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Fixing footwork has allowed Josh Allen to make big strides with the Bills

It started in January, in Dana Point, Calif., where Jordan Palmer trains current and future NFL quarterbacks.

The objective was to fix Josh Allen's footwork well enough to allow his many physical gifts — size, strength, athleticism and that cannon of an arm — to flourish to where there would be no doubt about him becoming a premium NFL draft pick in April.

"I had a problem with a long front step and that was causing my elbow to drop, and it was throwing off the entire sequence within the hip and the shoulder and the arm coming through," Allen told The Buffalo News this week. "So when I keep that steady and I can take a small front stride and get (the left foot) down, my lead step, as fast as possible, the ball comes out quicker, it comes out cleaner, my throwing motion is less violent and that equals more accurate balls."

Enter Palmer, a renowned QB guru whose students include Sam Darnold, Deshaun Watson, Blake Bortles, Sean Mannion, and Palmer's older brother, Carson, who had an accomplished NFL career. By choosing Palmer as his tutor, the Central California-born Allen wasn't merely looking for the convenience of someone relatively closeby. He was looking for the kind of results that could be worth millions of dollars.

After three months of intense, six-days-a-week, two-hours-per-day sessions with Palmer, Allen managed to convince the Buffalo Bills to make the necessary trades to move up to the seventh overall pick to select the former Wyoming star.

And after an offseason and training camp of continuing to address and improve his footwork, along with other aspects of his performance, Allen played well enough as a third- and second-stringer in two preseason games to convince the coaches to make him the starter for Sunday's third exhibition with the Cincinnati Bengals.

"(The Bills) knew that was the emphasis for me, just trying to get that lead step down as quickly as possible and not overstriding," Allen said. "They saw the same thing on tape that Jordan Palmer did as well. So we're just trying to maintain that, trying to create the right base, short front stride, getting the ball out as quickly as possible.

"It feels really good."

Allen completed 9 of 19 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions, in the preseason-opening loss against the Carolina Panthers. He was 9-of-13 for 60 yards and a TD, with no interceptions, in last Friday night's victory against the Cleveland Browns. That gives him a completion percentage of 56.2, the same as what he had at the end of his college career.

However, the numbers don't sufficiently explain how far Allen has come since his days at Wyoming.

It requires taking a closer look at tape of his preseason outings. By most accounts, Allen's footwork against the Panthers was decent, with the best showing up on a 14-yard touchdown pass to fellow rookie Ray-Ray McCloud.

Allen did much better against Cleveland, as illustrated by the following plays that all came on the lone touchdown drive he led:

  • Third-and-2 from the Buffalo 28, when he took a three-step drop, made a hard plant with his back (right) foot, and delivered a crisp, 7-yard out to Andre Holmes.
  • First-and-10 from the Buffalo 40, when after a play-fake to running back Chris Ivory, he took a five-step drop and smoothly connected with tight end Khari Lee for a 9-yard gain.
  • First-and-10 from the Cleveland 30, when, after taking a shotgun snap, he casually stepped back, planted his right foot and cooly pivoted to throw a hitch to Lee for 7 yards.
  • Third-and-2 from the Cleveland 2, when he evaded three defenders with clear chances to sack him, stepped up while still keeping his feet in ideal position to fire a dart to Rod Streater as he ran across the back of the end zone.

The examples show why Allen has impressed many observers around the country, especially those who have been skeptical about his chances for success in the NFL because of the accuracy problems he had in college.

"I had heard a bunch of stuff and I'd watched the tape, obviously, and saw him play in person a little bit, and he definitely sprayed the ball all over the place," Palmer, a former NFL and Arena Football League quarterback, said by phone. "Now, there were reasons, from guys not being open and all that stuff, but that's irrelevant now. Those were all draft conversations. But when he missed, the reason a lot of people would say was because sometimes he threw sidearm, sometimes he was leaning forward, sometimes he was leaning backward. What I do is I go to the root of it. So if you have multiple issues with your throwing motion, and we find the one thing that's leading to those issues, that's what we'll focus on."

"What I determined about Josh was, if you looked at his tape in college, his feet would be close together — closer than you want — and he was bouncing up on his toes. When you're bouncing up on your toes and your feet are eight to 10 inches apart, when you go to throw, you're going to go back down to put all your cleats in the ground, and then you're in a position where you're going to overstride. You're going to step with your left foot farther than you need to.

"That may sound like this little, tiny, cute detail, but it's actually super, super relevant because when you overstride, you can't do other things you need to do. It's going to make you lean, whether that's forward, backwards. If you lean to the side, that's going to drop your elbow down (and cause you to) throw sidearm. So because his feet were jacked, he kind of had a different drill every time. It's hard to be consistent."

When Palmer began working with Allen, he didn't force him into adopting conventional parameters that some quarterback coaches insist their students follow. For instance, Palmer doesn't think a QB's feet must be 16 inches apart or shoulder width or any specific distance.

Instead, the first thing he does with his clients is have them jump as high as possible multiple times, land, and look down.

