Bills' Josh Allen, other resilient QBs continue to prove doubters wrong
Josh Allen and so many other quarterbacks in this season’s playoffs have proven once again that mental toughness remains the most important trait for an NFL signal-caller. A chip on the shoulder doesn’t hurt, either.
What started as three quarterbacks talking football at a corporate event at last year’s Super Bowl ended with one of the most transformative experiences in the brief career of Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen. As soon as that SAP-sponsored seminar ended in Miami last February, he and his fellow panelists — CBS analyst and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick — found a nearby restaurant to grab dinner. They snacked on sumptuous appetizers, sipped on swanky cocktails and contemplated the finer points of being a signal-caller. It was as if two big brothers had shown up just to counsel a young guy still learning the game.
Allen listened intently as Romo and Fitzpatrick recounted valuable lessons from their own careers. They nodded in agreement when he brought up some of what he’d gone through in his first two NFL seasons.
“We talked about everything from mechanics to how to throw a football,” Allen said during a recent interview. “I learned a lot in that two hours I spent with them and I appreciated it. I’m not perfect but I know what I’m doing now.”
The irony of that late-night, impromptu meal was that it involved three men who know a few things about defying odds and proving people wrong. It didn’t come up in conversation, but Allen understood both Romo and Fitzpatrick, two formerly undrafted players, could relate to the arduous path he’s followed to stardom. Like Allen, they had to scratch and claw to earn the respect they ultimately achieved. That resilience is exactly why Allen has enjoyed a breakout season and has the Bills thinking Super Bowl for the first time in nearly three decades.
At 24 years old, Allen is prime evidence that the most important quality in evaluating whether a quarterback can lead a franchise is one that doesn’t get enough attention: mental toughness. For all the discussions that revolve around tangible traits — arm strength, accuracy and mobility being chief among those — the best quarterbacks in today’s game are usually the ones that have endured the most on their paths to glory.
This year’s playoff race is yet another example of that. Most of the teams that qualified — and the vast majority that remain going into the Divisional Round — had a starting signal-caller who had to fight through something noteworthy in his own career.
There’s the story of Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady, the six-time Super Bowl champion who waited until the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft to hear his name called by the New England Patriots. Seattle’s Russell Wilson, at 5-foot-11, was deemed too short; Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson was derided as too unconventional; and a trio of signal-callers were discarded by the teams that drafted them into the league (Washington’s Alex Smith, Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill and New Orleans’ Drew Brees, who entered the league a decade before Wilson with the same “not tall enough” label). Then there’s Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, players who, like Allen, couldn’t find a major football program to give them a college scholarship coming out of high school.
These men all possess an array of varying skills. The tie that binds them is will power.
“I think most (NFL teams), when they’re looking for a quarterback, take the approach that they’re just trying to find a good player,” said one AFC personnel director. “But there’s so much that players have to handle at that position. You need somebody who can deal with a lot. It’s important to have all the other qualities, but you have to find a guy who can get through hard times.”
Added Allen: “I definitely think mental toughness is way up there (when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks). Going through my own trials and tribulations, I know that stuff makes you hungry. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder, from not getting any offers out of high school to going to a junior college to get noticed. That’s a badge I wear with honor.”
Allen, the seventh overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, has been everything Buffalo hoped he’d become. After leading the Bills to a wild-card spot in 2019, he helped them win the AFC East with a 13-3 record this season. His breakout campaign included career highs for passing yards (4,544), and touchdown passes (37) and a dramatic improvement in completion percentage (from 58.8 percent in 2019 to 69.2). Allen didn’t disappoint in this year’s Super Wild Card Round, either, as he led Buffalo to a 27-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday.
He completed 26 of 35 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns and carried the ball 11 times for another 54 yards and a touchdown in the Bills’ first playoff victory since 1995. His signature moment came late in the second half, when he nearly threw an interception and then followed that play with a 16-yard jaunt and a 5-yard scoring run that gave Buffalo a lead it never relinquished. He basically put his head down, furrowed his brow and willed his team into position to play from ahead.
“It’s the playoffs,” he said. “I’m trying to do whatever I can to help this team win football games.”
