you either laughed or you didn’t laugh. That’s it. And comedy evolved from George Carlin and Richard Pryor to Robin Williams, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. Now, keyboard warriors are liable to get self-indignant any moment to whisk you off to the cornfield. Each time they succeed, this form of art dies a little more.
The Bills should celebrate Allen’s style, not publicly punish it.
If the QB truck-sticking a middle linebacker makes bosses cringe, so be it.
Guys in the locker room love Josh Allen because he’s more football player, than quarterback. You can’t extract these plays from his game. Nor would any team want to extract such plays when they’re needed on third and long in any tight game — Week 2 or the Super Bowl. That run in Week 2 could end up being the difference between homefield advantage and traveling to Arrowhead.
Which leads us to the larger point here. These comments are a convenient head fake away from the real problem.
If the Bills want their $258 Million Dollar Investment to absorb less hits — to stay healthy long term — it’s not by asking that $258 Million Dollar Man to be somebody else. It’s on you. Instead of demanding he change, the Bills should start doing a better job of protecting their investment. Beane re-signed Dion Dawkins, the left tackle drafted before his arrival. Other than a few rough patches, the “ShnowMan” has been steady. Elsewhere? Yikes. The Bills traded away arguably the best guard in football (Wyatt Teller), traded up to 38th overall for a lineman who busted at both tackle and guard (Cody Ford) and have been mostly scrambling to cobble the best five players together under three different assistants: Juan Castillo, Bobby Johnson and Aaron Kromer.
A more logical talking point at the owners meeting would’ve been Beane and McDermott both saying it’s completely on them to do a better job of protecting Allen by acquiring linemen and weapons so good that Allen doesn’t feel the need to play Superman as often. Beane’s crew deserves eternal praise for choosing Allen over UCLA’s Josh Rosen. That decision alone justifiably helped his top lieutenant (Joe Schoen) become the GM of the New York Giants, and next in charge (Dan Morgan) become the Assistant GM of the Carolina Panthers. Speaking of comedy, if you’re in need of a midweek laugh, waste a few minutes scrolling through the replies to the team announcing the draft pick. (Surely, many fans have scrubbed their anger from history, too.)
The Bills did the hard part. They found the quarterback.
After two decades of flubbed big-ticket signings and trades and draft picks and journeymen, they landed Allen. If Jackson leaves Baltimore, Allen will be the only quarterback from this class still with his original team. Allen has also been covering up many clusters of warts on this roster. The highest “McBeane” have drafted a wide receiver in five drafts is 128th overall yet prioritizing defensive line and running back in the early rounds has arguably affected the offensive line even more.
We’ve got many Bills subscribers in the house. Let your voice be heard below. The sense I get locally is that fans see a team that should’ve won the Super Bowl in 2021 and are now growing anxious.
The accumulation of hits is not ideal. Allen and Cam Newton had roughly the same amount of carries six seasons into their respective careers. If Allen were to ever suffer a season-ending injury, the team’s title chances obviously evaporate. But that’s the case for every (Foles-less) contender. Further, it’s mostly a myth that quarterbacks suffer these injuries outside of the pocket. Let’s rip through a few of the major quarterback injuries of the past few seasons.
Allen suffered his UCL injury vs. the Jets in the pocket.
Patrick Mahomes’ right ankle was snapped, of course, while stepping up into the pocket vs. Jacksonville in the AFC divisional playoff round.
Kyler Murray tore his ACL while scrambling, but he wasn’t even touched by a defender. This was the dreaded, unavoidable non-contact injury.
Even Tua Tagovailoa’s concussions keep happening on routine plays — his head hits the turf. He took up jiu jitsu this offseason to fall with more grace.
These aren’t stunts pulled from Cirque du Soleil, rather the byproduct of the sport’s nature itself. Exactly as the NFL needs to quit scattering the field with flags in its disingenuous quest to make an inherently unsafe sport appear safe to the masses, the sport’s coaches themselves should accept the fact that their prized possessions may get hurt. Even if the current rulebook all but sends the Judons of the world to the gallows if they fall on a quarterback, QBs are bound to suffer injuries. This remains a contact sport. Andy Reid didn’t freak out when Mahomes was limping around the field in the playoffs. He played Chad Henne for a series, left the decision up to Mahomes and then implemented brilliant gameplans the rest of the postseason.
Is it smart for a quarterback to go full Dick Butkus after interceptions, thus costing themselves millions of dollars, as Baker Mayfield did in 2021? Of course not. But the injuries linked above occurred on remarkably ordinary plays. If anything, they could’ve been prevented with improved blocking and that’s what should be at the top of both McDermott and Beane’s minds.
Whenever Allen inevitably gets hurt again, he’ll try to play on like Mahomes. Buffalo shouldn’t hold him back.
Imagine if somewhere, in the back corner of his mind, Mahomes heard a coach telling him to take it easy on third and 4 from the Cincy 47-yard line in the AFC Championship Game. He did not. He rushed for five yards. He was hit out of bounds and a 45-yard kick sent KC to the Super Bowl. In that Super Bowl, he reaggravated the ankle and nobody panicked. Gutsy quarterback play and innovative play designs that had the collective heads of Philly defenders on swivels led to a second title. Mahomes supplied the game’s indelible moment with a 26-yard scamper.
