Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher who knew not a whit about American football, opined there is nothing permanent except change. True that. And the change at One Bills Drive has been downright dizzying since the McBeane team of Coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane replaced the not-so-dynamic duo of Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley following the 2016 season.
The Buffalo Bills roster rebuild—or should that be demolition?—has resulted in just four holdovers from the squad the current braintrust inherited from its underachieving predecessors. And that dwindling list of survivors could be down to two—Lorenzo Alexander and Jerry Hughes—if LeSean McCoy and Shaq Lawson are cut or traded before the regular season opener against the New York Jets in the Jersey swamplands on Sept. 8.
As the Bills prepared to open their 20th and, perhaps, final training camp at St. John Fisher College this week, a busload of promising newcomers offer hope for better days, perhaps even a trip to the 2019 playoffs as a wildcard entry. Center Mitch Morse, who protected NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes last season while anchoring the Kansas City Chiefs offensive line, will be a vast upgrade for a porous Bills line that could feature as many as four new starters, which would constitute an 80 percent turnover.
The receiving corps should be bolstered by two free agent acquisitions: Cole Beasley, a prolific pass catcher for the Dallas Cowboys, and John Brown, who was known for his downfield speed while with the Baltimore Ravens. McCoy enters camp listed atop the running backs depth chart, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 and is coming off his worst season – a 3.2-yards-per-carry average. The addition of veterans Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon and rookie Devin Singletary leads me to believe McCoy’s days are numbered, but we shall see.
Defensively, Tremaine Edmunds, a 21-year-old, lanky linebacker with superstar potential, and Ed Oliver, a quick-footed rookie tackle, may help the Bills fulfill McDermott’s vision of becoming dominating and opportunistic on that side of the ball. Methinks the pass rush will be much improved with the addition of Oliver, who occasionally may line up on the edge to take advantage of his quick burst off the ball.
Of the many changes, though, the most important will be the ones made by second-year quarterback Josh Allen, who flashed enough brilliant moments during his truncated rookie season to make one think that maybe, just maybe, the Bills have discovered the franchise quarterback they’ve been desperately seeking since Jim Kelly’s retirement more than two decades ago. What I saw down the stretch, after Allen returned from an elbow injury, makes me believe this guy has a slightly better chance of becoming the next Kelly than the next Rob Johnson, J.P. Losman or EJ Manuel.
The baby-step progress he made during his rookie season was borne out by the statistics. In his first five games, Allen averaged 166 passing yards, threw a total of two touchdowns and five interceptions and rushed for 31 yards per game while scoring three touchdowns. In his last six starts, he threw eight touchdown passes and seven picks, and averaged 79 rushing yards while scoring five touchdowns. The Bills wound up winning five of their final seven games, but to keep that in perspective, the latter part of their schedule was rated the easiest in the NFL.
Allen’s physical skills are obvious. He is 6-foot-5, 237 pounds, has a bazooka for an arm and is fleet-of-foot, as evidenced by his 631 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns—both single-season franchise records for a quarterback. What Allen hasn’t been, even during his college days at Wyoming, is accurate. It’s not merely his completion percentage, which at 52.8 percent was the lowest by an NFL quarterback with at least 250 attempts in eight years. It’s also his decision-making skills and his propensity to take off and run as the first sign of duress.
Clearly, inexperience, poor technique and a suspect supporting cast worked against him. But, as mentioned, McBeane devoted the off-season to upgrade the line, receiving corps and run game, so the expectation is that Allen will make a significant leap during his sophomore season.
Working with new quarterback coach Ken Dorsey, we’re told, already has resulted in better footwork and smarter decisions. Dorsey is a former Heisman Trophy-winner who helped Carolina Panthers dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton make significant improvements. Allen appears cut from a similar cloth.
In all likelihood, he never is going to become a supremely accurate thrower, say, like a Drew Brees, who completed an NFL record 74 percent of his throws last season. Allen probably will struggle to reach the 60 percent mark. But the Bills can still succeed with him in the high 50s if he is able to improve not only on his short and intermediate throws, but also by putting his receivers in the best position to make plays. Allen has a big-arm and a big-play mentality. Nothing wrong with that. And as he showed, he can make huge plays with his legs, not only by evading pass rushers, but also by reeling off long gains. Nothing wrong with that either. But he needs to rely slightly less on the deep ball and his legs. There’s nothing wrong with settling for a five- or six-yard dump-off to keep the chains moving.
So, as camp commences, all eyes—and camera phones—will be scrutinizing Allen. Throws—good and bad—will go viral. Every play will be dissected and analyzed to death. The truth is we won’t be able to accurately assess the changes in him until the permanent games begin in September.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.