Josh Allen is a Buffalo-type kid.
Those are the words Buffalo Bills General Manager Brandon Beane used to describe his franchise quarterback. Sure, Allen has a huge arm and the prototypical build for an NFL quarterback at 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds. He also has wheels.
All of those things made Beane move up five spots in the 2018 NFL Draft to select Allen. The fact that his personality is representative of Buffalo, though? For Beane, that stands for something.
“Blue collar, tough, hard worker, just nothing given to him,” Beane said in a phone interview in early May. “He grew up on a farm. He was either playing sports or working on a farm. He played every sport he could so it meant less manual labor on the farm. People don’t come out of Firebaugh (California) and play college sports. He was still growing when he went to junior college, then went to Wyoming and had an injury. Nothing was given. He wasn’t a five-star recruit and having his butt kissed.
“Who’s been given anything in Buffalo? Everything has been earned through hard work. That’s why I thought Josh was a fit.”
For Beane, Allen is the face of a rebuild that has long been needed. After taking the job in the spring of 2017, Beane went for an immediate teardown. On Aug. 11, Buffalo traded wide receiver Sammy Watkins and a 2018 sixth-round choice to the Los Angeles Rams for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a second-round pick. That same day, Beane sent cornerback Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles for receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round selection.
The result? Many picked Buffalo to win one or two games under rookie head coach Sean McDermott. Incredibly, the Bills went 9-7, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
It would have made sense for Beane to recalibrate at that point. Many general managers would have ridden the wave of momentum and success in a city starved for both. Instead, Beane traded away quarterback Tyrod Taylor to Cleveland for a third-round pick, signaling a continuation of his original course.
“Yeah it’s not easy,” Beane said. “You want to win, that’s what you are paid to do here. That was a fun first year, especially understanding what we were walking into with a 17-year drought. But we had a plan, and no matter if we went 0-16 or 16-0, we knew what we had to do to get the cap right. We wanted to build through the draft and re-sign our own. We felt those were the moves we had to start making.”
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Beane knows his rebuild centers on Allen. The rest of his roster decisions can be perfect, but if Allen fails, so do the Bills.
After sitting for the first half of Week 1, Allen was inserted into the starting lineup last season. In 12 games, Allen threw for 2,074 yards with 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also ran for 631 yards and eight touchdowns, showcasing an ability to escape not seen in Buffalo since Doug Flutie.
However, Allen continued one disturbing trend. He doesn’t complete enough passes. At Wyoming, the former Mountain West star completed 56.2 percent over three seasons. As a junior, Allen hit on 56.3 percent while throwing for 6.7 yards per attempt. As a rookie in Buffalo, those numbers fell to 52.8 percent and 6.5 YPA.
History tells us that collegiate quarterbacks with accuracy issues don’t improve at the next level. In an article written prior to last year’s draft, I detailed that problem extensively.
From 2000-’14, 40 signal-callers were snatched up with a first-round draft choice. Of that group, 12 had completion rates of 59.9 percent or lower in college.
Only Carson Palmer, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford ascended above the 60 percent mark for their career in the NFL.
Of that quartet, Ryan and Cutler were the only two below 60 percent in their final college season. However, both were above the 59 percent threshold, while Allen fails to approach even that.
Of the aforementioned 40 quarterbacks, the average difference between completion rate in college and the pros is -3.01 percent. If Allen follows the average of those men, his professional completion rate will be 53.2.
In 2017, that would have ranked Allen dead last among qualified quarterbacks, trailing DeShone Kizer by 0.4 percent.
Still, Beane believes the reasons for those struggles can be seen only on the tape.
“I don’t think it’s as much his accuracy as much as his decisions,” Beane said. “I’m talking about taking check downs, possessing the ball. It doesn’t always have to be driving the ball 20-25 yards in a tight window. He attempts throws that most guys won’t because of his arm strength. That can be to his detriment. That’s a maturity thing. I was in Carolina with Cam Newton, and it was the same deal with Cam.”
While he admits Allen can hold the ball at times, Beane also points to the tape showing incorrect routes being run and the protection holding up.
At Wyoming, Allen didn’t have a single offensive teammate who has or likely will play in the NFL. Wyoming also played a system that was designed to throw downfield, rather than the Air Raid and spread systems that dominate the college game.
With the Bills, the talent level around Allen has risen this offseason. Buffalo spent lavishly in free agency, signing receivers Cole Beasley and burner John Brown along with center Mitch Morse. In the draft, Beane landed running back Devin Singletary and tight end Dawson Knox in the third round. Both have a chance to make immediate impacts.
It’s not the 1999 St. Louis Rams, but it’s also not the 2018 Buffalo Bills.
After spending nine years with the Carolina Panthers working under general managers Marty Hurney and Dave Gettleman, Beane has a clear idea of what he wants and how to assemble his roster.
