This is the first of two parts looking at Josh Allen's accuracy.
Josh Allen has a lot of low-hanging fruit to grab in his quest for better accuracy in the NFL.
Allen completed an NFL-low 10.1 passes per game within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage in 2018.
The league average for the 32 starting quarterbacks was 16.5 completions per game on "short passes," within 10 yards of the line, according to an analysis of data from Pro Football Focus.
Allen also had the lowest completion percentage on short passes. The Bills rookie completed 75 percent of his throws within 10 yards of the line, which isn’t quite as good as it sounds.
The league average for starting QBs was 81 percent.
There are many reasons the Bills' short passing game was poor in 2018. And there's no doubt Allen has plenty of improvement to make in his accuracy.
But in theory, it's not hard to imagine Allen's accuracy improving by some degree simply by taking more "easy" completions. Six completions a game, in fact, should be there for the taking, because that's what the average starting QB is getting.
Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll acknowledged at the end of the season that Allen needs to hit his checkdowns better.
“People are playing Josh a little bit different than they play some other people, whether it’s a deeper safety, the corners bailing off,” the Bills’ offensive coordinator said. “I think we can help ourselves, too, by taking what they give us on some of those verticals.”
The Bills did not try to be a horizontal, possession-passing offense for most of 2018. That’s not necessarily best suited to a rookie quarterback. Allen’s big arm is a deep-passing threat to the defense, and the emergence of Robert Foster helped the deep passing game improve the second half of the season.
“I think that's the thing going back to Josh in college and then this year,” said Bills General Manager Brandon Beane. “He didn't have a lot of the checkdown throws. Now, some of that is maturity on his part, which he understands. It's finding those outlets when it's not there downfield. That's just part of the growth process.”
“We love his aggressiveness,” Beane said. “He thinks he can make any throw, and he can physically, but sometimes that's not the smart play. I think that's what Josh is learning. That's natural. He's so competitive that he wants to pick up that first down now, and sometimes it's OK to take the swing pass for 5 yards and get it to second and 5, instead of a harder throw 18 yards down the field in a tight window that has a 50-50 chance and now it's second and 10.”
The Bills, in fact, had the fourth-fewest pass attempts overall in 2018 on throws within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, according to the ESPN NFL Matchup show. The Bills averaged 14.8 a game. Pittsburgh led at 23.7 a game.
“I do think there are other offenses that do check it down a lot and it really boosts those guys' completion percentages,” Beane said. “Right now, that's not been in ours, but we'll continue to try and evolve the offense, and it will be fun to watch Josh grow.”
Of course, winning and scoring is the mission of an offense, not leading the league in short passing – or dinking and dunking. Only one of the top eight QBs who completed the most passes under 10 yards (Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck) made the playoffs.
But six other playoff QBs, including Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and New England’s Tom Brady, ranked between ninth and 16th. Brees completed 18.2 a game, Brady 17.3 and Mahomes 16.9.
Asked about the opportunity for more short completions, Allen put it in the context of his quest for all-areas improvement.
"Yeah, I want to complete every pass I drop back and try to make," Allen told The News. "I'm getting better and familiar with the outlets, where my answers are. It's diving into the playbook and learning that as best as I can. So, yeah, I'm definitely looking forward to that."
Improving Allen’s mechanics will be key to getting more completions in the possession passing game.
“The first order of business for Allen is to begin the process of refining his footwork and throwing technique,” said Jim Kubiak, the former pro QB, head of the WNY Quarterback Academy and Buffalonews.com contributor. “His feet are often undisciplined and too wide. This creates an ‘overstrided’ position, which prevents his hips from getting over his front knee, resulting in high, all upper-body throws. This overstrided position at times makes him a ‘low-elbow’ thrower.”
In an annual study by PFF, Allen’s “accuracy percentage” was a league-low 33 percent on “underneath” throws. Those are specific routes defined as longer than screens and swing passes but shorter than intermediate crossing routes in which the receiver needs to be led with the pass. And that 33 percent isn’t the actual completion percentage, it’s the rate of accurately delivered balls, essentially into the frame of the receiver. Only two other QBs were under 50 percent on such passes (both Eagles QBs, Carson Wentz and Nick Foles).
On the plus side, Allen’s accuracy percentage on “stick routes,” essentially intermediate routes, on a line with the receiver facing the QB, was 71 percent, according to PFF. That was better than the league average of 68 percent.
Another indication of the need to improve the Bills’ possession passing game is how long Allen held the ball (3.2 seconds on average) – the longest in the NFL, according to PFF. Of course, part of that figure stems from the fact Allen has more ability to extend plays than most QBs.
But when Allen got rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less, his completion percentage was 75.7 percent, near the league average of 78.6 (and adjusted for drops, throwaways, etc.) When Allen held the ball 2.6 seconds or more, his completion percentage was second worst in the league, at 53.5 percent (with the league average at 68.9).
Improving the receiving corps by getting a couple more players who are good at getting quick separation from defenders will be one thing the Bills can do to improve their short passing game.
Another year of experience for Allen should help, too. A big part of getting good at hitting checkdowns is recognizing very early in the down that the underneath pass is the best option. That early recognition, something veterans like Brees and Brady have mastered, increases completion rates and maximizes yards after catch.