When you look back, what do you think of that last stretch against Houston in the playoffs?
Vigen, Wyoming’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach during Allen’s tenure and now, braced. The end of the Buffalo Bills’ first-round loss to the Texans included moments of virtuosity and insanity that define what both fans and detractors call the Josh Allen Experience. He underhanded a lateral over his tight end’s head while two defenders tackled him. He rifled an ill-advised, across-his-body dart for a first down. He hurdled a linebacker. Ultimately, the Bills squandered a 16-0 lead and lost in overtime.
And now, some 18-year-old had asked the program’s most famous alum about it.
But as Allen spoke, Vigen realized he had no need for worry. Allen took responsibility for the Bills’ collapse without deflection or anger. He diagnosed how he would have played differently. Most insightful, Allen pointed to the end of the first half. Coaches had play-called conservatively to set up a field goal rather than allow Allen to try for a touchdown. Allen explained he needed to change over the offseason for his coaches to see him in a new light, to trust him in those moments.
“I said, ‘Okay, this is a different Josh,’ ” Vigen said. “He got a taste last year, and now he’s hungrier than ever.”
Allen has emerged through the season’s first four weeks as one of the most improved and interesting players in the NFL, sneaking into the periphery of the MVP debate. He has captained the Bills to a 4-0 start, authored a barrage of highlights and ranks second in the league in passing yards (1,326) and third in touchdown passes (12) while completing 70.9 percent of his throws and running for three more scores.
The fate of the Bills’ season, now that Buffalo has emerged as a contender to unseat the New England Patriots in the AFC East, may rest on whether Allen really is different, if he has harnessed his immense physical talent. The Bills have constructed a talented roster around him, and coordinator Brian Daboll has concocted an offense suited to his strengths. If Allen fulfills what Buffalo saw in him when it made him the seventh overall pick in 2018, the Bills may rival Baltimore as Kansas City’s foremost conference challenger.
Allen has polarized since he became a draft prospect. Draft experts argued about the meaning of his subpar college completion percentage. Scouts drooled over his 6-foot-5 frame, cannon arm and freight-train running ability. Advanced statistics ranked him at the bottom of the league owing to inaccuracy and a penchant for mistakes. Bills fans adore him for his moxie, talent and results — he led the Bills last year to their second playoff game (and first playoff touchdown) since the 1999 season.
“Bills Mafia hates us,” Sam Monson, the lead NFL analyst for statistics website Pro Football Focus, said with a laugh. “There are T-shirts. They think we hate Josh Allen. They think we hate the Bills generally. It’s understandable. Fans trade on hope, and Josh Allen fashions an endless amount of hope.”
‘A can-do player’
Buffalo’s 35-32 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 3 may have been the quintessential Allen performance, a display of both his potential and how he can undermine it. As Buffalo built a 28-3 lead, Allen accounted for four touchdowns. As the Rams erased the deficit, Allen threw an interception, lost a fumble and drew a 15-yard penalty for dragging a defender to the ground by his face mask. But he also converted a third and 22 with a rocket to Cole Beasley and fired a game-winning touchdown pass with seconds remaining.
For his first two seasons in the league, Allen was perhaps the player most likely to fool modern NFL consumers. His instincts to tuck the ball and run in the face of pressure combined with his athleticism led to high rushing totals and delight for fantasy owners. Any Sunday of “NFL RedZone” viewing inevitably included an Allen highlight — a laser throw few quarterbacks on the planet could make, a leap over a defender, a moment that made you tumble off your couch.
In between those plays, Allen accumulated the statistical résumé of one of the league’s worst quarterbacks. Pro Football Focus last season graded him 28th out of 39 quarterbacks who took at least 150 dropbacks — right behind Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Daniel Jones and Mitchell Trubisky.
In Pro Football Focus’s grading and statistical evaluation, Allen’s deep flaws — inaccurate passing and putting the ball at risk — overrode his stellar moments. Allen was the NFL’s worst quarterback on passes thrown more than 20 yards in the air, a combination of inaccurate and risky when passing deep. On plays from a clean pocket, one of the most stable indicators of quarterback performance, Allen ranked in the eighth percentile. PFF tracks a quarterback’s negative plays, which can include everything from poor throws to avoidable fumbles. Allen’s negative play percentage ranked worst in the NFL.
Some numbers even reflected the conflict between how Allen could be astonishing to the eye but still inefficient. Even while ranking as PFF’s 31st-most accurate passer overall, he graded in the middle of the league in accuracy-plus passes, throws that hit a receiver in the perfect spot. Allen was usually bad, but when he wasn’t, he was great.
“He’s always been the definition of a can-do player,” Monson said. “The NFL is very focused on what guys can do. This guy can make all the throws. He can make all these spectacular, athletic plays. He can throw the ball 75 yards. But how often do they happen, and what happens in between? That’s always been the problem area for Allen. It’s not his ceiling. It’s not what he’s able to do. It’s what happens between the spectacular plays. That’s where he’s struggled in the past. It’s also the thing that’s been moving in his direction.”
