Josh Allen was intentional about getting to his destination. The Buffalo Bills quarterback took off from near his own 30-yard line, picked up momentum at the 35, and was moving in rhythm at the 40. He didn’t have the football in his hands, but, figuratively speaking, he carried the the hopes of every western New York football fan on his back as he crossed the sideline and headed up the tunnel toward the locker room.
Moments earlier he had landed awkwardly at the end of a broken play. Pulled down from behind as he released a pass, he had both arms outstretched as if mimicking Superman in flight. When he hit the ground, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Arden Key was the second defender on the scene and landed on Allen’s back before rolling off. Immediately, Allen reached for his left (non-throwing) shoulder.
He rose to a knee and flexed his left hand. Then he walked toward the sideline before taking a detour and beginning his run toward the locker room, where he would be examined by the team medical staff. The good news was that he would not miss a snap, returning in time to take a knee to end the first half of a game the Bills would win 30-23 in Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. But during that brief moment when Allen was out of view, the outcome took a back seat to the health of the Bills’ potential MVP candidate.
If Buffalo is to end New England’s 11-year Vise-Grip on the AFC East title, it will need a healthy and productive Allen, who in only his third NFL season has guided the Bills to their first 4-0 start since 2008. It is not a stretch to say his development from last season has been as dramatic as that of last year’s MVP, Lamar Jackson, who turned the league upside down in 2019 following a solid rookie season. Consider the numbers from Allen’s first four games in 2019 to his first four this year:
- Completion percentage: from 60.3 to 70.9
- Yards passing: 903 to 1,326
- Touchdown passes: 3 to 12
- Interceptions: 6 to 1
- Team scoring: 76 to 123
And yet limiting any conversation about Allen’s development to statistics is like painting the region’s autumn leaves in black and white. It lacks vibrancy and true impact. You must use the full palate with him, because while he is still the same player in some respects, running around with abandon and physicality, he is completely different in others, his evolving maturity reflected in his patience and discretion. The latter does not show up in the highlights, but they are central to his and the team’s success.
For instance, there are times when a defense is so good with its disguise that it catches a quarterback off guard. Young quarterbacks tend to press in that situation. Desperate to make a play, they might throw into coverage, panic and get sacked and stripped of the ball, or take a grounding penalty. The Raiders fooled Allen on several occasions, and with the exception of one, he either threw the ball at the feet of his receivers on a screen attempt or threw it out of bounds. He kept his team out of harm’s way. The Bills may have lost a down but not the football.
Fact is, Allen is beginning to see things before they happen. Coach Sean McDermott said they made a point of trying to throw as many looks as possible at him during training camp, presumably in hopes of helping him process information more quickly when the season arrived. It appears to have worked. The lumps and awkward head-scratching moments of his first two seasons are becoming infrequent, almost to the point where you’re surprised when he takes a bad sack — as he did late against the Raiders, pushing the Bills out of field-goal range.
“I’m kicking myself for taking that sack and not throwing the ball away,” said Allen, who finished 24-of-34 for 288 yards, two touchdowns and a 115.8 rating. He had only the one sack.
It’s going to be hard to beat the Bills if Allen is playing like the tide that lifts all boats and the defense is creating turnovers. The unit gave up points on its first four series — field goal, field goal, touchdown, field goal — but opened the fourth quarter by sandwiching a pair of fumble recoveries around a stop on fourth down.