Josh Allen will be making his first start as a NFL quarterback when the Buffalo Bills take on the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3 exhibition action on Sunday afternoon. After solid outings with reserve offensive units in his first two preseason games, Allen’s start this weekend represents the best opportunity a Bills quarterback has had so far this summer to stake his claim for the starting job.
Bills fans have spent this week wondering aloud: What does Allen need to do on Sunday to win the Week 1 starting gig?
What if the best answer to that question is “nothing”?
Scenario 1: “The Plan” has involved starting Allen all along
Sean McDermott has the final say in whether or not the Bills end up throwing Allen into the proverbial fire and starting him straight away as he begins his NFL career. McDermott is perhaps singularly known for being a process-oriented individual; if he has a plan in place, he has come across as a coach that will stick to it.
McDermott has made it clear that this preseason start against Cincinnati was premeditated, and a way for the coaches to see how Allen handles the week-long process of preparing for a pro opponent as the starter. This could be a dress rehearsal for the eventuality of him becoming the starter, or it could be a final exam, of sorts, before he’s named the Week 1 starter.
It would not be surprising in the least if McDermott, as well as general manager Brandon Beane, has planned to start Allen from the moment they drafted him, despite the pre-draft rhetoric that Allen was not ready for that level of responsibility, and despite the measured pace with which they’ve scooted him up the depth chart this spring and summer. There is no better teacher than experience, and while experience can be earned just by being on a NFL team, on-field experience is far more valuable.
If the Bills have seen enough to plan on starting Allen in Week 1, then all Allen needs to do against Cincinnati, in essence, is to maintain the level of play he’s shown this preseason, without falling flat on his face.
Scenario 2: “The Plan” has involved sitting Allen all along
It also would not be surprising in the least if the McDermott and Beane have planned to sit Allen from the moment they drafted him. The Bills have a challenging slate of defenses to play against early in the regular season, and in order to keep the rookie’s confidence up and his trajectory on track, it may never have entered their mind to consider starting him until he’s experienced a few weeks of real-game preparation.
More importantly, for as well as Allen has played this preseason - both in terms of in-game performance, as well as technical improvements made during practices - there are still some glaring weaknesses and inconsistencies with his overall game that opponents will key on if he’s in the lineup.
If the Bills are using this preseason start as a baby step in their prep-Allen strategy, and will be rolling with either Nathan Peterman or AJ McCarron in Week 1, then Allen’s charge from Scenario 1 won’t be much different here: he’ll need to maintain (but ideally exceed) the level of play he’s shown this preseason, without exhibiting the type of regression that would torpedo his confidence right before his scheduled stretch of dates with the bench.
Scenario 3: “The Competition” has been legitimate all along
This is where the conversation starts to become more interesting, even though it fundamentally relies on the idea that McDermott and Beane somehow won’t stick with their pre-determined plan of developing Allen, which could be considered a stretch of the imagination.
Let’s assume, though, that the McCarron-Peterman-Allen rotation has been a legitimate, agenda-free competition for the Week 1 starting job from the moment those three first met with Buffalo’s coaches as a group.
In that scenario, Allen has a leg up, for two primary reasons: he is easily the most talented quarterback of the trio, and he has been the only member of the trio to consistently rise up the depth chart, whereas Peterman and Allen have primarily bobbed up and down it.
If this is really a final exam for Allen - his last major test from possibly-hesitant coaches facing the reality of starting him straight away - then Allen’s to-do list expands, though perhaps not by much. I would argue that, in this vacuum, Allen needs to do two things to win the starting job:
- Improve on his performance against Cleveland last week
- Outplay Peterman by a significant margin
Deadspin wisecracks aside, Peterman has distinct advantages over Allen at the moment: he has been far more consistent this summer, and especially in preseason action; and McDermott has a lot more familiarity with him, considering that both McCarron and Allen are new to the franchise as of this spring. Adding in the fact that McCarron has missed a week-plus of throwing, and it seems obvious that if this isn’t Allen’s job to lose, it’s Peterman’s. Given how well Peterman has played so far this preseason - he has been statistically better than Allen - it might take a large step forward from Allen, and a large step backwards from Peterman, for McDermott to feel comfortable pulling the trigger.
Each of the Bills’ first two preseason games have told us a lot about the Bills’ quarterback situation, both at a micro and a macro level. We’re now just a few days away from Allen’s biggest test to date. Whether you believe the Bills are in Scenario 1, Scenario 2, or Scenario 3 with their rookie quarterback, there’s no denying that Allen has a significant opportunity to make one last move before whichever Week 1 fate awaits him arrives.