Through four games, Allen has minimized his mistakes while accentuating his strengths. Pro Football Focus rates him the NFL’s sixth-best quarterback, just ahead of reigning MVP Lamar Jackson. His underlying performance suggests sustainable improvement. Last year, he completed 18 passes thrown more than 20 yards all season; he has completed 11 already this year, and he has jumped to the top 10 of PFF’s deep passing rankings. He is a little below league average on negative-play percentage, rather than dead last.
“You’re seeing that jump that was to me doable,” Vigen said. “But a lot of people didn’t think he could get there.”
It would be precarious to assume Allen’s improvement will stick based on four games. But his leap has been so large, Monson said, that Allen has “reset the bar” on his performance. Even regression would make Allen a far better quarterback in his third season than his first two.
“What we’ve seen [to start this season],” Monson said, “is a different Josh Allen.”
‘A work in progress’
Sudden improvement is a logical conclusion to Allen’s development. In an era of seven-on-seven seasons and quarterback gurus, Allen had an unsophisticated quarterback upbringing. He grew up on a farm in small-town central California playing three sports, whichever was in season. He spent a year at junior college before choosing Wyoming over Eastern Michigan, the only other school that offered him a scholarship.
“Day 1 of spring ball, you could see in person for the first time he had an incredible, incredible arm,” Vigen said. “He was still somewhat skinny, somewhat out of shape, all that kind of stuff. He had really never worked on much. He just kind of played. He was going to be a work in progress.”
Allen broke his collarbone during the first game of his sophomore season, and sitting out enabled him to learn the position and improve his strength and conditioning. He remained raw as he took over as Wyoming’s starter the next year, completing less than 60 percent of his passes. When plays broke down, Allen conjured magic with improvisational instincts honed from years of playing other sports. When they went to plan, he had trouble discerning coverages and making accurate throws.
“He made a lot of plays that were spectacular,” Vigen said. “But he had his fair share of easy plays that he didn’t make. … When a play broke down, his ability to do things, that’s almost innate. Or it was developed because that’s the way he was brought up. On the flip side, his foundation for the simple things maybe wasn’t there.”
Those flash plays caused scouts and agents to start swarming. Allen considered entering the draft before staying for his senior year. Three offensive teammates departed for the NFL, and Allen’s superficial statistics suffered. But even though Allen’s 56.3 percent completion percentage made him a risky bet based on precedent, NFL evaluators were eager to take it. One executive whose team picked in the top 10 in 2018 said Allen was an easy top-10 selection, considered by many to be the second-best quarterback in the draft behind top pick Baker Mayfield.
“I loved his persona,” the executive said. “I loved his toughness. I loved his athleticism. I loved his arm strength. There was some inaccuracy of throws that concerned me under duress. You knew he was going to have to be trained a little bit.”
The trait that Allen is rarely given enough credit for, Vigen believes, is his competitive intelligence — his willingness to identify what he needs to improve. Vigen had watched Allen mature over the years in his ability to attack those weaknesses. In discussions this offseason, Vigen sensed Allen was “on a mission.”
“That maturity, and how you approach the mental side, how you continue to not be satisfied with what you’ve done and know there’s more out of you is what I’ve noticed the most out of him this offseason,” Vigen said. “You could see the game continues to slow down for him. There’s times when his athletic ability takes over and it’s moving pretty fast. But generally speaking, it’s slowed down quite a bit, and those easy plays I referred to, he’s generally making all of those.”
Allen worked this offseason with personal quarterback coach Jordan Palmer, the former NFL quarterback and Carson’s brother, and Bills quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey. They worked on his mechanics, but not as much as they focused on how he processed plays. With a better understanding of defenses and his own offense, Allen became a calmer, more accurate passer.
“Diving into the playbook as much as we did, I feel like I know answers to the questions,” Allen said earlier this season. “The better I play, the more I know, the more comfortable I feel. It’s just kind of a cycle.”
The Bills have also placed Allen in ideal circumstances. They traded this offseason for Stefon Diggs, one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, to go with deep threat John Brown and always-open slot receiver Cole Beasley. Daboll has tailored the Bills’ offense to Allen’s strengths, lining up frequently with four wide receivers to let Allen see the field more easily and exploit his athleticism. The Bills have also used play-action on nearly 40 percent of Allen’s dropbacks, well above the league average, and on those plays Allen has an eye-popping 147.4 passer rating, the best in the NFL.
“We have very similar mind-sets,” Allen said. “I think that’s why we’ve gelled so well. I appreciate what Coach Daboll has done for me and the offense he’s putting around us — the way that he calls games, the way he trusts his players, the way that he can see a game on Thursday night or Monday night — whatever it is — and look at that concept and say: ‘You know what? That’s pretty cool. Let’s see if we can use it here.’ … It’s been a pleasure to play for him.”
Later this season, Allen’s coaches will arrive at a moment when they have to decide how much they trust him, how well they believe he can make the easy plays between the spectacular plays. Allen has been thinking about that moment all offseason. He is ready to show them he is different.