Josh Allen's rookie season is really a good news/bad news situation for Bills fans.
Bad news first: He wasn't very good. But that's okay! I can't emphasize this enough, Bills Mafia: rookie quarterbacks are supposed to be bad. Struggle is to be expected in Year 1. Allen finished the season with a 10:12 TD:INT ratio, just over 6 yards/attempt, an 8.0 sack rate, and 52.8% completion percentage. All of that is really not very good -- but he also had great numbers as a runner and improved statistically later in the season, so there's reason to be excited.
And there's the good news: He was better than I expected, given his product at Wyoming. Allen showed more nuanced placement on downfield throws than I think he did with the Cowboys, which is a huge boon given how the offense is structured around him. He created a ton with his legs, which was not featured as heavily in Wyoming and could even get more offensive intention in Year 2.
Is functional NFL quarterback within range for Allen? That's really the question we have to ask, when we look at Year 1 and attempt to project it forward (always a messy endeavor, that is). As I detailed midseason last year, the Bills crafted a rather unique offense to fit Allen's skillset as a rookie, and I'm not sure how reliable that formula is on a game-to-game basis, or flexible as defenses begin adjusting the Allen Offensive.
I noticed two big things when it came to Allen's offense in Buffalo. Firstly, Allen finished the season as the top quarterback in Intended Air Yards as measured by Next Gen Stats -- a barometer for how frequently Allen threw deep down the field, and just how deep was deep for the walking howitzer. Starting in the middle of the season, as the Bills transitioned the offensive philosophy from Nate Peterman's strengths to Allen's strengths, you started to see more concepts that flooded downfield zones and allowed Allen to hold the ball for longer, scramble to break defensive structure, and attempt to bite off big chunks in one bite.
This is one of my favorite examples. On a hard play-action concept, Allen gets outside of the pocket, where he doesn't have to worry about the collapsing, suffocating pressure that so often drains at his accuracy. In open space, he can see far more easily where pressure is coming from and when it will arrive, which helps him speed up his process -- currently, his biggest weakness is a slow internal clock.
The concept looks like Levels until it isn't. Daboll manufactured a lot of deep shots for Allen by making new concepts look like old ones, and that's what allows the deep go/corner route of Deonte Thompson to mutate into a deep post into wide open space.
You can only draw up a passing concept like this if your quarterback has a hose and a half, and that's what you have with Allen. He keeps this pass low, driving it 40+ yards down the field, only to be dropped.
But this marriage of scheme and film is great news for all Bills fans: it means Brian Daboll knows what he has and lacks, in terms of Josh Allen's current skillset, and can still create explosive plays from that skillset.
But even with his strengths, Allen currently lacks consistently. If we stay against the Jaguars, we can find a very similar concept -- but this time, Allen is asked to execute from the pocket. And that's where the poor pocket management rears its ugly head.
This is the first complaint with Allen, and it always has been. His issues with inaccuracy are well-documented, and we'll touch on them later, but the biggest issue with Allen has always been his processing speed and risk management. A cool-headed quarterback, even with minimal NFL experience, should feel that he has space and time to adjust his set point, align his feet, and throw this ball downfield. Allen bails, tucks, and limits his offense with this run.
In the 2018 Contextualized Quarterbacking, I highlighted this issue. Allen took a sack on 1 out of every 10 dropbacks I measured and scrambled on 1 out of every 13 -- those rates are not simply a result of poor line play, both at the college and the pro level. I won't sit here and tell you that the Bills' offensive line was good in 2018, but Allen creates his own problems with poor pocket management and processing speed.
Part of that issue -- and part of Allen's league-leading depth of target, as I discussed above -- is his issues in the short game. By the end of the season, the offense simply did not rely on short throws at all, and that's because Allen's most egregious inaccuracy issues flare up in the quick game, when he doesn't build a throwing base and attempts to drive footballs into wide-open windows exclusively with arm strength.
