Josh Allen was intentional about getting to his destination. The Buffalo Bills quarterback took off from near his own 30-yard line, picked up momentum at the 35 and was moving in rhythm at the 40. He didn't have the football in his hands, but, figuratively speaking, he carried the the hopes of every western New York football fan on his back as he crossed the sideline and headed up the tunnel toward the locker room.
Moments earlier, the 24-year-old quarterback had landed awkwardly at the end of a broken play. Pulled down from behind as he released a pass, he had both arms outstretched as if mimicking Superman in flight. When he hit the ground, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Arden Key was the second defender on the scene and landed on Allen's back before rolling off. Immediately, Allen reached for his left (non-throwing) shoulder.
He rose to a knee and flexed his left hand. Then he walked toward the sideline before taking a detour and beginning his run toward the locker room, where he would be examined by the team medical staff. The good news was that he would not miss a snap, returning in time to take a knee to end the first half of a game the Bills would win 30-23 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. But during that brief moment when Allen was out of view, the outcome took a back seat to the health of the Bills' potential MVP candidate.
If Buffalo is to end New England's 11-year vise grip on the AFC East title, it will need a healthy and productive Allen, who, in just his third NFL season, has guided the Bills to their first 4-0 start since 2008. It is not a stretch to say his development from last season has been as dramatic as that of last year's MVP, Lamar Jackson, who turned the league upside down in 2019 following a solid rookie season. Consider the numbers from Allen's first four games in 2019 to his first four this year:
- Completion percentage: from 60.3 to 70.9
- Yards passing: 903 to 1,326
- Touchdown passes: 3 to 12
- Interceptions: 6 to 1
- Team scoring: 76 to 123
And yet, limiting any conversation about Allen's development to statistics is like painting the region's autumn leaves in black and white. It lacks vibrancy and true impact. You must use the full palate with him, because while he is still the same player in some respects, running around with abandon and physicality, he is completely different in others, his evolving maturity reflected in his patience and discretion. The latter traits do not show up in the highlights, but they are central to his and the team's success.
For instance, there are times when a defense is so good with its disguise that it catches a quarterback off guard. Young quarterbacks tend to press in that situation. Desperate to make a play, they might throw into coverage, panic and get sacked and stripped of the ball, or take a grounding penalty. The Raiders fooled Allen on several occasions, and with the exception of one, he either threw the ball at the feet of his receivers on a screen attempt or threw it out of bounds. He kept his team out of harm's way. The Bills may have lost a down but not the football.
Fact is, Allen is beginning to see things before they happen. Coach Sean McDermott said they made a point of trying to throw as many looks as possible at him during training camp, presumably in hopes of helping him process information more quickly when the season arrived. It appears to have worked. The lumps and awkward head-scratching moments of his first two seasons are becoming infrequent, almost to the point where you're surprised when he takes a bad sack -- as he did late against the Raiders, pushing the Bills out of field-goal range.
"I'm kicking myself for taking that sack and not throwing the ball away," said Allen, who finished 24-of-34 for 288 yards, two touchdowns and a 115.8 rating. He had only the one sack.
It's going to be hard to beat the Bills if Allen is playing like the tide that lifts all boats and the defense is creating turnovers. The unit gave up points on its first four series -- field goal, field goal, touchdown, field goal -- but opened the fourth quarter by sandwiching a pair of fumble recoveries around a stop on fourth down.
The first takeaway was critical in that it was still a one-score game, 23-17. But one play after Josh Norman, in his first game with the team, punched the ball out of Darren Waller's hand and recovered it at Buffalo 40, Allen found Stefon Diggs, another first-year Bill, deep down the middle for 49 yards. Three plays later, Devin Singletary rushed in from the 2 to give Buffalo firm control. And yet, Buffalo likely would have had little chance of only its sixth 4-0 start in the last 41 years had it not been for the toughness and efficiency of Allen.
At 6-foot-5, 237 pounds, he is as big as some linebackers and, at times, plays with the same tenacity. Following some collisions, you have to remind yourself who is on offense and who is on defense. It's an endearing quality to Western New Yorkers, who know a thing or two about toughness.
Despite flexing his hand and jogging off the field with just under 5 minutes to go in the first half, after taking the hit, Allen was back so quickly he did not miss a play. He returned for the start of the third quarter and appeared to be wearing a black shirt beneath his jersey, perhaps a compression shirt for the shoulder, but it did not hinder him. He ran stretch plays that required him to fully extend his left arm for the handoff, and he even scored on a 1-yard sneak early in the fourth quarter, sliding left and initiating contact with his left shoulder.
Of the possible injury, he said: "It was my left shoulder, so it didn't bother me too bad. If it's the right shoulder, it'd be a different story. But it was the left shoulder. I knew it wasn't collarbone right away. It's just kind of pain tolerance at that point. I just wanted to make sure everything was right [by going to the locker room], and it was. Just wanted to come back and play for my team."
But physical toughness alone won't bring the Bills the championship they desire. It also will require mental toughness, something Allen demonstrated the previous week in a win over the Los Angeles Rams. The Bills were coasting en route to a 25-point, third-quarter lead when suddenly things changed. Los Angeles scored late in the quarter, then again roughly 2 minutes later. A four-score lead was now a four-point deficit with under 5 minutes to play.
Normally it's difficult to reverse momentum in that situation. It's like trying to make a U-turn with the Titanic. But Allen led the Bills on an 11-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with his 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tyler Kroft. He had made the improbable possible.
"He's a competitive sucker and he loves to win," McDermott said Sunday. "I can't say enough about him. He loves to play the game, loves to win, and he puts his heart and soul and body into everything in this game. How could you not love him as a teammate?"
Presumably they do love him, as do Western New Yorkers who were able to sigh with relief when he returned to the field.