Graham: Quintessential Josh Allen plays absent, Bills’ star QB not playing as advertised


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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When the Buffalo Bills reported for offseason workouts seven months ago, Josh Allen declared he’d “never been as focused or locked in” on football.

Now, I’m not saying Allen was being disingenuous. And I’m not accusing him of being too distracted. And I certainly won’t fault him for enjoying his celebrity.

But the superstar quarterback has been all over the place this summer, just like his passes were all over the place Monday night.

Allen produced one of the worst games of his life. A mediocre performance would have been enough to beat the New York Jets in MetLife Stadium, but Allen threw three interceptions, lost a fumble and was sacked five times in a 22-16 overtime loss.

Buffalo kicker Tyler Bass ricocheted a 50-yard field goal off the left upright to bring OT. The Bills guessed the coin toss and elected to receive. They went three-and-out, actually losing more yards than they gained because of right tackle Spencer Brown’s false start and two Allen incompletions. The Jets walked off on undrafted rookie Xavier Gipson’s 65-yard punt return.

“Trying to force the ball,” Allen said before emitting a hard sigh and staring blankly for six seconds. “Same s—. Same place. Different day.”

The Jets’ defense bewildered him last year, too, but 2023 is supposed to be different. The NFL’s reigning giveaways leader went into the offseason with a declared emphasis on being wiser with his body and the ball.

Yet it wasn’t long after Allen asserted that commitment to recalibrate we realized he was doing more non-football work than ever. He’s the “Madden NFL 24” cover boy. He seems to appear in every third commercial during football games. He endorses Pepsi and Gillette and Frito-Lay and Verizon and West Herr Auto Group. He has deals with Nike, New Era, OnCore Golf Balls and who-knows-what-else. Photos of him and actress Hailee Steinfeld have splashed the entertainment and gossip pages. He attended all four golf majors and the Kentucky Derby. He’s involved with Major League Pickleball.

Four times over the past week, Gatorade’s marketing department asked me to share the “exciting news” Allen has been added to the company’s roster.

Now, again, I’m not saying all this stuff is why the Bills lost Monday night.

But Allen himself said he’s the reason they lost.

And when the message over these past seven months has been Allen is more dialed in than ever, well, then it’s natural for folks to wonder.

“We prepared so hard,” Allen said. “The effort was there. Our guys played so hard. Our defense gave us opportunities. They played a heck of a game.

“It sucks when you feel like the reason — and I am the reason — we lost tonight.”

Allen’s four turnovers tied a career-high, matching his two interceptions and two fumbles in the 2019 season opener at the Meadowlands. But the Bills managed to beat the Jets that afternoon, with Allen throwing for 254 yards, rushing for 38 yards and scoring a touchdown both ways.

Allen on Monday completed 29 of his 41 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown. When he averages 5.8 yards per attempt or under, the Bills are 8-17. Usually when the aerial attack is out of whack, Allen picks of the slack on the ground. But he ran only six times for 36 yards.

“He knows he can play better,” Buffalo coach Sean McDermott said. “I know he’s capable of playing better. He’s capable of playing smarter as well. He’s got to do that for us.”

Quintessential Allen plays were nearly absent.

On passes longer than 15 yards in the air, NFL Next Gen Stats had Allen completing just two of seven attempts and delivering all three interceptions to safety Jordan Whitehead, who entered his 83rd career game with zero multi-interception performances and never had more than two picks over a full season.

Allen was forlorn at his locker stall. While his teammates dressed and prepared to leave, he sat there in a ballcap, undershirt and his game pants. Backup quarterback Kyle Allen tried to counsel him through the misery. Eventually out of the shower, Josh Allen sat motionless again. Left tackle Dion Dawkins, on his way out to the team bus, stopped by to say “17 for life. I mean that.” Allen, a green towel draped over his head, was quiet.

“That’s what makes him such a great player,” tight end Dawson Knox said. “He’ll make this insane play, running the ball and trusting his arm strength, and everyone will say he’s the greatest player ever. If one of those goes wrong, it’s, like, ‘Oh, maybe he shouldn’t be doing all these things.’

“People overreact. It’s the first game. We’re knocking some rust off. But he’s one of the most talented guys I’ve ever seen in my life. We’re going to be all right.”

Allen’s night was especially disconcerting because the Jets’ offense was broken. Zach Wilson shouldn’t outshine him in primetime — or any time slot.


Bills observations: Why wasn’t Sean McDermott more aggressive against the Jets?

Aaron Rodgers suffered an apparent Achilles tendon injury four snaps into his Jets career, and although the Bills’ defense struggled to tackle tailback Breece Hall, it surrendered one touchdown and three field goals through four quarters.

That should have been enough for an offense that returned five Pro Bowlers. Allen and play caller Ken Dorsey, however, failed to find traction for beyond a series here or there.

The theme of McDermott’s postgame locker room speech was fighting two opponents. He said the Bills not only battled the Jets, but also themselves. You can’t expect to win that way.

“It’s a journey,” McDermott told reporters. “It’s a long season in the NFL. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to be reminded of these things, and it hurts with a loss.”

AFC East opponents have been catching up, and Allen must recover the swagger that makes him one of the game’s most dangerous players — regardless of position — and a popular pitchman.

As Allen lamented, the Jets seem to have figured him out. Over their past three matchups, he has tossed two touchdowns and five interceptions and lost one of his four fumbles. The Jets also have amassed 13 sacks and 23 QB hits, one of them injuring Allen’s throwing elbow in Week 9 last year.

In last year’s playoff victory over the Miami Dolphins, Allen threw two interceptions, lost one of his three fumbles, was sacked seven times and hit 13 times. Miami led deep into the third quarter before losing by three points. Had the opposing quarterback not been Skylar Thompson for the worst team in the tournament, then Buffalo probably wouldn’t have advanced.

We haven’t seen the best version of Allen for a while. He was the betting favorite to be named MVP until the elbow injury diminished his potency somewhat. What Buffalo endured deep into the winter consumed the entire team. They played three road games in 12 days, lost edge rusher Von Miller, coped with community tragedies, navigated the emotional devastation of Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest.

When the Bills’ once-promising season concluded with a thud against the Cincinnati Bengals, Allen was as physically and mentally exhausted as anyone. His production reflected that, but there’s no shame in succumbing to such unprecedented stress.

Throughout Allen’s career, a big bounce-back always has felt one game, one series or one play away. Such looming magic wasn’t palpable Monday night, but more chances await. The Bills’ home opener is against the Las Vegas Raiders next Sunday.

One loss won’t ruin Buffalo’s plans; the season has just begun. But soon after the Bills’ plane landed back in Cheektowaga, Allen better have stopped beating himself up and started believing he will recapture his bewitching quarterback charisma.

For the Bills to succeed, Allen needs to start playing as advertised.

(Photo of Josh Allen: Elsa / Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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