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Jerry Sullivan: Josh Allen has to grow, on and off field

Josh Allen was seven months old when Jim Kelly played his final game for the Bills on Dec. 28, 1996. Kelly was carted off the field with a concussion late in a loss to the Jacksonville, which was also the last time the Bills hosted an NFL playoff game.

That tells you how long it has been since they had a true franchise quarterback, and how much was at stake Thursday when the Bills traded up to get Allen with the seventh pick of the draft, making him the first QB they've ever chosen in the top 10.

A lot has changed since then. I've often thought how crazy it would have been if they had cell phone cameras and Twitter in those days, when Kelly and the boys were a wild, partying bunch. Imagine how social media would have exploded the night Darryl Talley got into it with Magic Johnson's bodyguard before the Super Bowl in Los Angeles.

Allen found out the hard way how inane, careless behavior can catch up with a star athlete nowadays. The timing couldn't have been any worse. One day before the NFL draft, some racist and homophobic tweets that he had posted as a 15-year-old came to light, casting a shadow over the biggest night of his life.

Ready or not, the big-armed, 21-year-old quarterback is the new face and abiding hope for a long-suffering franchise. With that distinction comes a responsibility to conduct yourself in the fashion expected of a team leader in a small, rabid NFL town.

"Yeah, absolutely," Allen said Friday afternoon in a joint interview session with fellow first-round pick Tremaine Edmunds. "You got to be extremely careful. If I could go back and tell my 15-year-old self not to do it, I would absolutely do it. I've learned a lesson, a valuable lesson."

New Bills quarterback Josh Allen: 'There's not an ounce of hate in my body'

Allen has said all the right things since being drafted. He was impressive in his interviews Friday. So was Edmunds, who seems uncommonly mature for a kid who could soon become the second-youngest player ever to appear in an NFL game.

I'm not going to crush Allen for stupid comments he made on Twitter when he was 15. Boys can be terribly crude and insensitive at that age. Some never grow out of it. Allen seems genuinely contrite about those regrettable tweets. But he's playing on a big stage now, and this isn't something that can be dismissed so easily.

We're living in a time of great social awareness among pro athletes. Allen is entering the NFL after a year in which players knelt during the national anthem to support Colin Kaepernick's protest against racial inequality in America.

He's playing for an owner, Terry Pegula, who, according to a recording obtained by the New York Times, proclaimed during a meeting of owners and players last fall that the league was "under assault" because of the demonstrations and President Trump's expressed disdain for the players' actions.

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Lorenzo Alexander, the Bills' linebacker and oldest player, was especially resentful when Trump called the protesting NFL players "sons of bitches." Alexander, one of the Bills' leaders, said that the team's new quarterback might have some explaining to do to the team.

"It deals with chemistry and trust," Alexander said. "Especially with the quarterback, who's deemed the leader, you want to be able to have all those things, trust him, have respect for him, be able to follow him into battle. The better relationship you have translates on the field."

Allen said he has considered addressing his new teammates to clear the air about his juvenile social media posts. He said it would depend on whether he got the sense from the players that it was necessary.

"It's something that I wouldn't be afraid or ashamed of doing," he said. "I wouldn't know until I got to meet everybody and get a feel for how they feel about it."

"He's owning it," Alexander said, "and that's what you want to see. We'll move past this. We'll look back and it won't even seem like it was as big as it was made out to be."

Again, we're talking about tweets that were made when Allen was 15. This is the same organization that opened its arms to Richie Incognito when he came off a long suspension for bullying a teammate with racist and sexually lewd comments.

The fact that it surfaced the day before the draft made it a huge national story, but Alexander is right. It'll soon blow over as the football issues dominate the discussion. It's not off-color remarks, but off-target throws that have most Bills fans concerned. It's on the field that Allen needs to prove himself.

"I made a mistake and I just want them to know who I am," Allen said, "cause once they get to know who I am, I think they're going to like what they see. They're going to like the person I am and what I can do for this franchise, and that's give them everything I have to help win football games."

Kelly was no choir boy as a young star. But he lived up to public expectations for him as a franchise quarterback and the long-awaited savior who would lead the Bills to their first Super Bowl – and then three more.

Fans are notoriously forgiving when a player produces on the field. Kelly had the big arm, like Allen. He was as tough as they come. But it was his exquisite touch, his ability to read defenses and deliver the ball to receivers in stride, that made him great.

Kelly was also a leader who called out teammates and was challenged by them in return, most notably by Thurman Thomas during the Bickering Bills year. His teammates rallied around him because he brought them together off the field, and produced for them in the big moments.

Remember, those great Bills teams grew up together. They fought and partied and developed a fierce competitive spirit that reflected their brash young quarterback. Winning teams tend to evolve on schedule with their franchise QB, as the players grow to trust his talent and leadership.

To borrow a phrase from Sean McDermott, it's a process. I don't know if Josh Allen will become the next Jim Kelly. But if it fails, it'll be because of what he does on a football field, not what he said on social media.

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