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How Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen went from mediocrity to NFL MVP contender

January 9th, 2021

WHEN WAS THE exact moment you realized Josh Allen had made you look like a fool? How many “Are you bleeping serious?” throws did he have to make for you to question your entire belief system when it comes to predicting the success of an NFL quarterback? Because, dear reader, most of us did not arrive at this moment easily.

It took some time, and some serious self-reflection, for me to willingly don this clown suit that Allen is making me wear. But I come in peace, on the brink of the NFL playoffs, ready to own my shame.

This is a safe space, if you are ready to do the same. Because there are plenty of us out there. Football Outsiders called him a “parody of an NFL prospect” and said “every piece of empirical evidence we have on Allen leads to him being a failure.” Troy Aikman said it would be hard to imagine him improving his accuracy, that he’d never seen it in 17 years of studying the game. Pro Football Focus’ lead analyst mocked him for missing the net in drills at the Senior Bowl. An editor from NBC’s ProFootballTalk joked that Roger Staubach was more accurate, even at age 76. Even ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky expressed skepticism that Allen would be able to process things quickly enough after the snap to ever evolve into a franchise quarterback.

I never wrote a lengthy opus laying out my belief that the Bills’ third-year quarterback would be an epic bust, but I believed it deep inside my football soul. I LOLed when I saw his numbers at Wyoming. (Because, c’mon, you’re going to star in the NFL when you couldn’t even dominate the Mountain West?) I chuckled when he was drafted ahead of Lamar Jackson. (Maybe he can play tight end when this doesn’t work out, I ribbed my Bills-supporting friends, parroting the suggestion that Jackson might have to switch positions.) I rolled my eyes every time Allen was held up as some mythical working-class embodiment of western New York ethos (he’s from California!). Allen’s goofy grin, his awkward throwing mechanics, his clueless teenage naivete (and that’s a generous reading) when it came to writing offensive things on Twitter — none of it screamed “franchise quarterback.”

And his first two years in the NFL (league lows in completion percentage; 25th in QBR) did little to convince me otherwise. So this season, even after he roasted the Dolphins for 415 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-28 win in Week 2, there was a (large) part of me that still wasn’t quite ready to concede that Allen could, in fact, be a generational talent.

Until what started as a hot streak simply became Allen’s new normal. After watching him throw for 415 yards and three touchdowns against the Seahawks in a Week 9 win — while completing 82% of his passes — I began to wonder what alternate universe I’d been teleported into. This was a guy, after all, who completed only 49% of his passes at juco Reedley College and only 56% of his throws at Wyoming. As an NFL rookie, he actually got worse, completing 53%.

But this year, Allen connected on 69.2% of his passes, the 25th-best single season in NFL history, on his way to setting a franchise record for passing yards. You know who has never had a season in which he completed at least 69.2% of his passes? Tom Brady. Neither has Peyton Manning. The only players ahead of Allen (81.7) in QBR this year? Aaron Rodgers (84.4) and Patrick Mahomes (82.9).

So as the Bills prepare to host their first playoff game since 1996 and with Allen gaining legit MVP buzz, I decided to embark on a fact-finding mission to at least begin to grasp how I — and, in my defense, so many others — whiffed so badly in the assessment of Allen. Was it an overreliance on analytics? Was it just Power 5 football-inspired arrogance? Or is he proof that you can, in fact, improve your throwing accuracy, debunking the long-held conventional NFL wisdom that it’s mostly innate?

How on earth did the quarterbacking equivalent of scrawny Steve Rogers become, over the course of three years, Buffalo’s Captain America?

JORDAN PALMER WANTS me — and, by proxy, you — to understand something: The idea that you can’t improve a quarterback’s accuracy through coaching is, well, bogus.

Palmer played four seasons in the NFL, threw just 18 career passes and, until recently, was primarily known as Carson Palmer’s younger, less talented brother. But after his playing career ended in 2014, he gradually reinvented himself as an offseason passing guru for young quarterbacks, Allen among them. They’ve spent the past three years working together, Allen throwing thousands of passes as Palmer has looked on, essentially a California-based Yoda running his own Jedi academy. (Joe Burrow and Sam Darnold also count Palmer as a mentor.)

