Josh Allen took a modest step forward in his development last Sunday when he led the Bills on a game-winning field goal drive in the last 4:43 of a 13-12 win over the Titans.
The Bills started from their own 25 after Tennessee had taken a 12-10 lead. Up to that point, they had started 22 consecutive possessions on their side of the football field without scoring a single point. So it was nice to see the kid show such poise under pressure. He even completed two passes that might have traveled a combined 10 yards.
But at some point, you’d like to see more significant progress from Allen, who possesses a rifle arm and is expected to be Jim Kelly’s true successor as a franchise quarterback.
Granted, Allen has a supporting offensive cast that’s one of the worst in franchise history. His wide receivers are the worst in the league and his offensive line is mediocre at best. Not surprisingly, the Bills are last in the NFL in yards per play through five games (3.6). They’re last in net passing yards per play (3.7) and 28th in yards per rush (3.5).
So the offense is bound to struggle, and it’s understandable if Sean McDermott and Brian Daboll want to simplify the attack and limit the chances for Allen to drop back and either get sacked or rush through his progressions and throw an errant incompletion or a pick.
Last week, they employed a game plan right out of the 1970s, running the ball on 67 percent of their offensive snaps (43 runs, 21 passes). The Bills have run the ball on exactly have their offensive plays this season (141 run, 141 pass). The average NFL team is passing it 60 percent of the time through the fifth week. The ratio of pass to run continues to climb. Pass attempts are trending at record levels of 36.6 per team per game.
This isn’t to say you can’t win that way, or that the Bills were wrong to emphasize LeSean McCoy and the running game one week after Allen suffered a major regression at Green Bay. The idea is to win, presumably. But if Allen’s development is a major objective in his rookie season, is it wise to coddle him and limit his chances to throw?
McDermott was asked during Wednesday’s morning media gathering at One Bills Drive if he worried that a conservative plan might stunt Allen’s growth as a passer.
“Not necessarily,” McDermott said. “I understand why you would say that or ask that. It’s all part of the development of a young quarterback. I don’t know any quarterback who just throws the football to develop. I think that would be irresponsible. There has to be a healthy balance. You also work to improve in every area of our football team, offense or defense. Josh is no different.”
The run-first model is an outdated one, which doesn’t mean it can’t work. But for Bills fans, it’s a return to the model they grew to disdain under Rex Ryan, and during Tyrod Taylor’s frustrating three years as the Bills’ starting quarterback. Taylor won 15 games for the Bills when he threw for under 200 yards. He won twice when he attempted 30 passes.
The objective was to coach around Taylor’s weaknesses as a passer, while maximizing his tendency to be careful and not risk throwing interceptions. With low risk there’s less reward, which is a failed formula in today’s pass-happy league.
So at some point, they have to let Allen go and live with the consequences. You don’t learn to be an elite NFL passer by handing off. They have Derek Anderson to mentor the kid. It’ll help. Anderson has seen a lot in his 12 years in the league. He played on some bad teams and behind some at least one star quarterback — Cam Newton in Carolina.
Let’s hope Anderson is here merely to be a tutor. There’s been speculation that McDermott might make Anderson the starter if Allen falters. But it would be pointless to pull Allen at this point in his rookie campaign, barring a total meltdown. Anderson was on the street. The Bills can’t seriously think he could lead them to the playoffs.
Chances are, Allen will need to be more of a thrower next Sunday at Houston. The Texans are allowing 3.4 yards per rush, tied for second in the league. Teams have been able to throw on them. Opponents are completing 68.5 percent of their passes for 12 touchdowns with only three interception.
The Texans have 13 sacks, which is a concern for a Buffalo team that has given up an NFL-leading 22 sacks and is on pace to allow a franchise record 70. J.J. Watt is tied for the league lead with six (with Geno Atkins and his brother, T.J. Watt.).
The last time the Bills played in Houston, Watt picked off an EJ Manuel pass in the flat early in the second half and ran 80 yards for the winning touchdown. It was Manuel’s last game as the Bills’ No. 1 quarterback. The next week, Doug Marrone benched him for Kyle Orton.
Bad things can happen on the road. Allen might endure a similar catastrophe on Sunday at NRG Stadium. But if he’s the franchise guy, the Bills’ next great passer, he ought to go down throwing. They didn’t draft him to be a game manager, but a gunslinger.