St. Joseph School in Firebaugh, Calif., was still a 15-minute drive away, but Josh Allen's education had already begun as he sat in the front passenger seat of his father's Chevy Silverado. Beginning at age 6 and for at least a couple of years thereafter, Josh could count on the "Interview." It was Joel Allen's way of preparing his son for the fulfillment of those lofty dreams of becoming an NFL quarterback.
Joel understood that being blessed with great physical talent would never be enough alone to make this to happen. His goal was to make sure Josh understood that as well.
As their early morning journey took them along Jerrold Avenue to Bullard Avenue to Highway 33, Joel would keep his left hand on the wheel while extending his right hand as if holding a microphone in front of Josh.
"Literally, every day, he'd sit there and ask me questions," Josh said. "He'd create a fake scenario about a game. 'How'd you feel out there?' My dad is very good at ad-libbing and a good BSer.
"Looking back, he was just prepping me for, hopefully, one day what I could be."
This is what Josh Allen is at 23: a second-year starter for the Buffalo Bills. He represents more in the way of hope — attached to being a seventh overall draft pick -- than accomplishment, although there were plenty of promising flashes from his 11 starts as a rookie in 2018. This season is all about what's next for the former Wyoming standout.
Will he be what the Bills have desperately sought since Jim Kelly threw his last pass for them when Allen was 7 months old? Will he become the face of the franchise?
It has long been a familiar theme throughout the NFL.
"I think every team is looking for that answer," Denver Broncos General Manager and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway said. "That answer is hard to find. It's hard to be able to evaluate the heart and how they're going to handle the whole situation and the pressure of what it takes to be a quarterback."
Allen's development first will be measured in numbers, both his individual statistics and the team's won-loss record. Equally important, however, is the way he conducts himself.
“Generally, if you have a franchise quarterback, he’s the face of your team," Bills General Manager Brandon Beane said. "Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady. So, what do you want representing your team? You want a guy who’s a natural leader. You can try and train people all day long to be leaders, but there’s only so much you can move the needle.
“You’ve got to have a guy that can not only get himself prepared and do the right thing, but also understands it can’t be a sometime thing with a quarterback. Everybody’s watching him. Everybody in the building, not just the players. The equipment guys, the video guys. There’s an energy off of that. If you have that guy, you know every Sunday you have a chance. You’re going to win because of that guy, not in spite of."
Joel Allen's purpose with the daily interview ritual wasn't to provide his son with early media training. It was to help Josh to grasp the most critical element of fulfilling football's highest-profile position, which is to always be more accountable than everyone else on the team.
"One thing that he kind of taught me was, ‘In victory, spread; in loss, take,'" Josh said. "So when things are bad — obviously, some guys may or may not do it — but putting most of the weight on your shoulders and just things that you could have done better to help the team. That’s how I’ll always be. If we don’t have a good game, I take that very hard on myself, because there’s things that I probably could have done better and probably I should have done better.
"I know, as a quarterback, that people look up to that position. They look at the body language. They look at how you talk, how you look, so trying to stay in that even mindset in the good and in the bad. Just how you talk to the media. I think how you portray yourself and putting the team above you and showing what the team needs and expects and not what you need or what you expect. I think that just goes hand in hand.
"The face of a franchise needs to be able to kind of relate to the media and be able to portray the message that he wants to for the better sake of the team."
Kelly echoes that sentiment. The Hall of Famer vividly remembers that grasping the concept of sharing and accepting blame, rather than dispensing it, didn't come naturally to him.
But he came to realize it was essential for a franchise QB.
"Early on, I had to learn that, because as a quarterback, you're a leader and you lead by example," Kelly said. "You have to learn that sometimes you keep things in. It's not what you say to a receiver; it's how you say it. If a receiver runs a route that wasn't quite the way it should have been, tell him what you were looking at rather than what he did wrong.
"Early on, I got frustrated with a couple of receivers and I think, more than anything, I learned how to tell them what I was seeing so that they knew it, too. You don't tell them how to do it, but why you think it should be done this way."
