ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Can I apologize in advance for something? I go to all these training camps, and before I arrive, I think of the biggest story of camp. Here, in the land of the table-crashers and the home of the Bills, that story is certainly, Has GM Brandon Beane done enough for the pass-rush to put salve on the team’s only real major negative? In the last two drafts, the Bills have had a total of three picks in the first two round, and each has been used on a pass-rusher—A.J. Epenesa last year (then limited by Covid), Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham this year.
FMIA Quiz: Who led the Bills in sacks last year?
I’ll give you a clue: Unless you’re a Bills Mafioso, you’ll never get it. Mario Addison and A.J. Klein tied for the lead, with five. They’re 33 and 30 this year, by the way.
Last year, in two meetings against the kingpins of the AFC, Kansas City, the Bills sacked Patrick Mahomes twice for minus-four yards. He threw five TDs with no picks. He was comfortable, passing for a combined 128.0 rating and winning by 14 and nine points. KC’s the Mount Olympus of the conference, built to last.
The Bills have built a very good team, the best here in a quarter-century, and optimism here is ridiculously high. But . . . there is a but. “We gotta be able to rush the passer better, and we knew that,” coach Sean McDermott said to me here. “Will we? I don’t think we know yet.”
That is the priority in camp. While Rousseau is still getting his feet wet in only his second season as a pass-rusher, I heard good things about Basham (57 tackles behind the line in four Wake Forest seasons) in camp. “His inside-outside versatility’s been impressive,” Beane said. We shall see.
So a few sentences ago I apologized, and here’s the reason. It’d have been good and understandable to write everything here about the pass-rush, and to dissect what I saw from the three kids and from the 33-year-old vet, Jerry Hughes, who the team hopes to get another good season out of. But there’s something else that interested me a bit more, and I apologized because I’ve been over-writing the quarterback. It seems to be a story in almost every camp I’ve attended.
The fans are euphoric, and rightfully so, about Josh Allen. No one’s begrudging him or the Bills for the biggest contract by far in franchise history, a deal that will pay him $2.56 million, on average, for each game the Bills play over the next six seasons. I like the contract, and I like the timing. Quarterback deals do not go in reverse. Great quarterbacks play contract-hopscotch, with Matt Ryan using Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson using Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott using Deshaun Watson, and now Josh Allen using Dak Prescott. (Mahomes’ deal is a bit of an outlier because of its 12-year length, but I digress.)
Allen is the justifiable heir to Jim Kelly as the greatest Buffalo has ever had, a 25-year-old with all the tools to be an all-timer. I would have done exactly what Beane did—lock up a guy who’s truly all about winning, who has shown he can come back late to win some big games (Rams, Pats last year), and who got much better throwing the ball to spots last year, completing 69.2 percent in an offense that relies on smart decisions by a strong-armed quarterback.
There is one thing he’s got to get better doing. He’s got to be better in the biggest spots for the Bills to win Super Bowls.
In the two meetings between Buffalo and Kansas City last year, Mahomes was a 78 percent passer, Allen 56 percent. The Bills were down by three at the half in the regular-season meeting and went punt, punt, TD pass, interception in the second half; KC won 26-17. In the AFC title game, the Bills trailed 21-12 at the half and went field goal, interception, TD pass, field goal in the second half. Good, but 19 points in two second halves against KC is not good enough. Buffalo didn’t lead in the second half of either game.
The day Allen was drafted seventh overall in 2018, New England was the AFC king. But Tom Brady’s gone, and now the king is in Missouri. Now the Bills have to figure a way to beat Kansas City, and Allen has to figure a way to go toe-to-toe with Mahomes. You might say it’s unfair to measure him against Mahomes, solely. But it’s not. Mahomes is the standard in the AFC; he’s won a Super Bowl, an MVP and a Super Bowl MVP. Mahomes is 25. Allen is 25. It’s not all on Allen. But the quarterback has to win in the NFL these days, somehow, some way. And it is fair to judge Allen against the best—because he has a good chance to be the best.
In part, that was a focus of Allen’s this offseason, working with his quarterback tutor, Jordan Palmer, in southern California. Palmer stressed with Allen to play with a quieter mind, and to be calmer. In the past, mistakes were too mentally taxing for Allen, who told me: “Back in the day I tried to play pissed off on the field and I found myself not playing very well, tensed up. Now, whether it be small things like listening to calming music pregame, to not be so hyped and anxious for the game.”
The goal, in particular, is to play a more level game. It’s hard to blame Allen, after being The Man at mid-major Wyoming and coming to Buffalo and having to be the same for the Bills to have a chance, for thinking he had to be Favrian late in games for his team to win. Of course he has to be great, but he also has to make the plays he can make and not stretch beyond. “Just trying not to be a hero,” Allen said. “Trust in the guys on the field with me, trust in the playcalls, and not try to do too much and I think that’s something that I kind of had in my rookie year was trying to play hero-ball and it’s something I’ve been working on. I’ve got an extreme amount of trust in the guys on the field with me, with coach Dabs [offensive coordinator Brian Daboll] and the relationship we have with calling plays and us going out and executing. So I’m in a really good spot mentally with that and I feel like I’m getting better every day with that.”
(Palmer also stressed something else cliché-y with Allen: Finish. Like, finish everything you do. That includes, for instance, not taking the gimmes on the golf course. Your approach shot lands six inches from the pin? Don’t pick it up. Putt it.)
The good thing about Allen’s contract is now the Bills know they’re going to be contenders every season for the foreseeable future. They’ve got a quarterback who can play at the highest level of the sport. Now he’s got to take the next step. He’s got to win the biggest games.