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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The new football hope of upstate New York cannot go anywhere in Buffalo without being reminded of the large shadow cast by the revered teams of Bills past.
“Always — always,” second-year quarterback Josh Allen told Yahoo Sports. “[Fans] are just like, ‘You’re gonna be the next Jim Kelly!’ It’s high praise ... and it’s a lot of pressure, if you will.”
Especially when you’ve heard it as much as Allen has.
“I mean hundreds, if not thousands of times,” he added.
Allen gets it. By reaching four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s, Kelly and his comrades built a loyal and passionate fan base that helped dissuade the team from moving to another city even though the Bills still play in one of the league’s oldest stadiums.
What’s more, Allen also gets why fans are putting the franchise’s Super Bowl hopes on his shoulders. Buffalo traded up twice to take him seventh overall in last year’s draft — one of the most hyped quarterback classes of the past decade — and this is what he signed up for, to be the face of the franchise, the Bills’ version of all the greats he grew up watching, like Brett Favre, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
“Growing up, being a professional quarterback is the only thing I ever wanted to do,” Allen said. “It’s the most amazing thing ever; I couldn’t do anything else.”
So during training camp, the 23-year-old Allen regularly did face-of-the-franchise things. He spoke to the media for 20 minutes daily. He signed autographs for upward of 45 minutes, right up until he was dragged away by a staffer informing him it was long past time to lift weights.
“He doesn’t have to,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane told Yahoo Sports. “You can make excuses like, ‘Oh, I gotta go in for a meeting, I gotta do this or that.’ But he understands this is a business, and he understands his brand and he cares. He talks about being a kid growing up who wanted to meet such a player, and now he’s that guy, he hasn’t forgotten.”
But if Allen really is going to be the next Jim Kelly, he’ll have to prove it on the field. And while that’s still a work in progress, which Allen showed in his uneven performance in the Bills’ third preseason game against Detroit, there are three reasons the Bills believe Allen will eventually match the expectations of their fan base.
No. 1 — Allen’s rare physical gifts make him a playmaker
Two weeks before Beane took over as the Bills’ general manager in May 2017, Buffalo’s previous regime dealt the 10th overall pick to Kansas City, which promptly selected Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes. And while no one thought at the time that Mahomes would become a league MVP so quickly, Beane knew quarterback was a position he’d attack in the next draft, despite a 9-7 season that ended the team’s 18-year playoff drought.
There were no shortage of options in that class. Beane and the Bills fell for Allen, whose freakish combination of size (6-foot-5, 235 pounds), athleticism and rocket arm strength — he insists he can chuck it 80 yards — was enough to overlook an uneven senior year at Wyoming in which he completed only 56.3 percent of his passes and saw his touchdowns drop from 28 to 16 and rushing yards fall from 512 to 204.
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Allen was criticized heavily throughout the draft process for his lack of accuracy and anticipation, in addition to his tendency to trust his arm too much. Beane figured those were issues that Allen could improve upon, while Allen’s natural ability to make “wow” plays with his arm and legs was not duplicable.
“Listen, I’d rather have to pull a guy back,” Beane said. “I’ve been around guys where you call them Charlie Checkdown, where they just take it and do it and go ‘Oh, I got the completion, coach.’ And we don’t want that.”
While Allen’s natural gifts showed quickly — he threw for 196 yards and had three total touchdowns in the Bills’ Week 3 win over Minnesota, his second career start — Allen says he started to realize that his talent translated to the pro level only after missing four games with an elbow injury. In his first game back, he racked up 99 rushing yards in a 24-21 win over Jacksonville.
“The Jaguars game is when it first hit me — I was still running away from people in this league, which surprised me,” Allen said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to have as much success on the ground as I did.”
Allen rushed for a team-high 631 yards and eight touchdowns on 89 attempts in 12 games last season. The Bills weren’t expecting it.
“Obviously, we didn’t think he’d have so many yards rushing that he had last year, and most of them were on scramble plays,” offensive coordinator Brian Daboll told Yahoo Sports. “That’s part of his game that I wouldn’t want to take away ... his ability to, if it’s not there, if he has to make a play with his feet.”