The proof is in the numbers: After ranking last in the NFL in completion percentage in his first two seasons (55.8% in 2019), Allen this year has jumped into the top five, alongside quarterbacks like Rodgers, Drew Brees and Deshaun Watson. He’s just the fourth quarterback in the past 20 years to increase his completion percentage at least 10 percentage points from one season to the next.

Palmer is quick to deflect credit for Allen’s dramatic improvement, saying the coaches on Buffalo’s staff, like offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and quarterback coach Ken Dorsey, deserve most of the praise. But Palmer will also confess that he saw the potential for a huge leap for Allen during the unusual offseason.

“Certainly, I expected big things this year,” Palmer says. “But even I’m pleasantly surprised by just how consistent he is and by the amount of absolute dimes he’s throwing. He’ll have at least two or three throws a game where, if he’s off just a little bit, it’s going the other way. But he’s making them practically every time.”

The potential for Allen to turn his powerful shoulder cannon into an accurate one was always there, Palmer says, but the key to unlocking it was actually in his feet, not his upper body. “He drastically changed his base that he played with,” Palmer says. “He used to bounce up and down on his toes, with a narrow base, which would cause him to over-stride when he’d go to throw. There is a cascading effect once you over-stride. Now he’s learned to play with a much better base. When you play with all your cleats on the ground, you create more energy and you have more balance.”

In this era, we have a much better grasp of how the kinematic chain works, thanks to advances in technology. Sure, a grizzled quarterback guru with 20 years of experience might be able to watch offseason workouts and make subtle tweaks in a quarterback’s delivery, but these days that same coach could also look down at his iPad and read — thanks to a microchip implanted inside the football — the velocity, the spin rate and integrity of a spiral in seconds.

“Ball don’t lie,” Palmer says. “We also use a 4D, high-speed, motion capture camera system called Biometrek. It’s a startup out here in California. They have 16 high-speed cameras and we’ll throw in their [studio], then you use a computer to turn your guy into a little stick figure. We use that to look at weight distribution, mass and the kinematic sequence, which is the hip going first, then the shoulder and ultimately the arm firing. That was the biggest thing for Josh. Is his first movement going down into the ground and loading? Or was his first movement just at the target? The difference between bad and great, especially in a workout setting, is minor. But Josh is really, really athletic, and that’s an underrated part of this. It allows him to make permanent changes really quickly.”

Palmer is a bit hesitant to talk about the other aspect he thinks spurred Allen’s progress this year, because he doesn’t want it to come across as callous, but there is no doubt in his mind that the COVID-19 travel restrictions forced his clients (Allen among them) to live in a football bubble they’ll never experience again. Palmer had to cancel nearly all of his passing camps for high school kids around the country, as well as a three-week stint in Germany. He poured all his focus into trying to better understand biomechanics and the kinematic sequence, knowing his players had similar free time.

“Think about it like this,” Palmer says. “They didn’t go to OTAs, which are a waste of time for a lot of guys. If you’re someone like Drew Brees, you’re actually better off being at home with your trainer. Well, they also didn’t have any weddings to attend. They didn’t have any charity golf tournaments. Nobody shot commercials. Nobody went out and did a boys weekend in Cabo or Vegas, which a lot of guys do three weekends a month. Nobody did any of that s— because of COVID.”

NOT EVERYONE GOT it wrong when it comes to Allen, of course. Some people have been loud and proud in their defense of Allen, even dating back to the NFL draft, and now they’re enjoying a bit of a victory lap. In the spirit of eating crow, I decided to call arguably the most vocal Allen defender — my ESPN colleague Mel Kiper Jr., who ranked Allen the top QB in the class all the way through draft day — and let him dunk on me for 10 consecutive minutes.

“His analytics weren’t to the level that you want,” Kiper says. “But that’s why I call them ana-lie-tics. To me, you have to look deeper. It’s why I call it lazy scouting. I’ve always used analytics, but they’re a tool.”