That performance typified everything about Allen this year. When the Bills beat the Los Angeles Rams, 35-32, in Week 3, Buffalo held a 28-3 lead in the third quarter before the Rams rallied to go ahead by four points late in the fourth quarter. Allen walked into his team’s huddle on the next drive after the Bills fell behind and didn’t show an ounce of frustration. Scanning the eyes of every offensive player in front of him, he calmly said, “We’re going to win this game,” before driving Buffalo 75 yards and hitting tight end Tyler Kroft with the game-winning touchdown pass.
Allen was no different in a 32-30 loss to Arizona on Nov. 15. That game is remembered mainly for the miraculous, last-second touchdown that involved Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins leaping over three defenders to catch a Hail Mary pass from quarterback Kyler Murray. What’s often forgotten is the way Allen led his team down the field on their final possession. His last throw of that contest was a perfect strike to wide receiver Stefon Diggs for a 21-yard touchdown with 34 seconds left.
Every time Allen has found himself in a difficult situation, he’s shown the Bills why they had so much faith in his potential to be a franchise quarterback.
“He’s a highly competitive, mature player,” said Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. “That’s why we selected him. We did a lot of due diligence on him. He’s about leadership, toughness, competitiveness. I’m proud of the way he handles himself for the Buffalo Bills. He’s done a lot for this team.”
Added Bills general manager Brandon Beane: “At the end of the day, we decided to take Josh because we knew he had a lot of talent — the arm strength, size and athletic ability. You could see he was smart, but once you talked to people, you saw what he went through in his career. He wasn’t a five-star recruit … He’s had his fair share of critics since he got here. I’ve seen a lot of people struggle when things go bad. You don’t overcome some of that stuff if you’re not mentally tough.”
Some people might think it’s obvious to seek out strong-minded men to play quarterback. Those same folks don’t understand how the NFL often works. Picking a quarterback at this level has never been a simple process. The most attractive players are the ones that usually check all the boxes physically, while the best leaders sometimes don’t appear to be such no-brainers.
Former Arizona Cardinals general manager Rod Graves once admitted that, despite over 30 years of scouting experience, he didn’t know what a quarterback was supposed to look like until Kurt Warner showed up and led that franchise to the Super Bowl in the 2008 season. Of course, Warner was one of the most resilient players in league history, a person who went from working in a grocery store to leading the Rams to a Super Bowl win in 1999 before later reinventing himself in Arizona. Bill Belichick also acknowledged that he didn’t see greatness in Brady when New England selected the Michigan quarterback with the 199th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. Brady actually served as the fourth-string quarterback in his rookie season, and Belichick only retained him for a second year for one reason: intangibles.
“Everybody has their own story,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who spent six years playing in the Canadian Football League before proving that Black signal-callers could thrive in the NFL. “Look at Russell Wilson. If he’d been 6-1, he would’ve been a first-round pick. I know (Seahawks general manager) John Schneider loved Russell but because (Wilson) was 5-10 (and 5/8), he couldn’t justify taking him that high. But Russell never let that stuff get him down. When he got here, his mindset was that he’d always been dealing with it so he just had to prove himself all over again.”
Allen can relate to that. His story has been well-documented — he played junior college football because he couldn’t find a major school interested in offering him a scholarship and wound up starring at Wyoming later — but he’s also representative of new-era quarterbacks who are easily defined by how they deal with things. Today’s signal-callers have grown up in a world where it’s simple to connect the dots to success. Many make their names at elite passing camps in high school, then generate jaw-dropping numbers in wide-open college offenses and finally enter the draft with pundits touting them relentlessly before their NFL careers begin.
The problem with that dynamic is, talent evaluators have a tougher time figuring out who has the heart and head for the position.
“You can create a lot of people who can throw the football today,” said Quincy Avery, a personal quarterback coach who has worked with players like Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts. “But it makes it harder to differentiate between them. People talk about adversity but that doesn’t always mean family stuff. It can be a guy going through an injury. You just need to know the guy has been through some things.”
“Quarterback is such a unique position,” said another AFC personnel director. “There are so many variables that go into it and things happen so fast. You have to have something special about you just to play it, but people do get caught up in physical traits. There was no five-star (rating) system when Tom Brady came out of high school but look at what he went through. It’s the same thing with (Bengals quarterback and 2020 No. 1 overall pick) Joe Burrow. He didn’t get a chance to play at Ohio State but he went to LSU to prove he could do it. He won a championship there and you could see the impact those struggles had on him. He wasn’t awed by the bright lights when they hit him.”
