All eyes will be on Josh Allen in Bills' preseason opener against Panthers

Bucky Gleason

Sean McDermott was paying his dues in his first season of professional football as scouting administrative coordinator (see: peon) with the Eagles in 1999 when the Eagles selected Donovan McNabb second overall in the NFL draft.

McDermott was a young, impressionable assistant who later became known for obsessive note taking and attention to detail. He studied how first-year coach Andy Reid handled McNabb, who spent most of his rookie year as an apprentice behind starter Doug Pederson.

McNabb mopped up a few blowouts in six forgettable appearances while the Eagles lost seven of their first 10 games. Philly was going nowhere and had little to lose when McNabb was inserted into the starting lineup for the final six games. He was allowed to learn without becoming overwhelmed by the pressure of the position.

It was no surprise earlier this week when McDermott made it clear that he was in no hurry to get rookie Josh Allen into the Bills’ starting lineup. Allen is a talented player with a big arm, but success in the NFL almost always comes from the neck up and not the shoulders down. The kid has much to learn before he's ready.

“Being around Donovan’s situation in particular, we had a plan and he didn’t play for some time,” McDermott said told reporters at S. John Fisher College. “We’re not rushing this, we want to make sure (Allen’s) ready to go. There will still be growing pains with that journey.”

Allen is expected to make his debut when the Bills play the Carolina Panthers in the preseason opener at New Era Field. How much action he gets was unknown going into the game, but the Bills can finally see how he stacks up against the better competition under game conditions. His performance makes the game worth watching.

“The games are important,” McDermott told reporters earlier this week at St. John Fisher College. “Up to this point we haven’t had games to weigh. We had the spring in shorts and T-shirts basically, and now we’ve had training camp, somewhat in pads, and now we’ll have games to factor into that equation, that evaluation, and ultimately that decision.”

Allen is hoping to make a strong first impression, obviously, but realistically there’s only a slim chance he’s going to take over the offense and light up the Panthers’ defense. Even if he did dominate in his first game, McDermott would be reluctant to hand over the keys based on one preseason performance.

Anyway, what the rush?

The Bills have been longing for a true franchise quarterback since Jim Kelly retired in 1996. Nobody would have imagined when the Flutie-Johnson debate was in full bloom or the Drew Bledsoe Era began or when the Bills wasted first-round picks on J.P. Losman and EJ Manuel, and all the quarterbacks in between, that they would still be searching 22 years later.

You can’t blame McDermott for proceeding with caution. He wants to make sure Allen doesn’t join the long and disturbing list of past failures in Buffalo. McDermott isn’t going anywhere, not after overhauling his roster in less than a year and ending the 17-year playoff drought that weighed heavily on the organization.

McDermott has time on his side, which means he can take all the time he needs to develop Allen at the right pace. The last thing the Bills need is the second coming of Manuel, who had all the physical tools required to succeed but failed to process NFL defenses. Four years later, he was unceremoniously sent on his way.

Allen is 6-foot-5 and 247 pounds, the same height with a bigger build than Manuel had when he arrived from Florida State as the presumptive franchise quarterback. Allen was terrific last season with Wyoming, which was why his stock soared, but the Mountain West Conference is never going to be confused with the National Football League.

“You can see the arm talent, you can see the special type of player he could become, but there’s a lot of room for growth between where we are now and where he needs to get to” McDermott said. “We’re just going to continue with the plan, with the schedule, just like our entire team, learn and go.”

Understand, there is no definitive means of successfully developing quarterbacks. All-time greats such as Dan Marino and John Elway started right away and had terrific careers. The same was true for Peyton Manning. Tom Brady sat the bench behind Bledsoe for a year. Steve Young, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers developed for a few years behind the scenes before emerging as starters and evolving into stars.

There’s a long list of others who started right away and failed. Ryan Leaf was a disaster. Manuel never developed before losing confidence and credibility. Tim Couch was taken first overall by the Browns and lasted only five seasons. Let’s not forget about JaMarcus Russell and David Carr and Vince Young and …

You get the idea.

The decision will be easy if the coaching staff makes a cold, objective evaluation and avoids falling in love with their top draft pick. The problem will solve itself as training camp and the preseason continue to unfold. McDermott knows as much as anyone that, at this stage, Allen shouldn’t be expected to take over.

At some point, he’ll be ready enough for the Bills to take him for a spin.

For now, all fans can do is keep the faith in McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Dabol. They learned from some of the best coaches of their generation. They understand incremental learning and the idea players need to develop at their own pace. If they take the time needed to prepare Allen, he should be worth the wait.