To Allen, no one better exemplifies what it means to fill those face-of-the-franchise shoes than the quarterback and fellow northern Californian he has admired since childhood.
"As much as I hate to say it, it's Tom," he said with a sheepish grin.
Allen knew very well his comment would offend a fan base that feels contempt for Brady and his team, the New England Patriots. Allen is all about having as strong a connection as possible with "Bills Mafia," a term he frequently uses and demonstrated as much during this summer's training camp at St. John Fisher College by consistently being the last player out signing autographs, especially for kids.
"But you've got to respect the guy," Allen said of Brady. "I grew up loving him and what he did on the field and how he was off the field. Just the way he carries himself, the way that people regard him, the respect that his teammates give him when they’re not there, the way they talk about him when they’re on a different team. I think everybody in the league can look at him and wish for that sustained success that they’ve had for so long.
"Every year, year in year out, he’s still doing the right things. Looking at the little things like him never walking on the football field when he goes out to practice. As soon as he steps between lines, he starts jogging. Just little things like that that not many people pick up on, but I kind of look at. I’m not saying that I want to be Tom Brady, but as a young kid, I looked up to him like he is the role model. He is the Mecca. He is what you would strive to be as a quarterback."
For Allen, doing the right things included spending parts of February through April working in Southern California with quarterback guru Jordan Palmer "on mechanical stuff: sequencing in my shoulder to my hips, and little things like that." It included gathering most of the receivers who were on the roster in 2018 to catch passes from him in California before the start of free agency in March.
"I think taking initiative is something that a quote-unquote franchise quarterback is supposed to do," Allen said. "We worked for a few days, just to kind of hone in on what we’re doing in the playbook right before OTAs, obviously. Just trying to get back in the swing of things."
When the Bills' decision-makers did their assessments of Allen and the four other premiere college quarterbacks who would be selected in the first round in 2018 — Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Lamar Jackson and Josh Rosen — they determined where each could make an immediate positive impact, where there was room for growth and shortcomings that might not necessarily be fixable.
Beane said the Bills were satisfied that all five first-rounders and "even some drafted after that" had the "physical ability to play in this league." Beyond that, they focused on intangibles, beginning with leadership. With this area, the Bills wouldn't leave anything to chance.
Beane, coach Sean McDermott and members of the Bills' player-personnel and coaching staffs took the first significant step in getting to know Allen better at the Senior Bowl college all-star game in Mobile, Ala. They spent about 30 minutes with him in a hotel boardroom. The session didn't go all that well.
"He was very nervous at the Senior Bowl, trying too hard to impress," Beane said.
The Bills chose not to meet with Allen at the NFL scouting combine, where teams get 15 minutes apiece to interview as many as 60 players, because they knew they required more time with Allen and wanted to use every available slot for non-quarterbacks.
A longer meeting with Allen was set for a couple of weeks later in Laramie, Wyoming. Besides Beane and McDermott, it included team owners Terry and Kim Pegula, assistant GM Joe Schoen, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and then-quarterbacks coach David Culley.
The plan was for the whole group to have dinner with Allen at the Cavalryman Steakhouse. Reservations were set for 7:30 p.m. However, Allen's flight from Los Angeles was delayed due to bad weather.
Little did he realize that his handling of the circumstances would play a huge role in the Bills' evaluation of him. "That night was a testament to who Josh is," Beane said.
First, Allen impressed the Bills' hierarchy by staying in touch the whole time, providing updates on his ETA. Once it was known he wouldn't land in Denver until 8 p.m., and would still have a two-hour drive to Laramie, the Bills' contingent decided to go ahead and eat without him. But Allen assured the team he still planned to attend the meeting.