While Allen’s athleticism and arm strength give him a chance to extend plays and make throws 90 percent of NFL quarterbacks can’t, another reason for optimism lies in the improvement he’s making in the pocket.
“Hopefully I won’t have to do all that stuff this year,” Allen said.
No. 2 — Allen worked on improving as a passer
Allen’s passing numbers last season in a pass-friendly league — 2,074 yards, 10 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 52.8 percent completions — were subpar.
His offseason to improve began right before free agency in early March, when he rented out a seven-bedroom house on the beach in Orange County, California, and invited several of his skill players to attend so they could throw 1-on-1 routes on the sand near the water.
Sometimes Allen played receiver, sometimes he played defensive back. The goal was to work on concepts in the playbook that he knew the Bills would be using: out routes, curls, stops, etc. About eight guys total were at the outing, which was also organized by backup quarterback and fellow California native Matt Barkley.
“Just being dudes man,” Allen said with a laugh.
Over the past several months, the Bills have emphasized the importance of decision-making, ball location, pocket movement and situational awareness with Allen, who admits he didn’t switch up his cadences enough and needs to be better identifying coverages.
“A lot of dumb mistakes last year … things that could have been really easy that I made a lot harder than they needed to be,” Allen said.
The Bills love his field vision and smarts — “The more he plays, the better he’ll be; he can read defenses,” Daboll said — but as Allen continues to grow, he will largely lean on the plays Allen is comfortable with.
“Daboll makes it as easy for me as possible,” Allen said. “And he’s still got his core stuff in that he wants, but he said, ‘If there’s a concept or play that you don’t like, we’re not running it in a game.’”
As for that league-worst completion percentage? The Bills don’t see it as a function of a fundamental lack of accuracy.
“When his footwork was right, he was accurate,” Beane said. “I thought at times he tried to do too much; that even happened last year, especially earlier in the year. But that was the thing I noticed after the injury — he was letting his teammates do their job and help him.”
This remains an ongoing battle, one Beane hoped to aid by improving the talent around Allen.
“I don’t think we gave him a lot of outlets [last year],” Beane said.
No. 3 — The Bills got Allen lots of help
The Bills doled out $54.1 million in guaranteed money to offensive players in free agency, and of the additions — which included center Mitch Morse, guard Quinton Spain, tackle Ty Nsekhe, tight end Tyler Kroft and receiver John Brown — arguably the most helpful will be wideout Cole Beasley, who has formed a fast friendship with his quarterback.
“He’s in my ear 24/7, in or out of the facility,” Allen said.
There’s significant optimism the eight-year pro can be the security blanket that Allen lacked last season.
“A chain mover,” Beane said.
Add in Brown, a deep threat that the strong-armed Allen says he hasn’t been able to out-throw yet, plus a big target over the middle in Kroft and the Bills’ 2018 leading receiver in Zay Jones, and Beane is confident Allen has the weapons to improve as a passer in 2019. Even if they aren’t the big, strike zone-widening targets that Carolina once gave Cam Newton, the quarterback to whom people occasionally compare Allen.
“When Josh is confident in where he’s going with the ball and does his footwork the way he’s supposed to, he’s accurate — I’ve seen him play enough to know he can make those throws,” Beane said. “Like any of ‘em, he’s gonna miss those throws here or there. But I haven’t found him missing John or Cole.”
The Bills hope that’s the case during the regular season, though signs of the same youthful mistakes have surfaced this preseason, courtesy of some forced throws.
Allen’s development requires patience, but Bills fans can take heart in knowing their new franchise savior doesn’t take the job lightly.
“It’s surreal to me to be in this position, because I was in junior college four and a half years ago,” Allen said. “So to be in this situation, I’m taking everything very personal and, like I said, having a lot of pride in what I do.”
So much so, in fact, that the day before he spoke to Yahoo Sports, Allen sat down with Kelly and sought advice on how to carry the mantle.
“He’s been super, super cool about everything, kind of taking me under his wing as far as what to do, what not to do in the community,” Allen said. “He’s been a good role model in that aspect.”
And Kelly’s best advice?
“Take what they give you,” Allen said with a laugh.
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