Bills fans will be pleased to know that Josh Allen looked and sounded a lot better on Wednesday than he had after Sunday’s distressing loss to the Vikings. He tried to do the sensible thing after one of the most improbable losses in league history.
He let it go.
“As a quarterback in this league, you’ve got to have a short-term memory and forget about what just happened and move on,” Allen said Wednesday afternoon in the fieldhouse.
Of course, it’s harder for a quarterback to put a bad performance behind him when it’s becoming a pattern. The 33-30 overtime loss to the Vikings, in which the Bills melted down and blew a 17-point, second-half lead, was troubling enough.
But it’s hard to overlook the fact that it was the third straight game in which Allen played more like the Josh of his early NFL days than the guy who was the darling of the league and the chic pick for league MVP after beating the Chiefs a month ago.
In four weeks time, Allen has gone from the NFL’s most valuable player to its most vexing. Over the last three second halves of games — plus the OT on Sunday — he is 26-for-51 passing for 336 yards, with no touchdowns and five interceptions.
Allen is still third behind Patrick Mahomes in passing yards with 2,733, on pace to break his team record with 5,162. He’s second in the league in touchdown passes behind Mahomes with 20. But he has thrown a league-high 10 interceptions.
It’s hard to make an MVP argument for Allen today. He’s likely not top five. I’d put three quarterbacks ahead of him: Mahomes, Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. You could make a case for wideouts Tyreek Hill and Justin Jefferson, who was the most vital player on the field at Highmark Stadium on Sunday.
For the first time in his career, Allen has multiple interceptions in three straight games. He turned it over three times in the fourth quarter against the Vikings — twice on interceptions into the end zone and on that stunning fumble at his own half-yard line late in regulation, which Minnesota recovered for a TD.
So, the questions are beginning to swirl around like the Bills, like the snow that’s likely to intrude on Sunday’s game against the Browns at Highmark Stadium. What is happening to the offense late in games, and why is Allen reverting to the reckless, ‘Hero Ball’ ways of earlier in this NFL career?
After three weeks of questions about being careless with the football, how does he go about changing things?
“Decision-making is number one,” Allen said. “Trusting the game plan, trusting the guys around me and not trying to do too much. Getting back to playing smarter football. Early on in the year, we were playing really smart football.
“It’s not this huge makeover that’s going to change a thing. It’s something simple I can do to help the team, and something I plan on doing. It’s not hard to do to tweak that mindset — trying the guys around me, taking the check down when it’s there. Again, making the smart play.”
Allen is pressing, which used to happen when he felt the burden of carrying the team in big games. Defenses, aware of his tendency to force passes into tight spaces, are baiting him into making dangerous throws. Patrick Peterson said he was aware of what Allen would do after picking him off twice Sunday.
Head coach Sean McDermott was asked on Wednesday if, knowing Allen’s intense competitive nature, the coaches needed to rein him in some.
“That’s a balance,” McDermott said. “He’s a special person and a special player. He’s made special plays. So, there’s a balance to that. He’s got to continue to take what the defense gives in, and I think generally speaking that’s the best way to say it.”
Taking what the defense gives you. Taking the check down when it’s there. Those are catch phrases for playing it safe as a passer. For Bills fans, they summon dark memories of Trent Edwards and Tyrod Taylor, dumping off into the flat to avoid turning the ball over and accepting the time-honored virtues of the punt.
There’s a time for the safe play. But playing bold, aggressive football with Allen is what changed the culture and made the Bills a Super Bowl favorite after a dreary 15-year stretch when they attempted the fewest passes in the NFL. Checkdowns be damned, it was about the forward pass in this league.
Checking down, avoiding the risky play, that’s not who you are, is it, Allen was asked?
“I’m just trying to make the best play,” Allen said. “Sometimes that’s the best play for our team. It’s that constant ‘I can make a play’ or ‘I can trust somebody else to make a play’ that I’ve battled with my entire football career.
“Trying to do too much sometimes, it’ll hurt you. Again, playing quarterback the right way and the smart way, allowing our guys to make plays in space and not always trying to force the ball down the field. Just getting back to that.”
So, how do you strike that balance without changing who you are?
“You just keep shooting,” he said. “I’m going to have the same mindset in terms of being aggressive. But Coach (Ken) Dorsey talks about smart but not conservative. I’m just trying to get back to that. Go out, play freely and not try to not make the mistake. Play football and be the quarterback that I am.”
It’s not all on Allen. He tends to press when he’s not getting enough help and feels he needs to do it alone. It would help if the running game was more productive, if they were even average in short-yardage situations. The Bills’ tailbacks are the worst in the NFL statistically on third-and-1.
The lack of a reliable second receiver has been an issue. Stefon Diggs has 72 receptions, on pace to break his team record of 127 from 2020. Cole Beasley had 82 catches that season as Allen broke Jim Kelly’s passing records. Beasley was perhaps the most dependable slot receiver in the NFL on third downs.
After nine games this season, no wideout aside from Diggs is on pace to catch even 50 balls. Isaiah McKenzie and Gabe Davis each have 24 receptions. They need to be better. Allen wouldn’t be forcing so many balls if those two — and tight end Dawson Knox — got open more often.
How about the new guy, tailback Nyheim Hines? They traded for him before the deadline, thinking he could help in the passing game. Hines has been a solid receiver out of the backfield over this career. The Colts used him more out of the slot this season, and he was presumably going to help the Bills in that area.
In two games, Hines has a total of one catch for 9 yards. He’s had more snaps as a punt returner than as part of the offense.
“Fair question,” McDermott said when asked why Hines wasn’t playing more. “He’s a good football player and he just got here two weeks ago. I know sometimes there’s comparisons made to who’s been there and who’s doing what at the trade deadline.”
McDermott might have been referring to Chiefs wide receiver Kadarius Toney, who had 90 scrimmage yards and a touchdown Sunday in his second game with K.C. The Chiefs acquired Toney from the Giants four days before the Bills traded for Hines.
It sounds as if McDermott is a tad sensitive to the notion that the Chiefs, his main rival in the AFC and the team that ousted the Bills from the playoffs two years in a row, might have done a better job of improving their offense before the trade deadline.
Allen went on Kyle Brandt’s show Monday and said he can’t make his recent struggle “a bigger deal than what it is.” He also said it was good to face adversity and that the Bills didn’t want to peak early in the season.
OK, but if they think dropping two games in a row and falling into third place in the AFC is a good thing, they’re kidding themselves. The Bills need to get it back together in a hurry.
It’s good to put the bad memories behind you. But it’s time for Allen to start playing like an MVP candidate again, and to get back to creating some good ones.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.