"He could have made a lot of excuses," Beane said. "I’ve had it happen before with players where something comes up. ‘Hey, I can't make it. Can we just do this tomorrow?’ Josh let us know his whereabouts every step of the way. 'I just landed in Denver. … We're heading out. … I'm an hour away.' That's a pro. We didn't have to reach out to him. So many young kids, including my own, will say, 'I'll be there when I get there.' "
The restaurant was scheduled to close at 10, before Allen's arrival, but the fact he was a local celebrity made it easy for Bills officials to convince the manager to keep it open.
Allen finally showed up a little after 10. Despite the late hour and long journey, he was upbeat and engaging. The hourlong conversation primarily focused on the quarterback's personal life, although there were football topics tied to a packet of material Daboll had sent with basics about the Bills' offense.
"That’s crazy travel, but he was not acting tired," Beane said. "I’m sure, inside, he was going, ‘Man, I’m trying to make a good impression on this team and the flights are screwed up.’ But he came in and he was relaxed. He was calm. He knew the stuff. When Dabes was asking him questions, he spit it off."
Even more impressive, though, was how he behaved around everyone else in the restaurant.
"He spoke to every person in that place that he passed when he was walking in and walking out. 'Hey, how you doing?'" Beane said. "People know who Josh Allen is in Laramie, Wyo. You’re watching how people are treated. He was very courteous. I didn’t see a guy who was trying to impress. I saw a guy who was comfortable with where he was."
He still sees that guy.
"Josh has got a big personality," the GM said. "He fills the room."
"He's got all the things that you want for a franchise quarterback — leadership, charisma, players like him," CBS studio analyst and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms said. "He walks on the field, there's a tremendous presence with him, just like there is with Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott. They just have it."
Still, Allen recognizes he needs to make improvements in his game. Based on the many offseason additions the Bills made to upgrade the offensive line, at receiver and tight end, there's optimism that the supporting cast will do plenty to help bring the best out of him.
"You're going from the point of proving yourself to the point of establishing yourself," CBS studio analyst and former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "He proved himself. Now, you have to establish yourself. Establishing yourself is your decision-making and saying, 'Now, what I want to do is continue to work on my accuracy and making all the right throws.'"
The Bills hired quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey, a former NFL QB, with high expectations that he'll help elevate Allen's game.
“He’s been fantastic," Allen said. "He comes into each meeting prepared with his list of notes. And he’s not just like reiterating what (offensive coordinator Brian) Daboll says. And when Dabes is not there, Dorse has his own insights on certain concepts. Like, ‘In this coverage, we really want to look at this. ... With my experience playing this, I always saw this guy.’ Just little, subtle things like finding the right 'backer to ID and finding the right 'backer to look at. ‘If his shoulder’s turned one way, flip your hips and throw it this way.' It’s just little things like that have helped me out a lot."
One area where Allen knows he must make a significant jump is accuracy, a lingering flaw from college that only seemed to get worse based on his 52.8 completion percentage as a rookie. To that end, he took a critical look at every aspect of his game.
The first stat that jumped out at Allen was that he attempted more downfield throws than any other quarterback in the NFL. "And that kind of, in turn, hurts completion percentage and everybody knows that," he said. "Riskier, higher reward."
Allen still showed that tendency in the Bills' Aug. 23 preseason game against the Detroit Lions. He took a head-scratching risk when, while under pressure, he threw across his body to the middle of the field. The predictable interception was wiped out by a late hit on Allen.
What will it take for him to be more accurate with this throws this year?
“Being OK with three to four yards. That’s what it comes down to," Allen said. "The competitor in me wants to throw the ball downfield and wants to get as many yards as possible and wants to force the ball into tight coverage on third down to pick up a first. But understanding how football is played now at the NFL level, and how situational football coincides with how the offense and the defense work together with special teams, I look at it in a different way now just being taught from Coach McDermott and Coach Daboll.
"I’m sure still, when I go on the field, there’s going to be a few times where I try to force some stuff. Sometimes it’s going to work out; sometimes it’s not."
When it doesn't, Allen is confident he'll handle it the right way. After all, he has had 17 years to prepare for such moments.
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