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Josh Allen & the Buffalo Bills: A quarterback conundrum

It’s not who you are, but who you’re with, that really matters

Josh Allen and the Bills offensive line in Allen’s first start of the season, against the San Diego Chargers.

Photos courtesy of the Buffalo Bills


The Buffalo Bills possibly altered the direction of their franchise for a decade or more this offseason when they moved up in the draft to select Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick. If all goes to plan, the selection will have netted the Bills their first franchise cornerstone quarterback since Jim Kelly ran the huddle back in the late nineties.


Allen comes out of college with some impressive superlatives. He had unquestionably the strongest arm among any of the five college quarterbacks that were drafted in the first round this year. His NFL.com scouting bio is full of glowing nuggets of information like, “Rare arm strength and overall arm talent,” and “Makes throws that no other quarterback in college can make.”


That’s what has the Bills salivating over his potential—but Allen is not without his detractors. Many observers, and even some fans, felt the team reached when they selected Allen. There are plenty of videos of Bills fans booing the selection on social media, and scouts who are high on his arm strength aren’t so keen on his accuracy. “Never had a completion rate higher than fifty-six in either season as a starter,” “Field reading is spotty,” and “Would benefit by trading some velocity for better timing,” all detract from his endorsement.


The gist from the experts, and from what we have seen of Allen so far, is that he has the talent to become a great NFL quarterback, but he requires some development to get there.


Development is a tricky thing, and there is no obvious blueprint. Some fans wanted Allen to start right away, some felt that he should take some time to learn the nuances of the NFL game in practice before he’s thrown into the fire. Clearly, the Bills have made their decision—for now—but focusing on whether he learns on the job or on the bench is missing the point.



Over the recent history of the league, many rookie quarterbacks have been given an opportunity as an NFL starter, and, in most if not all cases, the situation the player was in dictated the outcome more than the amount of time spent on the bench before getting the shot. Some quarterbacks come in and find success right away. The most obvious recent example is Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys. Like Allen, he was considered a bit of a project coming out of college. There were concerns he didn’t deal with pressure well and couldn’t find open receivers under heavy rush.


Prescott was a revelation in his first season. He led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and a division championship. He threw for over 3,600 yards, twenty-four touchdowns and just four interceptions. He completed almost sixty-eight percent of his throws. Prescott certainly had the talent to lead an NFL offense but the players around him were an undeniable help in his rookie season. That Cowboys team was stacked. Up front were two All-Pros on the line in Travis Frederick at center and Zack Martin at guard. They had fellow rookie, and eventual Rookie of the Year, Ezekiel Elliott who ran for 1,600 yards and fifteen touchdowns.


Prescott was throwing balls to future Hall of Famer Jason Witten and Dez Bryant, one of the most physically gifted wideouts in the league. They were favorites to make the playoffs in training camp before Tony Romo went down and opened the door for Prescott. Though Prescott’s talent showed through, he was also given an excellent opportunity to excel.


On the flip side of the equation is the story of the New York Jet’s Geno Smith. Similar to Prescott’s situation, Smith began starting when the Jets entrenched starter Mark Sanchez was hurt. Unlike Prescott, Smith inherited a team that was not ready for prime time. While he led his team to an 8-8 record, he struggled. Smith threw for just over 3,000 yards, only twelve touchdowns, and twenty-one interceptions while completing just fifty-five percent of his throws. He wasn’t surrounded with a lot of talent: the only Pro Bowler on the offense was center Nick Mangold.


The rushing attack was a platoon of Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell, who combined for a respectable 1,500 yards, but the duo managed just four touchdowns. Catching passes was an oft-injured rotating cast that included Santonio Holmes, Jeremy Kerley, and David Nelson—hardly a murderer’s row, even when they aren’t missing for a third of a season. No individual receiver caught more than four touchdowns or gained more than 523 yards during Smith’s rookie year.


This tale of two quarterbacks is potentially a dangerous one for the Bills. The current offense projects to be more Jets than Cowboys. In fact, Kerley and Ivory, who were both fixtures in Smith’s offense in New York, are both here this season playing a role for the Bills.


Buffalo has questions on the offensive line and at wide receiver. They don’t project to be a potent offense, no matter who is under center.


If Allen struggles with this roster, it could negatively impact his career development; quarterbacks in the NFL don’t get many chances to succeed before they are discarded for a new option. The roster around Allen could hold him back and make it appear as though he’s not as talented as he is. He could see a chance to prove he belongs slip away, and in a “show me” league like the NFL, one shot could be all he gets.   


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