BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Bills and their rabid fan base got the full Josh Allen experience this past Sunday in a 21-17 win over Cincinnati. The second-year quarterback threw an ill-advised third-quarter interception that opened the door for the visiting Bengals to climb out of a 14-point hole and eventually take the lead in a game they had no business winning.
But Allen’s desire to always make something happen came to fruition late in the fourth quarter, when the dual-threat signal-caller operated coolly from the pocket for completions of 7 and 49 yards, then turned to his legs, running three times in a four-play span (gains of 6, 8 and 7) to set up Frank Gore‘s game-winning 1-yard plunge with just under two minutes left in the game. The win, in front of the New Era Field faithful, improved the Bills to 3-0, their best start since the 2011 season.
“It showed poise,” said Bills head coach Sean McDermott of Allen’s late-game exploits.
Allen, though, understands the fine line he’s walking between risk and reward, lamenting his mistake several days after the fact.
“Obviously, the competitor in me wants to extend plays and try to fit the ball into small windows,” Allen told me at his Wednesday press conference, “but understanding, like Coach (Sean) McDermott’s preached, playing complementary football, allowing our defense to go out there and forcing teams to have long drives against our defenses and not giving them a short field. When we’ve done that, we’ve had a lot of success. I think that’s really what the NFL comes down to, taking care of the football, scoring when you have the opportunity and the team (the Patriots) we’re playing against (this week) knows that all too well.”
McDermott added: “It’s an ongoing — just like it is for our whole football team — an ongoing effort of understanding what wins and what doesn’t in this league. Taking care of the football wins games. That’s a stat that doesn’t change.”
Despite his carelessness at times, Allen has become a must-watch player in this league. Patriots assistant coach and former All-Pro linebacker Jerod Mayo compared him to former NFL star Michael Vick, minus the 4.3-second 40 speed. The 23-year-old is growing, as he should be, with just 14 professional starts under his belt. His rookie season was a roller coaster, but his late-season performance was one that had Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll optimistic when I spoke with him about Allen at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. You can see why Daboll was (and still is) excited. Allen has a unique blend of athleticism, fearlessness and an arm that just about every other quarterback in the league would trade their own for.
“I never really had the mobility he does so I kind of had to rely on timing and my arm, so that’s kind of a big difference between us,” Allen’s backup, Matt Barkley, said to me in the locker room on Wednesday. “But regardless, in the NFL — compared to college or any other level — timing is of the utmost importance, whether that’s timing of knowing when to scramble, when things break down, or timing knowing when to hit it when (the play isn’t) there to get to your next reads. That’s huge. As a quarterback room, we’ve tried to make strides in just making sure timing is right and on par with everyone else on the offense.”
To Barkley’s point, Allen must marry his extraordinary physical gifts with the mental side of playing the position. There are signs it’s coming together. He’s improved his accuracy from nearly 53 percent as a rookie to 64 percent through the first three games of his second season. He’s also dramatically decreased the number of what Pro Football Reference labels “poor throws,” cutting them down from 24 percent last year to just 6 percent this year. Allen also has an impressive 125.1 fourth-quarter QB rating this season (fourth-best in the league). Yes, the sample size isn’t massive but that’s a positive sign, and one that has impressed Barkley.
“Even since the end of last season, where we’ve come from through OTAs and training camp and now Week 4, he’s developed in a lot of different areas,” Barkley said. “I would say last year he was quick to scramble, and this year (more so), he’s not afraid to scramble. He knows his assets. He can move and use his legs, but he’ll still stand there and throw it when he needs to.”
Beasley, Allen’s favorite receiver thus far, has been impressed by the maturity the former Wyoming star has shown. He first saw it when the two began working together in the spring and summer, and he’s now noticed it carry over into the regular season, not just from game to game but play to play.
“Mentally, he’s well beyond a Year 2 QB just in the way he handles himself,” Beasley said. “There’s gonna be — this is the NFL — these guys are good. There’s going to be ups and downs all the time. He remains the same. He doesn’t get too out of his head.”
In that regard, Allen said he’s tried to soak up the teachings of his coaching staff — he raves about his relationship with Daboll — but also from the man who will operate the opposing offense this Sunday in Buffalo. You may have heard of him. A fella by the name of Tom Brady.
“I’ve been learning a lot from him, and he doesn’t even know it,” Allen said. “As far as when I was a young kid, just how he handled himself. Off the field, he seems like he has a great amount of respect from his teammates and everybody that’s in contact with him. I’ve got nothing to say bad about the guy. He was one of my favorite QBs growing up. It’s a little surreal to be playing against him. I definitely think he’s the best to do it.”
It will be hard for any quarterback to reach the rarefied air Brady lives in. For Allen and his Bills, all that matters right now is getting better today and, as Allen said Wednesday, going “1-0” on Sunday.
Follow Mike Giardi on Twitter @MikeGiardi.