Josh Allen’s wild-card round destruction of the New England Patriots might have been the best playoff game an NFL quarterback has ever put forward. His 98.5 quarterback rating at ESPN was a playoff record in the history of that metric, back to 2006. He completed 21 of his 25 throws for 308 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions, and he tossed in 66 yards on six rushes for good measure. He did not take a sack, and his Buffalo Bills impossibly scored touchdowns on all seven of their drives that didn’t end with a half expiring. Their punter kicked the ball as many times as you did, and the Bills won, 47–17. Those facts undersell Allen’s performance, which came in a minus-5 wind chill and at the expense of one of the great defensive minds in football history, the Patriots’ Bill Belichick. It was also just so damned attractive, with Allen barely exerting himself to produce all that greatness.
So, yeah. You may not see a more impressive QB game for decades. That particular level of dominance was new for Allen and would be for any player, but Allen being really good is not. He was around league average this year in most passing categories, but he was sixth in QBR, which bakes in a player’s running contributions. He was third in 2020. He has been one of the most effective QBs alive for two or so years now, which relates directly to the Bills reaching the AFC Championship last season and sitting one win from getting back there this year.
This might all be surprising if you followed college football closely during Allen’s pre-NFL years. Allen played at Wyoming, with stints there sandwiched around some time at a junior college. He was not special in either setting, despite having tons of what scouts would call “arm talent,” a 6-foot-5 frame to make evaluators drool, and guidance from a head coach who’d won several national championships and produced a top-two NFL pick at QB a few years earlier. The Bills drafted Allen with the seventh pick in 2018, in the starkest example ever of the NFL’s scouting establishment and college football watchers diverging on a player’s quality. Allen hadn’t been good at Wyoming, where he was the statistical sixth- or seventh-best QB in the 12-team Mountain West Conference. The numbers case against his NFL success was frankly overwhelming, as QBs simply did not (with nothing even close to an exception in any recent time) go from college mediocrities to NFL stars. Prior to Allen, it was not a thing that had occurred, and I couldn’t fathom he’d go first.
Yet here he is. Allen is a great player, and his success is cause for some of us to reexamine (though not necessarily to overhaul) how we think about quarterbacks in transition from college to the sport’s highest level. Allen doesn’t disprove the idea that good college QBs tend to make better NFL QBs, but he does punch a big hole in the idea that so-so ones cannot.
The statistical case against Allen was strong, but so was a philosophical case about QB development. You shouldn’t listen to Mike Leach about much, but the pioneer of the Air Raid offense is as smart as anybody about how to mold a quarterback over time. In 2016, he talked about one thing you really can’t mold: accuracy. “The thing that’s amazing to me is that after all of high school, he’s not accurate, and now all of a sudden you’re special and you’re going to make him accurate? And then after college he’s not accurate, and you’re special and you’re going to make him accurate? I just haven’t seen that happen. I’ve seen guys improve, but they don’t all of a sudden become accurate,” he said then. Allen seems to have defied that after completing an extremely low 56 percent of his passes at Wyoming. His 66 percent completion rate over the past two years is about a point above the league average. That’s about 4 percent higher than his completion percentage “should” be based on the depth and coverage of his receiving targets, one of the best rates in the NFL, according to analytics site RBSDM.com. Both improved footwork and communication with receivers have helped a lot, too.
Allen’s ability to throw accurately has made him into a total outlier of an NFL QB, because he already had everything else. He was the league’s most efficient rushing QB this year, averaging 6.25 yards per carry, to put him ahead of both Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts. He’s got a strong group of receivers around him, including mega-star Stefon Diggs and slot wideout Cole Beasley, who works even harder to catch footballs than to catch COVID, which is saying a lot. Tight end Dawson Knox has emerged, and the offensive line is in the top half of the league in pass blocking. The Bills are operating on such a high plane right now that when they play the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes on Sunday, it’s not clear that Buffalo will be outmatched at quarterback. The Bills might lose, but either way, they will probably be back.
The Allen pick has worked out perfectly for the Bills, who showered him with a contract extension worth up to $258 million before the season. (The deal might be pricier if it were executed today.) The remaining mystery is how future Allen-like situations will unfold for other teams that try to do what the Bills did: draft a toolsy but unproductive college QB and try to buff him into a star. Allen remains an exception to the rule, as recent decent college QBs-turned-NFL sadnesses Mitchell Trubisky (a No. 2 overall pick) and Daniel Jones (No. 6) have affirmed.
It is possible that Allen remains the only, or at least the most dramatic, alternative case. There might not be anyone else like him. It is also possible that college football offense has changed so rapidly in the past decade or so that QBs whose teams didn’t fully buy into the schematic revolution cannot be evaluated in the same way as their peers. Craig Bohl, Allen’s coach at Wyoming, won three straight national titles at North Dakota State with a pounding, under-center running game and occasional drop-back passing game. (One of Bohl’s NDSU QBs, though early in his career, was Carson Wentz, who became the No. 2 NFL pick later by the Philadelphia Eagles.) Bohl brought that powerful, plodding offense to Wyoming and had Allen operate it, while teams around the sport where running shotgun spread offenses with lots of option components. Playing frequently from under center rather than the shotgun, Allen lacked the running opportunities he’s had in the NFL. With fewer receivers running routes, he had fewer places to put the ball. Allen was playing a different sport than, for instance, his draft-class peer Jackson. Maybe we should’ve tossed out the on-field results he produced at Wyoming altogether.
There are less exciting explanations. Maybe it was just too cold in Laramie, Wyoming, for Allen to really heat up. But his success in frigid Western New York undermines that argument. Maybe it was that he didn’t have a lot of talent flanking him, as Wyoming ranked near the bottom of the Mountain West in recruiting. But that doesn’t hold up either; the talent difference between the bottom and top of a Group of Five conference is not as big as in the Power Five leagues, and Utah State just won the MWC this year with one of the least talented rosters in the conference, according to recruiting rankings.
The unexciting truth is that Allen’s rise is probably a combination of a few of these things (though not the weather). He really did get better at throwing the ball, despite Leach’s warning of how rare that is. The Bills really did put him in positions to succeed, and that really did look like a dramatic jump because Wyoming did not. And being a really good college QB is still the best foundation on which to build a good NFL career, lest Daniel Jones suddenly get good.
More NFL teams will try doggedly to find their own Josh Allens. Some might succeed, and we shouldn’t dismiss their efforts out of hand now that Allen has cracked the door open. But we probably should not assume that they are geniuses, either. For the time being, in the long history of the NFL Draft, Allen remains one of one.