So why did so many of us get hung up on Allen’s flaws when Kiper couldn’t help but be swayed by his strengths? For one, most of us weren’t exactly grinding over his third-quarter tape against Gardner-Webb or Utah State — or even noticing that the Cowboys had to play Iowa and Oregon (Allen’s worst game by a wide margin, in which he completed just nine of 24 passes) early in the season.

“A lot of what happened in games is he was trying to make something happen, down late in games,” Kiper says. “Yes, he got sloppy with his mechanics, but he also didn’t take the easy 5-yard throws that were going to do nothing for them.”

We also didn’t know that Allen was missing four NFL-caliber players who’d just graduated the year before. They might not have been first-round picks, but in the Mountain West, blue-chip talent doesn’t arrive with every recruiting class the way it does in the SEC.

Late in the year, Allen hurt his shoulder and had to miss two games against Mountain West opponents, missing an opportunity to pad his stats a bit. Despite knowing he was likely to be a first-round pick, Allen insisted on returning for Wyoming’s bowl game against Central Michigan in the Idaho Potato Bowl. In his best game of the season by ESPN’s QBR (89.8), he threw three touchdowns and led his team to a victory.

“He didn’t quit on his team, he didn’t give up on the year,” Kiper says. “Remember, nobody else offered him a scholarship. So he felt a sense of loyalty to Wyoming and his teammates. And you see that same thing now in Buffalo. Those guys in that locker room love him. He inspires that kind of loyalty.”

Kiper is the first to acknowledge that one of the biggest factors in a player’s development is the stability of the franchise that ends up drafting him, yet it’s still something we don’t weigh heavily enough. Allen was all over draft boards in 2018, when four quarterbacks were taken in the first 10 picks. What if he’d been drafted by Cleveland at No. 1 (or No. 4) and was coached by Hue Jackson and Freddie Kitchens? What if he’d gone to the Jets at No. 3 and been tutored by Todd Bowles and Adam Gase? Would Allen have turned those franchises around, saved those coaches their jobs? Or would the steady drumbeat of mismanagement and drama in those franchises have overwhelmed his development?

“A lot of credit in this should go to [offensive coordinator] Brian Daboll,” Kiper says. “Brian has given Josh the confidence, the latitude to go out and run the team the way he see it in conjunction with the plays he’s calling. He’s worked to develop Josh into a quarterback who can take shots deep but also be patient enough to keep the chains moving. I think Daboll is going to get a head-coaching job because of what he’s done with Josh, and the whole town of Buffalo is made for Josh.”

BRIAN DABOLL DOESN’T mince words when it comes to Josh Allen.

He loves him. Like, he really loves him.

It’s not the chummy, headbutt-your-bro and slap-him-on-the-rear-right-before-battle kind of love, the type of thing that typically passes for friendship and intimacy in the strange world of football.

It’s more like this: When Allen’s grandmother died in November, right before Buffalo’s game against the Seahawks, he was emotionally wrecked. He decided to play anyway. After the game, arguably the best performance of his career, he stumbled into the locker room, eager to find Daboll. When he finally did, he fell into Daboll’s arms. They both sobbed.

So, that kind of love. Fair to say it runs a little deeper than this guy might get me my first head-coaching job.

“I know his parents and his family. I know how he was raised, and you just can’t help but root for him,” Daboll tells me, late in the season, when I call to ask him if he could explain how he and Allen became closer than just coworkers. “We’ve spent a lot of time together the last three years, and he means much more to me than just a quarterback and a player. The relationship we’ve built is something special, and it always will be. I just care about him as a person. I feel very fortunate to coach him but also to have him as a friend.”

Daboll says that throughout the scouting process, he never bought into the idea that Allen wasn’t accurate. Sure, his numbers at Wyoming might have suggested as much, but his workouts with the Bills didn’t. When they asked him to make throws, he delivered the football (in general) where it was supposed to go. There were times when he needed to understand when to use zip and when to use touch, but he’s hardly the first quarterback to possess an arm that strong. (John Elway was plagued by that conundrum for years.) Over three years with Daboll and a relatively consistent stable of receivers with Buffalo, Allen has learned when to dial it back and when to throw it hard enough to knock someone’s teeth out.

“That’s a narrative that was out there, but there is a difference between completion percentage and accuracy,” Daboll says.

