Some giddy Buffalo Bills fans and commentators have rushed to judgment. They’ve already anointed Josh Allen as the second coming of Jim Kelly. To me, that’s a leap of faith greater than Allen’s Olympic-style hurdle of that linebacker during Buffalo’s stirring early-season upset of the Minnesota Vikings. Way, way too soon to jump to that conclusion.
But I will say this: Allen is starting to win over critics like me. Down the stretch, he took enough baby steps to make me think he has a slightly better chance of becoming the next Kelly than the next Rob Johnson, J.P. Losman or EJ Manuel. In other words, there is something to work with here. He just might have that hard to explain “it” that separates a franchise quarterback from an iPad holder.
Allen possesses many of Jimbo’s attributes. He is intrepid and tough. The fact he’s not afraid to dive to the pylon or throw a block to spring a ballcarrier is infectious, prompting teammates to follow suit and fans to spring from their New Era Field seats. Like Kelly, Allen has a bazooka arm, but lacks the touch and decision-making skills that made Kelly great. It’s early. That could come with experience. The highest-drafted QB in Bills history clearly is a bigger and better athlete than Kelly. Allen’s ability to evade rushers and scramble for sizeable gains resulted in him establishing franchise records for most rushing yards (631) and touchdowns (eight) by a quarterback in a season.
The rookie from Wyoming was forced to play sooner than expected, but may have benefitted from that torrid baptism. The baby-step progress I mentioned is borne out by statistics. In his first five games, Allen averaged 166 passing yards, threw two touchdown passes and five interceptions, and rushed for 31 yards per game and a total of three touchdowns. In his last six starts—after returning from an elbow injury—Allen averaged 206 passing yards, threw eight TD passes and seven picks, and rushed for 79 yards per game and a total of five touchdowns. He saved his best for last, passing for three touchdowns and rushing for two more in Sunday’s 42-17 evisceration of a weak Miami Dolphins team. It gave Buffalo four wins in its final seven games, but to keep that finish in perspective, the latter part of the Bills’ schedule was rated the easiest in the league.
Allen’s inaccuracy remains a concern. His 52.8 completion percentage is the lowest by an NFL passer with at least 250 attempts since 2011, when Blaine Gabbert completed 50.8 percent of his throws, and Tim Tebow 46.5 percent. Allen also has an issue with turnovers. Buffalo was a minus-five on the takeaway-giveaway chart, with Allen tossing 12 picks and losing eight fumbles. Twenty turnovers in 11 games is way too many. Playing behind a suspect offensive line and throwing to suspect receivers didn’t help. Plus, the Bills took more deep shots than most teams.
It was encouraging to see Allen developing a passing rapport with wide receivers Zay Jones and Robert Foster. Jones improved considerably in his second season, particularly in December, when he made five of his eight touchdown receptions. And Foster, an undrafted rookie, showed great promise, becoming the first Bills wideout since Sammy Watkins in 2015 to record three 100-yard receiving games in a season.
The Bills still need to find a true No. 1 wideout—a home run threat to take advantage of Allen’s arm. The good news is that with 10 draft picks and nearly $90 million available in cap space to court free agents, Buffalo will be able to address its needs at wide receiver and along the offensive line. Assuming General Manager Brandon Beane does a better job of identifying wideouts than he did with the free agent signing of Kelvin Benjamin, who was a flop, Allen should have more weapons at his disposal.
For the Bills to make significant strides in 2019 and beyond, they’ll need to rely less on Allen’s legs. Clearly, his ability to gain chunks of yards on the ground will continue to be a part of his repertoire, but he can’t continue to be the team’s leading rusher. Otherwise, he’ll run the risk of becoming a broken-down quarterback like Carolina’s Cam Newton, who clearly is showing the ill effects from all the pounding he’s taken running the football.
Running back LeSean McCoy no longer is the answer. The Bills clearly were trying to squeeze another year out of him in hopes an effective McCoy would alleviate some of the pressure on their first-year quarterback. They would have been better off dealing McCoy before the trade deadline when there was still a market for him. Though Coach Sean McDermott has said Shady figures into their 2019 plans, I think the Bills will move on. It’s going to be difficult trading a soon-to-be 31-year-old running back coming off a season in which he averaged 3.2 yards per carry. By releasing McCoy, Buffalo would clear another $6.4 million off its salary cap—money that can be used to lure more free agents.
It’s going to be a compelling off-season for the Bills, one of the most significant in team history. I agree with veteran Buffalo defensive back Micah Hyde that the organization is moving in the right direction. The Bills are in a great position to dramatically upgrade their roster. But their most important offseason development will be the work done by Allen. He has a chance to become the QB they have desperately sought for more than two decades. They’ll need him to take giant strides rather than baby steps next season.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.