The Buffalo Bills begin training camp Thursday at St. John Fisher College. The most important of the many questions the team faces: What is to be expected from quarterback Josh Allen in year 2?
Statistical recap of 2018
Allen played in 12 games as a rookie last season. He completed 169 of 320 passing attempts for a total of 2,074 yards with a completion percentage of 52.8%. He threw for 10 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions, averaging 172.8 yards per game, and was sacked a total of 28 times.
As a runner, Allen accounted for eight touchdowns and 631 yards on 89 carries. He averaged an astonishing 52.6 yards per game and was the most impactful runner the Bills had on the field.
Leadership and confidence boost
Entering training camp last season, Sean McDermott had an open competition for the starting quarterback position between Nathan Peterman, AJ McCarron and Allen. That approach did not help Allen develop his leadership skills or improve his confidence. His growth was stunted as valuable preparation time was lost during the competition.
Things could not be more different for Allen approaching this season. The 2019 Bills begin with their leader in place, taking all the reps and striving to maximize his potential in every way.
This approach puts the foundation of the organization on solid ground. Everyone knows Allen is the starting quarterback. Being in the driver's seat through spring drills and from the start at training camp should be an enormous boost to Allen’s confidence and his ability to lead.
Confidence grows with knowledge and experience, which is sprouted from excellent preparation. Admittedly, there were games last season Allen was not able to decipher what his protections were, or who was unaccounted for at the line of scrimmage. The speed of the game and the variety of defensive configurations troubled him at times.
Now, Allen has the valuable knowledge from last season under his belt. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and new quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey’s first order of business in the offseason was to develop Allen’s protection skills at the line of scrimmage. Identifying and knowing who is accounted for in protection is essential on every passing play. Allen enters training camp with a greater understanding of this crucial part of the game.
"Being in the same system for a year, the same terminology, having such a good rapport with Dabs, knowing the reps that I’m going to get, that’s all been super advantageous for me and I’m super excited that I’ve been able to do that," Allen told reporters at the end of the spring. "I’m really trusting what’s around me."
The difference in Allen’s confidence and leadership were apparent in the spring and should be clear from the moment he takes the field for the first practice of training camp.
A great way to improve Allen’s efficiency is through “bottom-up reads.” This a concept of teaching quarterbacks to read their progressions short-to-deep. This sounds simple, and it is if you buy into why it is necessary.
Most quarterbacks in high school and college are taught “top-down” or “deep-to-short” progressions whereby players will look deep for the big play first. Teams and players have success with this style at the lower levels, which is why the idea is still around. The NFL is a different animal altogether with a margin of error so razor thin that teams must play the percentages and strive for efficiency to compete. Thus, "bottom-up" reads provide the quarterback with easy, visible opportunities for quick completions, improving third-down conversions and completion percentages with success on first and second downs.
The Bills’ third-down conversion percentage ranked 30th in the NFL last season at 31.63%. Only the Miami Dolphins and the Arizona Cardinals were ranked lower. The Indianapolis Colts led the league at 47.68%, and the Super Bowl champion Patriots were ranked ninth at 42.68%.
Allen’s “bottom-up” concepts can improve Buffalo’s third-down conversion rate, and improve his effectiveness. The additional benefits of “bottom-up” progressions are vast and include a reduction of interceptions with safer throws, and fewer hits on the quarterback with quicker release times.
Turnovers and situational awareness
Situational awareness is essential to high level success in the NFL. The best coached teams are prepared for every situation. The better the teacher, the better the execution in the moment. No one knows that more than Daboll, who has five Super Bowl victories with the New England Patriots and a college national championship at Alabama.
Forget about every other statistic in football and look at the most important factor that determines the outcomes of NFL games, which is turnovers. The importance of winning the turnover battle has been remarkably static throughout NFL history. From 1950 to 2016, the average winning percentage of teams that won the turnover battle was 78%, according to Chase Stuart from his 2017 published study, "Winning the Turnover Battle."
The evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea that protecting the football better than your opponent wins games and leads to championships. How do coaches teach or preach this philosophy?
- They build it in the culture of everything they do.
- They attract players who care and are willing to do their part.
- They provide statistical analysis and build the right thoughts and habits.
- They track every play of every practice and create an amazing awareness of what matters most.
- They find ways to keep their quarterbacks upright in the pocket, with route combinations that are easy to read and safe to throw.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they implant the idea into the quarterback that he doesn’t have to do it all himself. He must take what the defense gives, attack the matchups that are best, and throw the ball away in situations that could potentially hurt the team.
The Bills turnover ratio in 2018 was minus-5, which ranked 23rd in the league. The Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots, the Super Bowl teams, were plus-11 and plus-10, and ranked fourth and fifth in the league, respectively.
Simply reducing Allen’s turnovers (12 interceptions and two lost fumbles) in half would dramatically improve the Bills' chances heading into 2019. An emphasis on Allen’s situational awareness will reduce his turnovers and improve the odds of winning.
The gun and the no-huddle
The health and well-being of a starting quarterback in the NFL is the top priority.
Overall in 2018, Allen threw the ball from the shotgun 73.2% of the time and was in the no-huddle 10.8%. Although Allen had a higher completion percentage rate operating from under center, 54%, the significant downside was that he was hit on 15% of those plays. The shotgun suits Allen having a reduced QB hit percentage of 10%, despite his slightly lower completion percentage of 52.9%.
More intriguing was the QB hit percentage of 2.9% while operating the no-huddle. The conclusion to draw from this data would be to start Allen in the shotgun where he is protected and make use of more no-huddle tempo to minimize his risk. This could improve his comfort and rhythm, while placing him in the best situation to be successful.
Bottom-up reads, situational awareness, the gun and no-huddle are all factors that will affect Allen in 2019. His performance and that of the Bills will rest on his willingness to mature and adjust to the NFL philosophies that are proven.
Expect higher efficiency from Allen, including an improved completion percentage, two-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio, as well as a higher third-down conversion percentage.
He will be the same playmaker with his legs that he was in 2018, but with an increased sense of situational awareness. His health will be essential to the success of the team, and equally important will be his belief in what he is learning from Daboll.