CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Josh Allen garnered the headlines Friday night for good reason.
The Buffalo Bills’ second-year quarterback was superb against the Carolina Panthers, completing 9 of 11 passes for 102 yards.
Allen wasn’t the Bills’ only quarterback to play lights out, though. Backup Matt Barkley had his second straight stellar preseason performance, going 8 of 10 for 110 yards, one touchdown and a passer rating of 145.8. In two exhibition games, Barkley is 17 of 24 (70.8 completion percentage) for 236 yards and two touchdowns. His passer rating of 129.9 would rank third in the NFL in the preseason if Barkley qualified (a player needs at least 14 attempts per their team’s games played, so he falls one short).
“It’s good to have Matt,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “I really appreciate, not only the way he played, but his work – his leadership on this football team – with Josh and (Tyree Jackson). That’s an important piece at the backup quarterback position. He’s done a real nice job to this point.”
After all the turmoil the Bills went through at quarterback early in the 2018 season – trading A.J. McCarron, naming Nathan Peterman the starter (whoops!), watching Allen go down with an elbow injury – this year has been, frankly, a little boring at the position. That’s of course just how the team wants it. Allen is on firm ground as starter, Barkley is the trusted veteran backup and third-stringer Tyree Jackson is the developmental prospect – even if early returns on that have not been good.
“That's a very important position. You see it more and more around the league, how much value teams place in that guy,” rookie receiver David Sills V said of backup quarterback. “Matt has been playing really good football lately. He played very well last week and played very well again this week. It's definitely something an offensive coordinator, head coach, the rest of the team, they love to see it, because they gain the confidence and trust in Matt that, if anything were to happen, he could come in and not miss a step.”
Barkley did that in his only regular-season appearance with the Bills to date. He torched the Jets in a 41-10 win during Week 10 of the 2018 season, going 15 of 25 for 232 yards and two touchdowns – numbers that are nearly identical to what he’s produced in two preseason games this year.
“Matt's awesome,” receiver Isaiah McKenzie said. “When I got here last year, he got here at the same time. We played against the Jets and he came out on fire. He had a great game and has carried that over to this season. I hope he keeps it up. It's great to have him.”
Barkley had less than two weeks to prepare for that start. It went so well the team felt comfortable giving him a two-year contract extension worth up to $4 million – a relatively small price to pay for peace of mind at the game’s most important position.
Given the journeyman nature of his NFL career to this point, it’s easy to forget that Barkley was once one of the biggest quarterbacks in the nation. While at Southern California, he became the first true freshman in program history to start a season opener. The next week, he led a game-winning, 86-yard drive to help USC defeat Ohio State.
Sills was in sixth grade at the time, and Barkley’s performance left an impression. The next year, he verbally committed to the Trojans as a seventh grader.
Barkley's best college season came in 2011 as a junior, when he was named the College Football Performance Awards’ National Performer of the Year after setting a Pac-12 single-season record with 39 passing touchdowns in 12 games, during which the Trojans went 10-2.
“When I was a kid, that was pretty cool for me to see,” Sills said of Barkley’s USC career. “Now playing with him is really cool. He's one of those guys – he's been in the league for a while. He's trying to give all his information to the younger guys to help them with their process and journey.”
Barkley, 28, still has just 12 games of NFL experience, but has been with six different teams, giving him plenty of prior knowledge to draw on. He’s also had the benefit now of going through an entire offseason with one team, allowing him to fully digest offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s system.
“That time helps,” he said in the victorious locker room Friday night. “We have a good group of guys on that second group. Guys that have played before, have game experience. Now as a vet myself, just knowing how to talk to them in the huddle even, telling them what to do, where to lineup. This whole offseason and the time I've got in the offense has definitely helped at this point.”
Barkley started his postgame interview lamenting the two throws he missed against the Panthers. Those aside, he once again looked totally in command of the offense.
“Just trying to make smart decisions, play smart football,” he said. “Sometimes that's ... taking what they give you and sometimes it's taking a shot.”
That’s precisely what the Bills have been working with Allen on this offseason. That was reflected Friday in the performances of both of the team’s top two quarterbacks.
“We’ve got to take what the defense gives us in terms of whether it’s matchups or schemes,” McDermott said. “That continues to show Josh’s development. It comes from his hard work. He’s been working hard. Matt also, I thought, had a good night. When you practice a certain way, those habits transfer over to the game.”