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Josh Allen: The slow-burn rise of the Bills' superstar QB

(Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

The Buffalo Bills head into their Week 15 game of the 2020 NFL Season today with star quarterback Josh Allen leading the pack. Currently one win away from clinching the AFC East title, which would be their first division win since 1995, the team’s 10-3 record is no lucky strike. From a strong passing attack to a tightened hold on their third-down conversions, there are a number of factors that make the Bills as good as they are this season, and Allen’s improved arm accuracy and quick-thinking brain is undoubtedly one of them. The QB was originally said to be something like a dark horse in this season’s MVP race, running further behind candidates like Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, but as the year plays out, he veers closer and closer into the spotlight.

Last Sunday’s winning game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (31-14) was record-breaking for the QB (as well as wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who tied with Eric Moulds for the only Bills players to catch 100 passes in a season). Allen scored two touchdowns that night, adding to a total of 35 touchdowns in the 2020 season and earning himself the title of “most total touchdowns in a single season” in Bills’ history.

Jim Kelly, the Hall-of-Fame quarterback who had previously set the team record in 1991, offered up praise to Allen through a tweet from his wife Sunday night.

“Josh is going to break every record I have. Jim Kelly,” the tweet said, from Jill Kelly’s Twitter account, “Love to hear it!!”

Allen, while appreciative of the comments, remained humble. He mentioned that he and the former QB had been keeping in touch on a regular basis and that while hearing Kelly’s words was “super honouring and super humbling”, it isn’t the reason why he plays.

“I play to help Buffalo win football games and to be the best Quarterback the team asks [him] to be,” Allen said.

The understated grace and humility that Josh Allen possesses, even though he doesn’t need to, is unsurprising considering the fact that, for a while, the player flew under the radar of many football fans.

A little more than five years ago, Allen was a junior college quarterback, sending out a mass email to FBS programs in hopes of catching the attention of one of the Division 1 schools in the NCAA after receiving zero scholarship offers out of high school. The University of Wyoming was one of the only two who responded, and by 2015, the fresh-faced college kid was recruited onto the Cowboys’ to begin his slow-burn career rise in the American football game.

Allen played two seasons for Wyoming (with a collarbone injury pulling him out of what would have been his first season). He was the Cowboys’ starting quarterback both years, and led his team to victory at the NCAA-sanctioned Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in 2017, where he earned MVP of the game and graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Social Sciences the same year. And yet, NFL scouts were still weary of letting Allen into the big leagues.

Despite his ideal football body and athleticism, with a career completion percentage of 56.2% in college football, scouts feared the quarterback’s accuracy in the game wouldn’t improve once he began playing.

A 2018 Sportsnet article cited an NFL draft scouting report that claimed Allen would potentially be "the biggest boom or bust quarterback prospect in the draft”. Even so, the Bills’ took a chance on him and hoped for the former. They pursued Allen that same year and drafted him onto the team as seventh overall pick of the 2018 season.

As a rookie, the QB’s completion percentage dropped down to 52.8 per cent, while he scored 10 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, and rushed 631 yards and scored eight touchdowns. With a rating of 67.9, Allen hadn’t turned out to be the breakout blue-chip player the Bills had hoped for, but they were patient.

“We’re watching a young man grow and develop right in front of our eyes,” Sean McDermott, the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, said about the then-rookie that year.

And grow and develop he did.

Allen’s second season was a subtle improvement from his first, partly due to the company he was accompanied by on the field. In 2019, the Bills reworked their team massively so the QB had support around him on both offensive and defensive lines, including adding OL Mitch Morse and WB Cole Beasley to their roster. Allen’s completion percentage increased by six per cent, while his touchdowns doubled to 20 against nine interceptions. He also rushed 510 yards and scored nine touchdowns.

The Bills took a similar approach to prepare for the 2020 season, continuing to surround the QB with talent. They traded their first-round pick for key player Stefon Diggs, who Allen pairs seamlessly with as a QB/WR duo.

And whatever they’re doing, it’s working.

With a 67.6 per cent completion percentage and 28 touchdowns against nine interceptions, Josh Allen is on fire and bringing heat to every game. As well as adapting quickly to opposing teams and working on the accuracy of his arm, the improvement in the quarterback’s game strategy is apparent in the drastically reduced number of yards he’s covered this season compared to past years. With only 350 yards rushed and six touchdowns, Allen’s choice to use his brain over his legs under pressure more often demonstrates maturity in his decision-making and quick-thinking with the ball, making his arm that much more powerful.

Today, against the Denver Broncos, the Bills have the opportunity to take their division title for the first time in 25 years with a win. Still, Allen remains focused on clinching a playoff berth.

“We set our goal to have a home playoff game and [winning the division] secures our right to do so. It’s not the end all be all, it’s a step in the right direction.” he told USA Today.

Josh Allen has always taken the game step-by-step, and this time (perhaps for the first time ever) he’s got a huge audience of fans and supporters by his side.


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