The Bills — with Allen constantly pressing his foot on the accelerator — have evolved into one of the NFL’s most aggressive, entertaining teams. They throw 64% of the time on first down, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the highest rate of any winning team in the past 20 years. They’ve lined up with four wide receivers 155 times this year, the second-highest total in the league. On 43% of their plays, the Bills put someone in pre-snap motion, a stat that doesn’t seem significant until you realize that’s up from 25% in 2019, when they ranked 31st in the NFL.

This year, the Bills added Stefon Diggs (NFL-high 127 receptions and 1,535 yards), but Allen is distributing the ball to everyone. Thirteen different Bills caught a touchdown pass this year, tying an NFL record. Like Diggs, Cole Beasley — in his ninth year in the league — set career highs in receptions (82) and yards (967). It’s only the second time in franchise history that two receivers topped 80 receptions for the season.

“I told Josh I think he just made three of the best throws I’d ever seen in my life,” Beasley told me after the Bills’ 49-19 Week 15 win over Denver. “When you’re playing with a guy like that, it drives you to get open every play because you know he’s going to find you.”

Allen has also turned Daboll into one of the league’s most sought-after head-coaching candidates, a development that’s almost unthinkable considering Daboll’s middling results in three previous stints as an offensive coordinator with the Browns, Dolphins and Chiefs. It wasn’t anyone’s idea of a dream pairing back in 2018, but the closer they became, the more it clicked.

“From his first year to his second year, I think Josh had nine new guys starting around him,” Daboll says. “We didn’t add a ton this year, other than [Diggs]. But we’re constantly evolving the offense to fit what he does best and what he feels most comfortable with. We tailor everything to Josh. And to be fair, he’s been fortunate to have the same system and grow in that same system for three years. That’s not always the case in this league. It takes a village to develop a young quarterback, but it starts with him.”

As for the idea — repeated often the past three years — that Allen means something more to the city of Buffalo than just a quarterback, I couldn’t resist asking Daboll, someone who grew up in western New York and went to high school just outside Buffalo, about it. A lot of NFL players privately view Buffalo as something akin to a prison sentence in Siberia, yet Allen has gleefully embraced his existence there. His teammates seem to love him, and he’s helped raise over $1 million for Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo.

“I’ll take my coach hat off for a second and put my fan hat on, if that’s OK,” Daboll says. “I’m sure glad we got him. Not just for his production, but what an unbelievable role model he is off the field. He cherishes that aspect. This dude is Buffalo. He’s made for this spot.”

THERE WAS A form letter bouncing around social media this fall, created by a playful — or spiteful, your mileage may vary — member of the Bills Mafia.

It was titled: The Josh Allen Apology Form.

Anyone who wanted to could fill in their own name, admitting they got it all wrong with Allen, checking a box with the reason you, well, got it wrong. Among the options:

– I don’t know football.
– Was jealous of Josh Allen.
– Media told me he was bad.
– Only listened to ESPN.
– Didn’t watch the actual games.

I didn’t fill one out (I’m fairly certain this story will suffice as an offering), but I was curious to know whether Allen had ever been made aware of the form — and if it was even behind some of his most hater-baiting performances this year. Baker Mayfield seems to treat slights like oxygen. Lamar Jackson quipped “Not bad for a running back” in a postgame news conference after he threw for five touchdowns. Did Josh Allen take any pleasure in knowing the letter was out there and fans were using it to hold media folks — like me — accountable?

It turns out Allen is aware of its existence, though he seemed a little embarrassed by it when ESPN’s Steve Young pressed him about it, curious as to whether it was the source of any satisfaction.

“It doesn’t really bother me or flatter me all that much,” Allen said in December. “I’m an extremely self-driven person. I have a lot of confidence in myself. I take ownership of the last couple years, the mishaps and miscues, and understand that I was growing and learning. But the apology letter, the form or whatever you want to call it? I guess it was cool. It was something to talk about.”

It’s admittedly hard to hold a grudge against someone who passes on the chance to rub his breakout season in your face, so I’d like to take this opportunity to forgive Josh Allen, if he’s listening.

I forgive him for making me, and so many others, look like an idiot.

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