"And I'll say, 'OK, that is your base. We're going to operate within a couple inches inside or outside of that base,'" Palmer said. "From there, I got to the root of the problem: his feet. He's overstriding. And I go, 'Well, why are you overstriding? Because your base is too narrow. You're putting yourself in a position where you have to overstride. So let's not fix the overstride, let's fix the base.' "

Consistency so far

So far, Allen has shown a great deal of consistency, the kind that not only seems to be separating him from his competition for the Bills' starting job, Nathan Peterman and AJ McCarron, but also has allowed him to stand out among all five of this year's first-round quarterbacks.

According to Pro Football Focus, via Peter King's column on NBCSports.com, Allen's ball-location accuracy of 70 percent ranks second only to the Jets' Darnold (84.6). Cleveland's Baker Mayfield (69) is third, followed by Arizona's Josh Rosen (58.3) and Baltimore's Lamar Jackson (36).

"I don't pay too much attention to footwork, but as far as ball placement, he's been tremendous so far," tight end Charles Clay said. "He's very accurate."

"Everyone talks about his arm strength, but he's definitely got a touch to it," Streater said. "He made an easy throw for me to catch (for the touchdown). That's what receivers want, is the ball to be able to be caught. That's the most important thing. It doesn't have to be too hard, too soft. It's just, get it there, we'll make a play for you. I feel like he's accurate, he's making nice throws. You can watch the tape and see that. He's been looking good."

For a number of Bills followers, the scoring throw to Streater was their "Wow!" moment with Allen so far. They've showered him with praise for not only the pass itself, but for his ability to avoid being sacked while keeping his composure.

For former NFL quarterback and CBS studio analyst Phil Simms, who became one of Allen's biggest fans before the draft, that moment was the TD strike between two defenders to McCloud in the front right corner of the end zone against Carolina.

"Because there's only four quarterbacks in the NFL that would have made that throw," Simms said by phone. "Him, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford and Patrick Mahomes. Tom Brady's a great quarterback and he's got a really big-time NFL arm still. Forget the age, he's not going to make that throw.

"I'm very impressed. I've watched every throw (Allen has made in the preseason). Those Bills fans that were so upset that they drafted him? How do you feel now, my man? I don't care if it's a practice or it it's a team scrimmage or what. We've seen, on that field, enough physically to go, 'Man, if we build an offense that's right and get a good team (around him), this, for many reasons, is a true franchise quarterback.'"

Simms, who also provides instruction to young quarterbacks, sees the overwhelming difference in Allen since he adjusted his footwork. The most pronounced is the shortening of Allen's throwing motion, which Simms says provides huge benefits.

"If you're going to be a big, long strider, most likely you're going to have a big, long motion to go with it," Simms said. "You're not going to take a big, long step and have a tiny motion; they're going to marry each other. And when you overstride, it means you're moving to throw the ball. You want (the effect) to be like standing inside of a phone booth. You want to be able to throw and turn and rip it in a little, tiny area. That's why he would miss a few little short throws at Wyoming. He would take a big stride and then try to slow his arm down to throw it a little softer. It brings in way too many things that can go wrong, more variables that can go wrong.

"And when you take a long stride forward, you're moving forward, too. Your head's going forward, so it brings in variables that can make it end up being a bad throw. To me, a great thrower in football is going around to throw. You're not going forward like a baseball pitcher. The football motion and baseball are, of course, totally different. In baseball, you don't have to worry about space. In football, the more compact you are, just the better it's going to be. It's just physics."

Josh Allen throws during the 2018 preseason. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

Feel the burn

Palmer had Allen wear a resistance band around his ankles while he went through drills. It served a dual purpose. One was to help strengthen Allen's base. The other was to remind him of the proper distance to keep his feet apart.

"The outside of your butt, your posterior glute, is weak," Palmer said. "So if I put a band around your ankles and have you move around, it's going to burn right away. No matter how big and buff you are, if that's a muscle group that's not being addressed, it's going to burn. They're very thin, light bands, but putting them on, it fires that glute and it strengthens it to where you're strong enough to keep your base right there.

"He'd wear it for almost the whole session. And as he got better, he'd take it off a little bit more and towards the end, he'd put it on the first five or six throws and pop it off. If he felt himself getting narrow, he'd go ahead and put it back on for a couple throws, like a reminder."

The focus on improving Allen's base continued through the offseason and has been the case all summer with Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, quarterbacks coach David Culley and offensive assistant Shea Tierney.

Thirty minutes before each practice, Allen is on the field with Tierney working on a base drill. "That's where we put bags in between my legs and I've got to try to stay as close as I can to (them), moving back and forth, and turning and making a throw," Allen said. "So that's definitely been helping as well."

Since the start of training camp, Palmer has pretty much taken a hands-off approach, so as to not do anything that might contradict what Allen is being taught by the Bills' coaches. He's available if "something goes wrong" or for any other reason an NFL client wishes to reach out.

Otherwise, Allen is continuing to apply what he has learned and continues to soak in. Whether anyone beyond the Bills' coaches are noticing the progress doesn't matter to him in the least.

"Constant improvement is what I'm looking for, but it's a constant grind," Allen said. "Never do I want to say that I've arrived to the quarterback that I want to be. I always want to keep striving for it. But I do feel good throwing the ball. To be honest, I was never an inaccurate quarterback. That's what everybody wanted to make me out (to be) in the draft process.

"But now that we're getting the feet right, I could care less if people are starting to see it now. I'm just trying to get the ball into our playmakers' hands."

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