NFL: Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the 2020 offseason, the prevailing line of thought regarding the Buffalo Bills was that they clearly had one of the best rosters in football, but that it's possible their quarterback play would hold them back. It made sense to think that way. Josh Allen, in 27 games as a starter across his first two seasons, had simply not performed very well. He made strides from Year 1 to Year 2, to be sure, but he was still below-average in almost every aspect of quarterback play. 

Fast forward to right now, and the Bills are 4-0. They began the season with a light schedule featuring games against the Jets, Dolphins, and Raiders so perhaps that is not too surprising for a team considered an AFC playoff contender coming into the year. What's surprising is that the Bills appear to have one of the very best offenses in the league, ranking fourth in total yards, fifth in points, and fifth in efficiency, per Football Outsiders' DVOA. And Allen isn't just not holding the Bills back -- he is the main driver of their success. 

I think we need to start here, because it's important: The Bills have done a wonderful job putting Allen in position to succeed. When other teams draft a quarterback in the first round, they should look to this team-building job as a model to recreate. 

Buffalo moved up to snag Allen with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 draft, but during his rookie season, they did not have a good infrastructure around him. He was put in position to fail, and he failed pretty miserably, completing only 53 percent of his passes at an average of 6.5 yards per attempt, throwing more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (10), and taking a sack on 8 percent of his dropbacks. 

In the 2019 offseason, the Bills moved aggressively to upgrade both Allen's protection and his weaponry. They signed offensive linemen Mitch Morse, Quinton Spain, Ty Nsekhe, Spencer Long, and Jon Feliciano, plus wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley, and tight end Tyler Kroft. They used a second-round draft pick on tackle Cody Ford, as well as third-round selections on versatile running back Devin Singletary and tight end Dawson Knox

The Bills were carried by their defense throughout the year, but especially early on. Allen seemingly had not improved much as a decision-maker, throwing seven interceptions in their first five games. After their Week 6 bye, Allen simply... stopped turning the ball over, and the Bills' offense at least approached average the rest of the way. Allen appeared to be a clearly improved player, but it wasn't the type of second-year leap that other quarterbacks (Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, for example) have taken. 

His completion rate improved modestly, to 59 percent. His yards per attempt average bumped up two ticks to 6.7, and his sack rate dropped slightly to only 7.6 percent. In those areas and more, Allen was still a below-average passer. The most important thing, though, was that he dramatically slashed those turnovers. After throwing an interception 23 percent more often than the league-average passer as rookie, he threw a pick six percent less often than the field as a sophomore. 

There are plenty of teams that would have gotten complacent and thought their offensive makeover was done, their quarterback was improving, and that was that. But the Bills did not take that route. They aggressively sought improvements yet again, trading their first-round pick for star wideout Stefon Diggs, signing offensive linemen Daryl Williams and Brian Winters to replace some of the snaps they didn't feel as confident about up front, and drafting running back Zack Moss and wide receiver Gabriel Davis

And boy, has Allen put the talent around him to good use. His completion percentage has spiked to 71 percent. He's averaging an even 9 yards per attempt. His sack rate has dipped nearly two full percentage points, down to 5.7 percent overall. His touchdown rate is a sky-high 8.1 percent, and he's thrown only one interception on 148 pass attempts. Lay his numbers down in a row and you see a picture of clear-cut, continuous improvement. 


It helps that, again, the personnel fits both him and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll very well. The offensive line ranks eighth in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking grades, and Allen has been pressured on only 34 percent of his dropbacks -- down from 41 percent across his first two seasons. The speed Buffalo has with Diggs (4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and Brown (4.34) on the perimeter, combined with the cannon attached to Allen's right shoulder, allows the Bills to stretch the field vertically. The way Daboll has deployed his personnel, using 11 (one running back, one tight end) on 71 percent of snaps and 10 (one running back, zero tight ends) on a league-high 21 percent of snaps allows them to stretch it horizontally. His use of motion (44 percent of snaps vs. 29 percent in 2018 and 2019) keeps defenders honest and causes defenses to tip their hand, giving Allen a leg up before the snap.

Having Beasley to work the underneath layers of the field provides Allen a security blanket. Diggs' remarkable route-running gives him someone who is likely to pop open quickly after the snap. Just the threat of Brown beating a defender down the field causes defenses to lift a defender out of the box, widening passing lanes on short and intermediate throws. As a result, Allen looks like a far more confident, assured passer, and that shows up both on tape and in his numbers. He is throwing the ball away less often than in the past (2.7 percent this year compared with 5.4 percent the past two years), and throwing a catchable ball more often: 85.4 percent of his throws have been on-target this year, per Pro-Football-Reference, up from 73.2 percent a year ago. 

He's performed better than the league average quarterback in every area. 


What's perhaps most impressive about his performance is that he's not even generating that much value with his legs -- his greatest asset during his first two years. Allen has rushed for three touchdowns from in close, but his 25 carries have totaled only 83 yards. He rushed for at least 510 yards in each of his first two seasons, yet is on pace for only 332 this year. But even that is an indicator of Allen growing as a player. In the past, he was willing and eager to take off downfield when dodging away from pressure. He did so 24.3 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus and TruMedia, the third-highest rate among 38 qualified quarterbacks. This season, Allen has scrambled only 9.1 percent of the time when pressured, ranking 25th out of 33 qualifiers. 

His performance when under pressure is what really stands out on the film. In his first two seasons, pressure clearly rattled him: he completed 94 of 261 passes (36 percent) for 1,518 yards (5.8 per attempt), 10 touchdowns, and nine interceptions with defenders in his face, while taking a sack on 21 percent of his pressures. This season, he's been electric: 26 of 44 (59 percent) for 389 yards (8.8 per attempt), six touchdowns and just one pick, while taking a sack only 14.5 percent of the time. 

He has shown some remarkable touch on passes over the top of the defense, taking a little bit off of his release in order to loft it just so. Diggs, Beasley, and Brown can all make contested catches despite being on the smaller side, and Allen isn't at all afraid to put the ball up in a place where only those guys can get it, even if they're closely covered. 

His pocket movement has largely been excellent. As previously mentioned, he has been far more willing to scamper away from pressure to set up a throw this season than he has been in the past. And it's a good thing he has, because doing so has set up some of his best passes of the young season. In particular, the second play in the clip below, where he fakes poor Samson Ebukam out of his boots, moves to his left, resets, then fires across his body to Davis over the middle, is a thing of beauty. 

It helps, of course, that Allen has ridiculous arm strength. Most of his throws are absolute lasers. He can wait until the very last second before letting the ball go if he wants to, and still be confident it will still reach its intended target -- even if he's under heavy pressure. 

Allen's patience has improved as well, to the point that he'll come all the way back to backside and calmly hit his man over the middle. And he's even occasionally manipulating the defense with his eyes, staring down a man in the flat before whipping the ball up the seam for a touchdown.

This is the kind of stuff that, for people who were fans of Allen before the draft, they thought could take him from interesting prospect to the next level, because of his natural gifts of athleticism and arm strength. Prior to this year, they showed up infrequently, if at all. So far in 2020, they have been there every week. It's only been four games, of course, and it's easy to get ahead of yourself and simply declare Allen one of the best in the game. But if he keeps going on this track, that's going to be true sooner rather than later. It's just a matter of continuing to take advantage of his surroundings, which allows his skills to flourish.