Time to come clean. Like most observers, I wasn’t so sure we’d even be having this conversation back in ‘18 and ‘19 when Allen’s inaccuracy was a major problem. In the wild card, at Houston, his erratic mistakes overshadowed the explosive plays. The first series we launched Go Long with focused on the pressure Allen faced, given the fact that the team’s owner loved Mahomes so much out of Texas Tech. Ex-OC Brian Daboll and private coach Jordan Palmer both deserve credit for molding Allen into the Top 5 quarterback he is today.
And whenever this offense is struggling, it’s Allen’s legs that will Buffalo to a win.
Recall the last time this team’s back was truly against the wall in the regular season, in 2021. Down 24-3 at Tampa Bay — on the heels of a blowout loss to Indy and The Wind Game — Allen forced overtime and nearly pulled off the comeback. By running. He ran for 341 yards on 47 attempts with three touchdowns those final five games to get Buffalo hot at the right time. Is this really a switch he’ll be able to turn off through September… October… November… and magically turn on in December?
Instead of viewing a quarterback’s rushing ability as such a negative, every team should realize it’s a positive.
Right now, the fact that Jackson is such a blinding, dominant runner is being used against him. Loved the point his private coach Joshua Harris made on our Happy Hour a while back in explaining how this type of quarterback makes football an 11-on-11 game.
The Bills don’t need to design an offense around Allen’s legs, of course. As a scrambler, he has managed to strike a perfect balance. The fact that very few human beings are capable of bringing down such a large specimen in the open field is an asset. Not the detriment. All of the best defensive minds in NFL history will tell you the one thing that drives them nuts is gameplanning for a quarterback capable of tucking and running and rendering your perfect blitz, perfect coverage obsolete. Allen essentially takes an eraser to your X’s and O’s.
Bill Belichick, the greatest ever, still hasn’t been able to slow down Allen.
He’ll keep working, too. In our roundtable ahead of last season, Palmer didn’t hold back.
“He’s always been really interested in the mechanics,” Palmer said. “He’s interested in golf-swing mechanics. He’s interested in how things work. That’s a big piece of it, too. He’s interested in it. I talk to scouts a lot and one piece of advice I give scouting departments on evaluating quarterbacks is: ‘Find out what part of football they’ve connected to.’ Some guys just love what the game brings them. They love getting p---y. They love the bright lights. I don’t know if I’d invest in that guy. Some guys love learning protections and the X’s and O’s and defenses. Some guys just love throwing weights around. Some guys just love ‘being with the guys.’ Everybody’s connected to some part of the game. Josh is always connected to the mechanical side — how things work. So, when somebody’s really smart and really interested in that, they have a shot. And then you have somebody with Josh Allen’s talent — I think he’s the most physically gifted player to ever play the position. Then, you get Josh Allen.”
A quarterback in the Tyrod Taylor vein will limit turnovers, win eight or nine games and produce a perfectly fine final stat line. But this quarterback operating through such risk-averse glasses is going to miss the plays that take you to a different level. Six seasons into his career, Allen has repeatedly made the sort of plays such conservative quarterbacks never attempt. For every 10 to 15 jaw-dropping moments — via run and pass — there will be a mistake. An interception. A hard hit to the midsection. By now, the Bills should know they’ve got to live with the occasional cringe because the end result will be worth it.
One source at the NFL Combine told me Allen has a “videographic memory.” Not photographic. Videographic. He sees a play and that play sticks with him.
Remember his absurd touchdown pass to Gabe Davis on third and goal in last season’s 24-10 win over New England? What began as this…
… became a touchdown.
Asked about this touchdown throw afterward — one that could loop on Allen’s Canton induction one day — the head coach sounded like a man conflicted.
“I wasn't looking, I closed my eyes when he threw it,” McDermott said. “That's a part of who he is. Bottom line is you can’t put the ball in trouble in danger and I thought it was a well-calculated throw and he was open, and he got it to him. You never take away Josh's instincts and his gut feeling. He’s got a great feel for things, but at the end of the day, he knows we got to continue to be smart with the football.”
This week’s comments suggest a coach who is now trying to dull “instincts” and “gut feeling.”
Josh Allen is the driving force. Where anyone in the organization would be without him is a scary exercise. There’s a good chance the Bills would be cycling through more coaches, more GMs, more quarterbacks, more misery. Asking the public to pay a dime for a new stadium sure would be difficult. Instead, this is a team that can still win the Super Bowl with the unfiltered version of its quarterback.
Beane is enjoying a swell spring. Deonte Harty and Trent Sherfield are two low-cost receivers capable of contributing immediately. Signing Damien Harris alleviates the urge to draft another running back high. Connor McGovern is a fresh face at guard. Keep an eye on Nyheim Hines, too.
Up next: the draft. For all the talk about Allen’s running this week, there’s been minimal chatter about the lukewarm drafts adding up. One month from now, Beane and McDermott will execute their most important draft since selecting Allen together in 2018.
The games will begin. A free runner may have a shot at Allen.
And honestly? It’s up to Allen what happens next.