ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — How do you tell an NFL player to stop doing the thing that nearly cost his team a game — but also won it?
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen’s ability to extend plays is well-documented 14 starts into his career. But through three games of the 2019 season, the lows have also been apparent, with the latest example being an interception he threw Sunday off one leg while stiff-arming a Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman.
But for every “what was he thinking?” there’s a corresponding “how did he do that?” play. It’s tough on a coach because it’s difficult to criticize those great moments that have played a critical role in Buffalo’s first 3-0 start since 2011.
More examples: Allen’s 27-yard completion to John Brown on the run and perfectly lofted over two Cincinnati defenders. His pirouette on a dime to break free of one of the league’s best defensive linemen, Geno Atkins, before fixing his eyes downfield and hitting Dawson Knox for a first down. Breaking free when Andrew Brown had him by the jersey and ripping off an 8-yard scramble to give the Bills first-and-goal on their game-winning drive.
“To me, it’s the development of a young quarterback, and it’s Josh’s athleticism,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “Being around a couple athletic quarterbacks in my past, it can work both ways sometimes. So you just have to continue to understand your job and just be one-eleventh of what we’re trying to do, and then we’ll move the football effectively when we do that.
“When you don’t take care of the football — and Josh knows, he’s talked about it — you put your team in harm’s way. So … that’s one of the areas we have to do a better job in.”
Allen was contrite after his interception, and that was caught on camera immediately after the play and game.
“It’s one of those things that’ll be taken care of,” he said. “It’s got to be put through my head that it can’t happen. I’m moving on from it, I’ve learned from it, and I can truly say that it’s not going to happen again.”
The second-year quarterback said he knows better whenever one of these “bad Josh” plays occurs. The problem is that there is no concrete formula to determine when he should prioritize extending a play and when he should focus on extending a drive.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said that’s a difficult determination to make because it’s mostly up to Allen to figure out in the moment, and the Bills are not going to take away the trait that makes Allen so dynamic — but also so mercurial.
“Each individual circumstance is so different,” Daboll said. “A lot of it is instinctive, and one thing you never want to do as a coach is take a player’s instinct away from him.”
The Bills get their toughest test of the season to date Sunday, when they play host to the 3-0 New England Patriots (1 p.m. ET, CBS). If ever there were a defense to test the legitimacy of Allen’s instincts, it’s this Patriots unit that has given up 17 total points through three games while intercepting a league-high six passes.
“The good thing about this is we haven’t played our best football yet,” Allen said. “We found ways to win.”
If Allen is correct, and the undefeated Bills will get better from here, Sunday’s matchup could be the best game played at New Era Field this season. If not, New England will call his bluff.