Harnessing Josh Allen's supreme physical gifts is the ultimate challenge for Bills coaches and the quarterback himself. We know it's an endeavor worth undertaking because the payout of said harnessing is massive.
For three seasons now, the "sugar high" Allen we saw frequently during his rookie campaign and clearly too often in Year 2 is not the quarterback's default setting.
But in a totally off-the-rails wild-card win over the Dolphins, we essentially got the entire Allen experience -- seven sacks, three fumbles, two picks, and seven big-time throws. The only thing missing was a hurdle of a linebacker.
Allen had a colossal average depth of target (aDOT) of 16.5 yards, throwing as many passes 20-plus yards down the field -- 13! -- as throws from zero to five yards beyond the line of scrimmage, a parallel rarely witnessed in a single game in today's NFL.
And frankly, we probably should've seen this coming.
In an offense not as imaginative as Kansas City's nor as deep at receiver as Cincinnati's with an offensive line not as sturdy as Philadelphia's or San Francisco's, Buffalo's coaches and Allen have decided to explore every possibility afforded by the bazooka attached to the right side of his body and the ultra-aggressive style in his DNA.
During the regular season, among quarterbacks with 400-plus drop backs, Allen finished third in aDOT (9.7 yards). He led the NFL in both big-time throws (44) and big-time throw rate (7.4%) by wide margins. Geno Smith was second in big-time throws (34) and in that 400-plus drop back club, Aaron Rodgers was second in big-time throw rate (5.7%).
Allen also had the most turnover-worthy plays (29) and finished fifth in turnover-worthy play rate (4.2%) among that group in the regular season.
With an average blocking unit, Stefon Diggs, and a solid but inconsistent support cast beyond the elite receiver, this is what an offense is going to look like with Allen at quarterback. He's doing what is most sensible in his mind to elevate this Bills team -- sling rockets, often, all over the field, even if doing so is a little dangerous. Like this one to Diggs in the first quarter.
Bonkers. Straight up. From a collapsing pocket, 60 yards in the air, perfectly placed beyond the outstretched arm of notorious ballhawk Xavien Howard. It came on third and long with the Dolphins sending the house, too.
Sure, Gabriel Davis might have been decently open on the other side of the field, short of the sticks with plenty of open turf around him. Allen was taking matters into his own hands. The Bills scored on the next play.
You'd never believe this now after watching how Allen operated in the wild-card victory, but there was a long stretch earlier this season when Bills fans and media were begging for more of a deep-ball presence in Buffalo's offense.
And I will go on the record here to say -- I am advocate of the Air Allen offensive philosophy. It taps into every ounce of Allen's immense talent which was the main reason Buffalo ascended on draft night in 2018 to select him. He's not being micromanaged.
Think about Justin Herbert with the Chargers. He's another cannon-armed quarterback with Hall of Fame throwing ability who had the fourth-lowest aDOT (7.0 yards) during the regular season, which played a major role in a big-time throw rate (3.3%) eclipsed by far less naturally talented passers like Taylor Heinicke, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Andy Dalton.
Herbert had the second-most throws behind the line of scrimmage (127) in all of football in the regular season, more than twice as many as Allen (66).
That's brutal. And not remotely close to what the Bills and Allen should strive for.
But now deep into his fifth year in the NFL, with more than 80 total starts -- counting the playoffs -- under his belt, Allen must demonstrate a better understanding of the best course of action in specific, critical situations.
For example, this remarkable nugget from Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo represents Allen keeping the pedal to the floor when downshifting was the correct play.
Josh Allen, playing with a lead, had an average target depth of 26.3 in the fourth quarter— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) January 16, 2023
That was not Allen doing what was most sensible to elevate his team. After the game got nuts late in the second quarter and at the start of the second half, the Bills started to again cruise offensively -- and didn't turn the ball over. They took a 34-24 lead near the end of the third.
After a Dolphins score to cut the lead to 34-31 with 10:53 to go, Allen took consecutive deep shots to Gabriel Davis that fell incomplete before getting sacked on third down.
This was the initial play on that drive.
Now, the Dolphins were inviting the deep shot given safety Jevon Holland's alignment on the opposite hash. But had Allen been able to bypass his inherent "when in doubt, chuck it deep" hard-wiring, he would've found either Diggs on the over route at the intermediate level, or, even better, Devin Singletary on the checkdown with only one Dolphins defender to beat on that side of the field.
Instead, the ball fell incomplete after getting dangerously tipped into the air off Davis' hands.
Allen can bounce through his reads. That aspect of his game materialized in 2020 and hasn't left. His eyes just get so big when he sees one-on-one coverage on the outside, or when he knows he has a vertical route called that he can't help himself.
Ironically, on the next drive, that started at his own 12 with a three-point lead and under eight minutes to play, Allen threw short to Nyheim Hines in the flat on his second read on second down before dropping another bomb into the bucket to Khalil Shakir on an absolutely critical third and one.
As you'll see, there really wasn't anything else available in the high-percentage-throw range -- and there was a defensive holding called on the corner covering Stefon Diggs at the bottom of the screen.
It was almost as if, in-game, Allen heard all the "CHECK IT DOWN!" pleads, laughed them off, and was determined to end with a a signature exclamation mark.
And, really, those two late drive encapsulated my current thoughts on Allen. He has to be smarter given the score, time, game flow, all that. The Bills didn't need to repeatedly swing to land knockout punch after knockout punch against a Dolphins team starting its third-string quarterback. That plan of attack led to Buffalo taking an unnecessary amount of body blows. But the Bills were able to squeak out a win.
The margin for error narrows as the Bills move through the playoffs. If teams continue to blitz Allen around 40% of the time like the Dolphins did on Sunday, Allen needs to lean more on Cole Beasley, Shakir, and running backs underneath, and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey should build more quick-game outlets into the offensive framework.
But Allen's rocket-launcher arm and hyper-aggressive style cannot be essentially erased from the offense. Because those things, along with Allen's running ability, make this Bills offense really go.