Now that their 17-year playoff drought is history, the Buffalo Bills are hoping first-round draft pick Josh Allen will help them end their franchise quarterback drought. This dry spell can be traced to 1996 when Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly played his last game in the stadium formerly known as Rich. Since Kelly’s retirement following that season, a steady stream of err apparents have passed through One Bills Drive. The sorry lineup includes the likes of Todd Collins, Rob Johnson, J.P Losman, Trent Edwards and EJ Manuel, each of whom wound up being a bust rather than earning one.
All told, 18 different quarterbacks have started a game for the Bills during this ignominious run, and in the regular season opener Sept. 9 against the Baltimore Ravens, there’s a good chance that number will rise to 19, with either Allen or veteran backup AJ McCarron under center. Should Nathan Peterman—he of the five-interception NFL debut last season—draw the opening assignment, the Bills could be in for a very, very long season.
The most likely scenario will find McCarron opening as starter, biding time while Allen learns the ropes. Peterman will be an insurance policy, here or somewhere else.
The Bills traded up to choose Allen with the seventh overall pick in April’s NFL Draft, making him the highest quarterback selection in franchise history—and marking only the third time in the modern era they’ve used a first-rounder on a QB. The selection of Kelly in 1983 got off to a rocky start, with a two-year hiatus in the United States Football League and two struggling seasons with the Bills after that fledgling league went belly-up and Jimbo had no choice but to shuffle off to Buffalo. But it all worked out gloriously as Kelly revived a franchise on the verge of leaving town, guiding the Bills to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. The other first-round selections—Losman in 2005 and Manuel in 2013—failed to live up to lofty expectations.
Tyrod Taylor provided some stability at the position the last three years as primary starter. His stats—47 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions and 12 rushing touchdowns—were solid. And he’ll forever be remembered as the quarterback of the team that ended the playoff drought. But the Bills were right to move on because neither Taylor nor they were going to get any better with him at the helm. The ceiling had been reached. Taylor’s failure to trust his throws (release the ball before his receivers made their cuts) and his inability to rally his team in the fourth quarter, which is essential in today’s NFL where the majority of games are decided by a touchdown or less, were obstacles he couldn’t overcome.
So, when training camp commences late next week at St. John Fisher College, the dominant football story will be Allen. (Notice, I wrote “football” story, because who knows what’s going to unfold in this bizarre and disturbing story involving running back LeSean McCoy and his former girlfriend.)
Expect tons of tweets and videos dissecting each throw Allen makes during training camp. Hopefully, he’ll avoid any into-the-corporate-luxury-tent tosses like the one that wound up becoming a signature play in Manuel’s unfulfilled career with the Bills.
Like many skeptics, I’m going to need to be sold on Allen, who appeared to be the fourth best of the top four quarterbacks in this draft class. All the measurable are there. He has a cannon for an arm, and at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds he has the prototypical size you look for at the position. Plus, he’s extremely agile and quick on his feet, so he has the ability to buy time in the pocket and occasionally hurt you with his runs.
The pressing question is his accuracy. Allen completed 56 percent of his passes his junior year at Wyoming and 56.3 percent his senior year. Few modern-day quarterbacks with college completion percentages that low have become successful pros. Much has been made of Allen’s poor performances in the handful of games Wyoming played against Power-Five conference teams. Of greater concern is his failure to consistently dominate his league opponents. He had 28 touchdowns passes and 15 interceptions as a junior and 16 and six, respectively, as a senior. Good, but not necessarily great numbers.
Comparisons have been made to Carson Wentz, the former North Dakota State whiz who was having an NFL MVP campaign with the Philadelphia Eagles last fall before suffering a season-ending injury. But the analogy doesn’t hold as well when you dig deeper and discover that Wentz’s career completion percentage was nearly seven points higher.
That said, I’m going to trust the process and believe that the Bills’ “McBeane “team of coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane see something in Allen that others have missed. Patience will be a virtue. Unless Allen takes the preseason by storm, I would go slowly with him while he learns to decipher defenses more rapidly and hones his mechanics. With a suspect receiving corps, a retooled offensive line and a schedule featuring five road games in the first seven weeks, it’s probably better to go with McCarron, who is entering his fifth NFL season and has three starts on his resume. If the Bills are out of the playoff race early—a distinct possibility—then the Allen experiment can begin in earnest.
If Allen realizes the potential McBreane sees in him, the Bills will finally find what they’ve been looking for.
Another long drought will become history.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.