- While elsewhere around the league, rookie QBs are sitting and learning, seeing limited action or (in the case of Jets starter Sam Darnold) being mentored by a savvy veteran, the Bills have tossed Josh Allen into the fire with little support behind him (on the bench) or in front of him (on the offensive line). The results so far have been predictable. Can the kid survive?
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Josh Allen Era began on Sunday with cautious optimism for Bills fans. That feeling has become somewhat rote in Buffalo, where the team has cycled through 17 quarterbacks since Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season, and every time the Bills switch to a new passer, the faithful invariably hope for the best but expect the worst. This iteration is no different.
Besides, the thinking went outside the stadium on Sunday, could it get any worse than Week 1? Facing the Ravens in the opener, the Bills trotted out Nathan Peterman, again, as if his two starts in 2017—one of which was, statistically, the worst for a quarterback in the history of the NFL—never happened. This time around Peterman was better; he only became the first starting quarterback since 2015 to have a 0.0 passer rating. To boot: Buffalo’s 47-3 blowout loss was the largest margin of defeat in the NFL since 2014.
Hence, the turn to Allen. Coach Sean McDermott was simply left with no choice but to play the rookie; had he started Peterman again in the home opener, he might have needed a security detail on the sideline to protect him from projectiles launched from the stands. But McDermott never should have been placed in that position to begin with. In the sundry parking lots around New Era Field a couple of hours before kickoff—where beers were being chugged, wings eaten and tables smashed with increasingly creative aerial acrobatics (a result of those beers?)—the so-called Bills Mafia all sang a similar tune in regard to questions about the torch being passed to Allen.
“He couldn’t possibly be in a worse position to succeed,” says Mark Shepard, 36, a lifelong Bills fan.
Shepard, whose tailgate brought the table-smashing phenomenon to Buffalo in 2015, is referring to the confounding moves the Bills made (and problematic retirements out of the their control) over the past year. After quarterback Tyrod Taylor led the team to its first playoff appearance in 17 seasons, breaking the longest drought in all of professional sports, in March he was unceremoniously shipped to Cleveland for a third-round pick. That was despite the fact that Taylor had the highest passer rating of any Bills starting QB since Kelly and the lowest interception rate in NFL history. Shepard understands that decision, though. “They were always bad but never terrible,” the fan laments, and the thinking goes that the worst thing to be in the NFL is mediocre. Taylor was good enough for the team to compete for a playoff spot but not to win a Super Bowl. And with $53 million in dead cap money being paid to players no longer on the team but approximately $90 million in cap space opening up next year, a rebuild made sense.
But then the Bills traded left tackle Cordy Glenn, a five-year starter. Then left guard Richie Incognito and center Eric Wood both retired—and the Bills replaced them with, well, nobody, instead promoting backups into their positions. Buffalo then traded up, twice, to select Allen, their presumed franchise quarterback, with the 7th pick. Scouts and analysts were widely split on Allen’s abilities entering the draft. He’s a raw prospect who struggled in a bad conference at Wyoming—he ranked 10th in yards per attempt among 11 qualified passers in the Mountain West, on a team that went 8-5 last season, and never completed more than 60% of his passes in either college or high school—but he has all of the requisite, possibly meretricious, skills you look for in a franchise quarterback. He is big (6’5”) and strong, with good mobility and a cannon for a right arm (throwing the ball nearly 80 yards on the fly at his pro day).
In other words, he is the exact type of quarterback who would benefit from going to a team with a veteran in place, where he could sit on the bench and learn. The Bills seemed to acquire that mentor-type when they signed four-year vet A.J. McCarron to a two-year contract in March. But six months later McCarron was traded to the Raiders for a fifth-round pick, leaving only Peterman and Allen on the roster.
Peterman ended up winning the job in training camp and the preseason, earning the start in Week 1 over the rookie, despite Allen clearly possessing more innate talent. As could have easily been anticipated, the offensive line was awful in Week 1, the offense was anemic, and Peterman was somehow worse than both. The Bills pulled him early in the third quarter, down 40-0 and inserted Allen. In his first NFL action, the rookie completed 6 of 15 passes and, ominously, was sacked three times in about 25 minutes of work.
When McDermott announced the change in a mid-week press conference, he said some variation of it was the right move for our team nine separate times; what he didn’t explain was why it hadn’t been the right move a week earlier, or a month earlier, when Allen could have gotten invaluable reps in practice with the first team offense. At this point, it was really the only move for the team.
Former quarterback David Carr chimed in, tweeting a face palm emoji in response to the news. The first overall pick of the expansion Texans in 2002 year, Carr had his career derailed by a terrible offensive line that left him little more than a tackling dummy —he was sacked an NFL-record 79 times as a rookie year. He must still have PTSD about the thought of another QB getting thrown into a similar situation.
Wood, the recently retired Bills lineman, sees the inherent risk in the Allen move. But, he notes, disaster is not a foregone conclusion. “With a rookie like Josh Allen, you don’t want to get him smashed week in and week out and lose his confidence,” he says. “We’ve seen it throughout time, with David Carr and Tim Couch. But we’ve also seen Peyton Manning, who led the league in interceptions as a rookie and went on to a Hall of Fame career. So there’s both ends of the spectrum.
“Regardless, this experience will bode really well for next year. Each game you play throughout your career you become more and more comfortable. Only thing is if his confidence gets shook.”
Bills fans are well aware of the team’s poor track record of drafting quarterbacks. Since Kelly retired, Buffalo has drafted seven signal-callers, and not one has ever had a winning record in a Bills uniform. The Bills’ two first-round QBs post-Kelly—J.P. Losman and EJ Manuel—combined to start only 50 games for Buffalo, winning 16 of them. “It’s been kind of dark at times,” says fan Ryan Stewart, 38. “The last 17 years make me not confident that [Allen] will work out. People want to believe. They sell hope better than anyone.”
On Sunday afternoon—as former Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 400 yards in his second straight game for Tampa Bay; and Taylor again had the Browns in contention for a win; and Patrick Mahomes, a similarly raw quarterback who got to sit and learn for his entire rookie season in Kansas City, broke passing records—Allen did get smashed. He was sacked on his first passing attempt and on his third, the latter coming before he could even reach the running back on a play-action fake. On nearly every play, the offensive line let an unblocked rusher barrel straight toward the quarterback, forcing the rookie to roll out of the pocket and throw on the run. In total Allen was sacked five times and threw two interceptions.
Yet, even with seemingly all factors conspiring against him, the rookie’s confidence did not appear to get shaken. He displayed poise, stayed steady in the pocket on the rare snaps there was one, and clearly improved as the game went on. Near the end of the second quarter, as the Bills run game couldn’t get any momentum and the defense was being bullied so badly one member would literally retire at halftime, Allen invigorated a mostly silent yet sold-out crowd. On second down, from his own 25, he rolled out to his left, set his feet, and launched a ball deep downfield to receiver Zay Jones for a 57-yard reception, Buffalo’s most successful offensive play of the season. (The drive resulted in a field goal.) Then on the Bills’ final possession, Allen led them 75 yards and capped the drive with his first career touchdown pass. Yes, Buffalo still lost handily, but if nothing else it was a much better showing than the previous week. The fans left the stadium cheering the loss—their spirits buoyed, their optimism maybe slightly less cautious.
“My mindset coming into this game was I’m here to play,” Allen said on the postgame podium. “There are a lot of lessons to learn from this game.”
Lesson One: In Buffalo, hope springs eternal.
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