The list of young quarterbacks who’ve already proven their resilience is noteworthy. Jackson blossomed into a league MVP in Baltimore in 2019, less than two years after longtime NFL executive and former ESPN analyst Bill Polian openly questioned before the 2018 NFL Draft if the Louisville quarterback should move to wide receiver. Mayfield walked on to two programs in college (Texas Tech and Oklahoma) before winning the Heisman Trophy with the Sooners in 2017. He’s faced his share of critics and failures in Cleveland, especially when the Browns disappointed under the weight of heavy expectations last season, but he’s now led that franchise to its first playoff appearance in 18 years and first playoff victory in 26 years.
The benefits of Allen’s own difficult path to stardom aren’t hard to see. Despite having all the requisite physical skills — a 6-foot-5, 237-pound frame, a howitzer for a right arm and surprising mobility — he’s long understood that he’s had to work for everything he’s achieved. When the Bills evaluated him heading into the 2018 draft, Beane said he was impressed by many things: The fact that Allen grew up on a farm in California, didn’t go to high-profile football camps in high school and didn’t give up when Allen’s preferred school, Fresno State, passed on giving him a scholarship. Right from the start, Beane could see that Allen was “humble, appreciative and wanted to learn.”
That attitude has helped Allen grow quickly as a player. The same guy who completed only 53 percent of his passes as a rookie — and faced heavy skepticism that he would evolve into an elite thrower — spent countless hours this past offseason refining his throwing motion. Allen realized he had a glitch in his release that caused his passes to either sail or dive when his mechanics weren’t on point. So he worked at unleashing the ball more like a pitcher in baseball, where he’s trying to drive the ball into the strike zone with the follow-through of his delivery.
Allen accomplished this by watching endless tape of Brady and Rodgers. He admitted there were many days spent frustrated by some of the changes because “they just didn’t feel right,” but he did what he’s always done: He kept plugging away at it.
“This year I spent a lot of time trying to refine my skill set and see what I was doing wrong,” he said. “I put a lot of work in with (receivers) like Cole (Beasley), John (Brown) and Stefon (Diggs) and I really dug into the playbook. As a rookie, I didn’t know what I was seeing. But that’s what being a leader is about: You have to know yourself.”
The only concern the Bills have with Allen is the fear that he wants to do too much. He admits his attitude is blue-collar — “I don’t think I’m better than anybody but I also feel like I can compete with anybody,” he said — but Beane often has advised him to know when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
“Sometimes I’ve had to tell him that he took five hits in a game when he probably needed to only take two,” the Bills GM said. “But he’s also tough-minded and that’s what makes him great.”
Allen is hoping this postseason will end on a much higher note than 2019, when the Bills’ 22-19 overtime loss to Houston in the Wild Card Round proved how raw he was at the time. Allen had moments in the game that were confounding — like when he inexplicably tried to a toss a lateral after ripping off a 20-yard run that ultimately set up the game-tying field goal in regulation — and others where he flashed the potential that is so evident now (he passed for 264 yards, ran for 92 and even caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from John Brown). He admits that a major lesson he learned in that contest was to not press in postseason situations.
One thing he wouldn’t do heading into this year’s playoffs: deny the value in that motivation.
“It still lingers a little bit (but) I’m glad I can’t change it. Lot of lessons from that game,” he said. “Without failure, people don’t know success.”
This season, Allen tied for The Associated Press second-team All-Pro honors with Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes; both finished behind Rodgers. It’s fair to assume he won’t let his breakout season go to his head as the playoffs continue. There are plenty of tougher challenges ahead in the AFC race, with the top-seeded Chiefs, Ravens and Browns all eying their own Super Bowl dreams. Mahomes already has led Kansas City to one championship. Jackson just scored another win against his critics by securing his first playoff victory, and Mayfield led the Browns to a convincing Wild Card win over Pittsburgh despite his head coach, Kevin Stefanski, being sidelined with COVID-19.
Allen also wouldn’t want it any other way. His career has taught him that nothing comes easy and it’s even more fun when you beat the odds. It’s a lesson future quarterbacks should heed as they try to navigate their own journeys.
“I’m a firm believer that when it comes to mental toughness, you either have it or you don’t,” Allen said. “You learn about that stuff by going through things. And it’s important. Because when you get to this level, you’re going to get punched in the mouth. And if you don’t know how to handle that, you’re going to have a hard time playing this position in this league.”
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