Four plays here in which Allen tries to throw all arm -- the first three, within 7 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Again, when we turn back to the 2018 CQ, we see this sussed out in the data. While he was middle of the pack in terms of his ball placement to the intermediate range (10-19 yards down the field), and lower but still competitive on deep balls (20+), he was comfortably the least accurate quarterback on the shorter stuff. It seems that the easier the throw is for Allen, the more difficult he has to make it for himself.
Now, inaccuracy doesn't just vanish. Players don't just become more accurate -- at least, not with such a significant jump that we should expect Allen to, at any point in his career, become a suddenly accurate quarterback. He's good at hitting downfield throws when he can see it and sling it, though he still struggles with backshoulder placement; he can hit some intermediate crossers and then inexplicably miss the next one. The name of the game isn't making Allen more accurate -- it's modeling the offense around the throws that he can hit accurately, and hoping that passing game will be sustainable.
Allen's footwork can get better. But he'll probably continue to miss easy, short throws for the rest of his career.
What you can improve is risk management, and that's an absolute must for Allen. I think the Bills offense could survive weekly with Allen at the helm if he simply cut out the 2-4 boneheaded, absurd, inexplicable plays he makes per game. Many draft analysts gave Allen credit for playing with a poor supporting cast at Wyoming, which never made much sense to me, but the optics of Allen scrambling around trying to make something out of nothing supported that narrative. But that had as much to do with Allen's unwillingness/inability to take easy, quick throws, and his refusal to live to fight another down/drive, as it did his teammates.
So many of Allen's INTs this year were not poor accuracy. They were just plain stupid.
The scramble INTs are a big part of his game. Falling away from contact, looking at downfield receivers who he hopes somehow know what page he's on, Allen frequently launches moonshots -- where they fall, your guess is as good as mine. Allen was pressured on this play, which certainly invites the rebuttal: "If he just had a good offensive line, this wouldn't happen!"
Sorry, but that's hogwash. When I see a quarterback react this way to pressure, I don't care if he has the 2016 Dallas Cowboys in front of him, I'm sending the house as much as I can. Allen must learn how to swallow the pill, throw the ball away earlier, or, for God's sake, hit checkdown receivers.
But that's the pressured INTs. Allen also has some terrible decisions when he's unpressured, which goes back to the concerns about his internal clock and his comfort in the pocket. Allen gets skittish mighty quick when things don't develop easily for him, and accordingly, force feeds his first read regardless of game situation and coverage shell. He never has this throw -- maybe to the backshoulder, but he doesn't have that ball in his arsenal yet -- and yet he tries to make it anyway.
Again, there's nothing to say here, except this: that was a dumb decision.
Allen led all 2018 draftable QBs in interceptable balls in his final year at school, and that has not changed at the pro level. But when we look at the why behind some of these plays, we can see that this problem is easier to solve than say, those INTs on which he just flat out misses his receiver.
The first and most dire job of Brian Daboll and Josh Allen in Year 2 is just that: he must cut down on the worst decisions -- not even the bad ones! Just the drive-killing, game-script-flipping, giving-points-to-the-other-team-for-free decisions that so often took the plucky Bills out of a tight contest.
I think the Bills should again prove a feisty team this year, and while I don't expect a record above .500, I think 6-10 and 7-9 are within range, and they have the chances to take some good teams down to the wire. The entire offense is improved around Allen, and with an offseason in the NFL, this is a huge gut-check year for the young quarterback and all the analysts who have planted a flag on either side of his hill over the past two seasons.
We circle back to the question: can you build a functional offense around Allen in the NFL? I think yes, if you use him intentionally as a dual-threat player, don't mess around with a short game, and have enough wide receiver talent to basically play Madden on an NFL field. I don't think the infrastructure around Allen is strong enough yet, such that the Bills would be considered a dangerous offense to face -- but Allen is a playmaker, and he will be elevated by the additions of John Brown, Cody Ford, and Dawson Knox.
There's a better chance that Allen becomes a tenable NFL starter now than there was this time last year -- he landed in a good spot and showed growth in Year 1. But we're still far out from the mark, and development isn't linear. I have hope, but only a flicker.