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Jerry Sullivan: Josh Allen inspires hope, but let's be patient

The Bills held their first rookie minicamp practice Friday. It was not exactly newsworthy stuff. The two images that will stick with me came at the very end.

The first was seeing all these young undrafted guys, most of whom will never play a down in an NFL game, happily posing for the group photo. They'll treasure that moment the rest of their lives, as lasting evidence that they spent time in the league.

The other was observing Jim Kelly and Josh Allen as they walked side by side from the practice field through the ADPRO Sports Fieldhouse toward the locker room. The two quarterbacks moved slowly, Allen carrying his helmet in his left hand, Kelly moving gingerly with the aid of a cane in his right.

It was a vivid portrait of two quarterbacks: Kelly, battered by time and his latest bout with cancer, but amazingly resilient and upbeat; and Allen, the raw rookie with the rocket arm, nervous and reverential in the presence of a Buffalo legend.

The sight was moving, and it had to inspire hope in any Bills fan. There's hope for Kelly, as tough a football player as ever lived, to beat the odds again and remain a living symbol of his adopted town's gritty, unconquerable identity.

Then there's the desperate hope that Allen, the first quarterback ever taken by the Bills in the top 10 of a draft, will be the franchise quarterback they've long awaited, someone who can make the team the consistent Super Bowl contender that they were in Kelly's day.

"He’s a special man," Allen said. "He’s been through a lot and to be in the spirits that he is and to come out here and show support for the Buffalo Bills, that just shows me how much, one, he means to Buffalo and, two, how much Buffalo means to him. It’s awesome."

Kelly told Allen to embrace the city. I'm sure the kid realizes what it means to be the Bills quarterback in this town. Hope is a boundless resource with the fans, and they want Allen to be special, too. But it's always a leap of faith with a young QB. As fans know, it doesn't often work out.

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Allen is a wondrous physical talent. The first thing you notice is how big he is. Then the football explodes out of his right hand and you understand why scouts were so infatuated with his arm. But time makes you wary and skeptical when it comes to young QBs. Unlike those eager rookies, I've been here before.

Five years ago around this date, I wrote this. "What if he's the real deal? What if he has true greatness in him? Maybe this time, the Bills found the quarterback who can lift a team and a city and transform the fortune of a chronically dysfunctional franchise."

That was about EJ Manuel, who before Allen was the first quarterback taken by Buffalo with its first choice in a draft. I called Manuel "a 6-foot-5 specimen with a cannon of an arm and the ability to make plays with his legs." There was a "sense of fascination and possibility" in the air back then.

Rob Johnson and J.P. Losman had cannon arms, too. They were good athletes who could run. But like Manuel, they had trouble reading defenses and making accurate throws under pressure. It's the hardest position in sports. You never know how a raw rookie is going to perform against real NFL defenses.

I'm not saying Allen (who stands 6-5) will be another Manuel. They say Allen has a mind for the job, that he's good on the white board. But fans need to be patient. It takes a lot more than a big arm and an enthusiastic manner to succeed as an NFL quarterback.

Sean McDermott knows that. The coach is already downplaying Allen's arm. He wouldn't compare it to other great ones he's seen over the years.

"Josh has a strong arm, I think we all know that," McDermott said. "So within that, there’s other areas that are just as important, and that’s where we have a lot of work to do. The great part about Josh is he's embraced that growth mindset of getting better every day and that’s what we’re looking forward to in the future."

Jim Kelly talks to Josh Allen at the end of rookie minicamp in Orchard Park on May 11. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

There's no point in rushing him onto the field in the regular season, just because he's the future franchise guy. Bills-watchers are all over the place as to when he might start. Some say mid-October; others Week 5;  some people feel he could win the job in camp, others think he'll sit all year.

I'm told it'll be a bad sign if he can't beat out AJ McCarron in camp. People should show more respect for veteran NFL backups. Look at what Nick Foles, Case Keenum and Josh McCown did last season. If McCarron is more suited to play in September, it won't mean Allen is a bust. It'll confirm that he's not ready.

There's been a predictable rush to rationalize Allen's accuracy issues at Wyoming. The concerns are real. Brian Daboll, the new offensive coordinator, was animated and hands-on with Allen in the first practice. Daboll likes much of what he sees, but he also realizes that his prize pupil needs a lot of polish.

OK, it's one practice. But if you're going to stand and watch, you might as well have an opinion. Allen seemed true to the scouting reports. Great arm, engaging kid and promising leader. But also raw and a tad inaccurate with his passes.

Allen missed some simple throws. Several of his shorter passes were high, especially when he threw to his right. It reminded me of Drew Bledsoe, who lacked the Kelly touch on short tosses to the flat. Allen also got a little too much air under a couple of his deep throws, which was a criticism in college.

During team drills, Allen completed 10 of 12 passes. You can't put too much stock in such things. Hope reigns in spring and peaks in summer. It's the fall that matters. Allen's arm has the wow factor. We already knew that. So did every presumed franchise savior since Kelly.

Kelly watched Allen from the sidelines and it reminded him of the way he threw. He's high on the kid. Of course, five years ago he said EJ Manuel had it all, including a strong arm and the intangibles to succeed in Buffalo.

My advice: Be patient and don't expect the world from Allen from the start. Hope springs eternal, but as history tells us, you just never know.

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