“Couldn’t have worked out better to have a lifetime scout (Gettleman) and someone who knows how to run the whole operation (Hurney),” Beane said. “Two different upbringings to mentor me.”
Carolina largely won with a physical defense and an offense that won at the line of scrimmage. Even after taking Newton with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, Carolina remained a run-first team behind he combination of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Look at Buffalo’s roster, and you see a veteran tandem of McCoy and Frank Gore, aided now by a youngster in Singletary.
Unquestionably, Beane has an old-school philosophy. While he does use analytics to help inform decisions, he relies on them more for comparisons than identifying talent. As Beane put it, analytics are “just a tool to make you think as much as anything.”
The University of North Carolina-Wilmington grad would much rather dig into who the player is and whether he fits into the culture Beane and McDermott are trying to build in Buffalo. For a good match, Beane demands the intangibles match the measurables.
“You have to have the skill set, whether it’s at corner or linebacker. But when you get beyond that, it’s the DNA. The guy is tough, he’s smart, he plays with an edge, he’s a pro, he’s a good teammate. That’s what we vet, and it’s easier in college than the pros. … I don’t need 53 guys who are going to give a speech, but they need to be guys who are great followers and who follow the guys who do lead.”
Using that scope, a young team adding four veterans in free agency makes ample sense. Morse comes from a winner in Kansas City. Beasley and Brown have also enjoyed deep playoff runs in their past. Then there is Gore, who at 36 years old has played in eight playoff games, including Super Bowl XLVII.
With a solid base of young talent — Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Tre’Davious White, Ed Oliver, Cody Ford, Robert Foster and Allen among others — surrounding the veteran imports, there’s real reason to believe that Beane’s plan is coming together.
Of course, reality still exists. Buffalo isn’t going to leapfrog the New England Patriots overnight. New England has lorded over the AFC East for two decades and is a clear favorite in 2019. When asked whether he builds his team with the Patriots specifically in mind, Beane balks.
Instead of honing in on New England, the 42-year-old Beane spoke of taking away specific players in the division, although he declined to give names.
“We know we need to be good in all areas to build a contender,” Beane said. “You definitely pay attention to the three teams in our division. We talk about matchups. … We drafted Thomas Davis in Carolina to stop Michael Vick. He was playing safety in Georgia and he was a fast linebacker. That was at the start of the trend of taking safeties and making them linebackers. There may be a guy in the division who you try to offset, but you are still building the team using your philosophy.”
Within that framework, the Bills are looking at all factors. Playing in western New York, the winter — which starts in early November — has to be considered. Allen’s ability to cut the ball through the wind was another reason to take him over players such as Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson. Playing half the season with the potential for freezing temperatures and a blizzard, Beane and McDermott prefer to play smash mouth.
April 25. The 2019 NFL Draft. Beane entered his second draft with the Bills.
Picking ninth, Buffalo was in fine position. The board fell perfectly. Daniel Jones at No. 6 meant Buffalo was guaranteed a chance at landing at least one of edge rusher Josh Allen, tight end T.J. Hockenson or defensive tackle Ed Oliver. Allen went at No. 7 to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Detroit Lions turned in their card next. Hockenson. Buffalo’s war room exploded. The pick was obvious. Oliver.
April 26. Day 2. Buffalo held the No. 40 selection. The Bills wanted offensive tackle Cody Ford out of Oklahoma. Repeated attempts to move up yielded no success. The picks ahead of them ticked off. Byron Murphy. Rock-Ya Sin. Jawaan Taylor. Deebo Samuel. A trade comes at pick No. 37. The Panthers moved up 10 spots. Beane’s old team. He knows Carolina GM Marty Hurney, and he knew that Hurney was going to take a tackle. They had lost Ford.
Carolina did take a tackle. Greg Little. Finally, Buffalo gets its trade, going up two slots. Another eruption. Buffalo gets Ford.
As the night wore on, Buffalo continued its instant makeover. With the 74th-overall choice, the Bills chose Singletary, a shifty back out of Florida Atlantic. At No. 96, Buffalo traded back into the third round, sending a pair of fourth-round choices to the Washington Redskins. The target? Tight end Dawson Knox of Ole Miss.
Everything fell right for Beane and a franchise in desperate need of a few magical nights.
In any modern rebuild, there are four essential components. The general manager needs to identify the right coach and quarterback. He also needs to draft well consistently and supplement the team with quality free agents.
While it’s far too early to hand out reasonable grades on Beane’s two offseasons, his labor has given him a shot at real success. Buffalo has young talent dotting the roster, including a quarterback the franchise believes in. The Bills’ cap situation is also well-positioned to make larger moves when the time calls for it, something Beane has diligently worked to put in place since taking the job.
Still, this resurrection rests on Allen and Beane, two men eager to prove that being a Buffalo-type isn’t just being a hard worker. It’s being a winner.