Heck, he’s even giving geography lessons. I loved that playful exchange the Buffalo quarterback had with that Big Apple reporter following the Bills workmanlike victory against the Giants in the Jersey Meadowlands Sunday afternoon. The scribe was trying to develop a story angle off the fact Allen had opened the 2019 season with road wins in MetLife Stadium against the New York Jets and New York Giants, two teams that passed him over in the 2018 draft. So, the inquiring mind prefaced his question by mentioning how Allen could have wound up playing for a New York team. But before he could finish, Josh politely corrected him by saying he was playing for a New York team. In fact, the only New York-based NFL team. The Buffalo, N.Y. Bills.
The Jets and Giants are New Yorkers in name only. After all, their practice facilities are in New Jersey, and they play their games there, too, in East Rutherford. Yes, we’re splitting hairs here because MetLife Stadium is just across the river from Manhattan, and Northeastern Jersey really is a suburb of New York City. But, hey, facts are facts. And we’ve been harping on the need for Allen to be more accurate. Perhaps that is why the second-year QB good-naturedly felt compelled to be on target off the field, too. Nothing wrong with that.
Bills fans love to point out they root for New York’s only true NFL team, so Allen, who has embraced Buffalo since Day One, scored some more points with them. He further ingratiated himself by helping Buffalo start the season 2-0 on the road for the first time in franchise history. It’s still very early, but Allen has looked more precise and more poised throwing the football — continuing a trend we saw after he returned from an elbow injury late last season. Through two games, he’s completed 64 percent of his passes, and after a shaky first half in the opener when he pulled a Nathan Peterman by committing four turnovers, he’s settled into a nice groove. The resiliency he showed in the fourth-quarter comeback against the Jets was impressive, almost Jim Kelly-esque in the way he didn’t panic after a godawful start. And his progress continued in the efficient victory vs. the Giants.
We’re seeing a quarterback who is becoming more comfortable in the pocket. A quarterback who is going through his progressions, completing short and intermediate passes, and engineering long, confidence-boosting drives. A quarterback who isn’t forcing the issue as much, who’s learning sometimes it’s better to take the short gain or even throw it away. At times, Allen still utilizes his legs and arm to escape trouble and make plays that only a handful of NFL quarterbacks are capable of making. Admittedly this is a small sample size, but through two games his completion percentage is up 11.4 points from last season to 64.2, while his quarterback rating is up 13.7 points to 84.6. Up, too, are his passing yards, from 172.8 to 253.5 per game. All signs of progress.
Yes, we need to keep things in perspective. The Jets and the Giants appear destined to be among the dregs of the NFL. And if Allen had opened the season with four first-half turnovers against a good team, he likely would have dug a crater too deep to climb out of, and we probably would be having a different conversation.
The bottom line is that he did what he needed to do against two mediocre teams. And now things are unfolding rather nicely for the Bills. After going undefeated in New York, er, New Jersey, Buffalo returns home to play a Cincinnati Bengals team that got spanked by 24 points at home last Sunday. Then, the old-and-improved New England Patriots come to town. That game against their hated AFC East foes will be followed by a trip to Tennessee and consecutive home games against the hapless Miami Dolphins, the Super Bowl-contending Philadelphia Eagles and winless Washington. A 6-2 start is not out of the question, and suddenly the road-laden second half of their schedule doesn’t look as daunting, now that the Pittsburgh Steelers will be operating without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the rest of the season.
Of course, it’s always dangerous to play out schedules on paper. As we’ve seen in Pittsburgh and New Orleans, where Saints quarterback Drew Brees will be sidelined five or six games with a broken thumb, injuries can put a halt to hope in a hurry.
As encouraging as Allen has been, he still has much work to do, and he’ll need to make even greater strides while facing stiffer competition, particularly a Patriots team that is playing defense as well as it ever has in the Bill Belichick era, and an Eagles team that has a roster talented enough to bring home another Lombardi Trophy.
After going undefeated in those Empire State vs. Garden State showdowns, Allen is trending upward. His passes and grasp of geography have been more spot-on. Sunday will provide another interesting test. The Bills are sure to be sky-high for their home opener. But neither they nor their young quarterback are good enough to be looking ahead to the following week’s showdown against Tom Brady’s bunch. The Bills need to take care of business against an inferior opponent, just as they have the past two weeks.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.