A common refrain among Bills Mafia during the 2023 NFL season and continuing now is the sentiment that Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott should be replaced. By whom? Many don’t seem to care — with the idea that Josh Allen is a generational talent who creates an “easy button” for a head coach.
That got me thinking. What if we plugged Josh Allen into the underachieving Bills teams of the past?
What if... Josh Allen Quarterbacked the 1998 Buffalo Bills?
Wait a minute? I thought you said this thought exercise was to plug Josh Allen into underachieving teams and see what might have been in a different universe. Didn’t the ‘98 Bills make the playoffs? They sure did. In Wade Phillips’ first year taking over after the departure of The Legend Marv Levy, the team did indeed make the playoffs.
Exiting in the first round with a Wild Card loss to the Miami Dolphins, the Bills were likely capable of quite a bit more that season — and that’s before we insert a time-traveling Josh Allen into the mix. With a roster carrying a good complement of stars, an inconsistent team couldn’t find its ceiling when it needed it. Sound familiar? Then there’s no better place to start than 1998.
Coaches and Stats
As noted above, this was the first year in Orchard Park, NY for the highly respected defensive mind, Wade Phillips. Note that Philips is still in football as the head coach of the San Antonio Brahmas. In the NFL, Phillips led three different teams including the Bills to the postseason, but only recorded one victory in five games. Phillips’ coordinators with Buffalo were Joe Pendry on offense, Ted Cottrell on defense, and Turk Schonert as quarterbacks coach.
The Bills had an efficient offense that season, with the fourth-best scoring percentage per drive (39.2%), sixth-highest points per drive (2.02), and seventh-best turnover percentage (10.8%). Buffalo’s overall efficiency masked a volatile set of performances. Seven games saw Buffalo score 17 or fewer points and eight games with 30 or more.
On defense, things were a bit mediocre with the 16th “best” scoring percentage per drive, 18th in points per drive and 13th in turnover percentage. You may be thinking that Phillips tinkered with defensive scheme that season, but us older fans remember that Wade was Marv Levy’s defensive coordinator and was able to keep his 3-4 defense alive.
The ‘98 Bills were third in the AFC East at 10-6, entering the playoffs as the five seed (of six).
We’ll start with the defense in honor of Phillips’ defensive legacy. Defensive end Bruce Smith and nose tackle Ted Washington both made the Pro Bowl that year on the back of a strong season. Smith had ten sacks in 15 games, with two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. Washington had 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles of his own.
Defensive end Phil Hansen had a strong season with seven sacks and three fumble recoveries, including one touchdown. Defensive end Marcellus Wiley and defensive tackle Pat Williams as the reserves should have paid off more than the reality ended up being. I could go on but the ‘98 defensive roster had the talent on paper for a better showing.
On offense, quarterbacks Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson split duties with Flutie also being named to the Pro Bowl. It’s possibly due to a smaller sample size, but Johnson outperformed Flutie in the majority of efficiency metrics. The duo combined for 28 passing touchdowns and two rushing.
Running back Thurman Thomas was still rushing for 4.1 yards per carry, a tick above the league average. He was overshadowed by Antowain Smith in volume but not efficiency (3.7 yards per carry). Thomas had two rushing touchdowns with Smith gaining ten.
Rather than go through the rest of the roster and stats, I’ll leave the skill-position breakdown with one sentence. A still very productive Andre Reed was paired with a prime Eric Moulds at wide receiver.
As for the offensive line, offensive guard Ruben Brown had a Pro Bowl season and had help from fellow offensive linemen John Fina and Jerry Ostroski — two former Bills whose names should be very familiar to regular Buffalo Rumblings readers/viewers/listeners.
The Josh Allen Effect
Inserting peak Josh Allen into this roster mercifully ends the Doug Flutie/Rob Johnson dispute before it even begins. Due to the time passed and rule changes, I won’t dive too far into statistical comparisons. There’s no disrespect to either player intended when I say that Allen represents a greater ceiling, especially factoring in his dual-threat capability.
Would Wade Phillips have unleashed Allen? I think so. At 3.7 carries per game, there’s no indication that Phillips was averse to having his quarterback on the move. Further, quarterbacks like Kordell Stewart, Steve McNair, and Steve Young were all innovating at the position. I think Phillips would have recognized the challenge of defending quarterbacks with wheels and jumped at the chance to run over the NFL with his own. Steve Young as a side note would have been a hard act to follow that season with 36 passing touchdowns and six rushing ones.
This was Phillips’ first season as head coach and there’s evidence to think that the added responsibilities were an adjustment in some ways. Please note that Phillips brought overall improvement to the team on both sides of the ball, drastically so on the offense. Having Allen on the team likely simplifies some decisions on offense, allowing Phillips to shift some attention to defense and creating a bigger gain there as well.
With my best guess of overall team improvement with Allen, I would be reluctant to change any 1998 victory to a loss — though close games like a Week 7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars are possible.
Of Buffalo’s six losses that season, five of them were one-score games. I’ll go on record saying I think two or more of those likely go the other way with Allen on the team. Weeks 1 and 2 are good examples, with Buffalo losing to the San Diego Chargers by two points and the Dolphins by six in back-to-back weeks. Buffalo allowed 13 sacks in those contests, killing a fair few drives.
Allen’s mobility and hero-ball mode could reasonably be expected to pull together a few drives and likely another win or two. Buffalo would have needed three more wins (or two and some tiebreakers) to get the second seed and a bye week instead of the New York Jets. They’d have needed at least four more wins to take the one seed from the Denver Broncos, which I think is unlikely.
In aggregate statistics, the Broncos and Bills fared quite similarly in 1998 in many respects. Where Denver had the edge, it might be areas where Allen’s presence evens the playing field. That said, quarterback John Elway and that Denver squad found several extra gears come playoff time. A 23-10 win over the Jets was their closest game as well as their lowest output in points in the postseason.
Those stats include the Super Bowl where the Broncos took down the Atlanta Falcons with ease. While I believe Allen stabilizes the 1998 Buffalo Bills to a degree, I don’t believe he erases the volatility completely. I can’t take the Bills over that postseason Denver team in good conscience. I’m not saying Buffalo had no chance at all mind you — but if forced to bet money on it, I would go with Denver. Assuming the Bills took down the Broncos, I would take them over the Falcons, if that eases your mind any.
PREDICTION: Loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game
Note: This series is intended as nothing more than a thought experiment to open up discussion on the Buffalo Bills. Hope you enjoy it and feel free to disagree and add your own best guesses into the mix in the comments. Go Bills!