Sullivan: Bills primed to take the leash off Josh Allen

Jerry Sullivan

As of Friday, New Yorkers were being properly advised to avoid unnecessary travel because of the coronavirus pandemic. Try telling that to giddy Bills fans, who have been over the moon since early last week.

Sure, it’s only football, not life and death. But there hasn’t been such optimism among Buffalo fans since Jim Kelly came rolling into town on the Kensington in 1986.

On Monday, the Bills traded for Minnesota wide receiver Stefon Diggs, giving them the true deep threat they had been missing for years. The very next day, Tom Brady went on social media to announce that he was leaving the Patriots to seek a new challenge in his career, ending two decades of tormenting the Bills within the AFC East.

It was like hitting the lottery on consecutive days. Who could say which development brought more joy to Bills fans? Getting the best quarterback of all time out of the division, or acquiring a top wideout who can lift the offense and accelerate the development of Josh Allen?

I lean toward the latter. My regard for Brady is well-established, but he'll be 43 when the next NFL season begins (if indeed it starts on time). The balance of power has been shifting, and the Bills would have been a chic pick to snap the Pats’ streak of 11 straight AFC championships even if Brady stayed.

The Bills were gaining on New England before adding Diggs, along with five significant additions to a defense that ranked third in the NFL in total defense and second in points allowed last season: Mario Addison, Vernon Butler, Quinton Jefferson, Josh Norman and A.J. Klein.

General manager Brandon Beane conceded during the offseason that his team needed to score more points. He’s normally reluctant to part with first-round picks, a GM’s greatest treasure. But getting Diggs was a clear sign that Beane saw an urgent need to upgrade the passing game. He wanted a proven threat, not a rookie, for the offense.

Diggs is seen as one of the top 10 wideouts in the league. Over the last four seasons, the Maryland native amassed 313 catches for nearly 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns. He’s only 5-foot-10, but he is good at coming down with contested throws and he’s a true threat down the field.

The last two seasons showed the full array of Diggs’s skills. Two years ago, he had 102 catches for 1,021 yards, an average of 10.0 yards a catch. Last season, he had more yards (1,130) on far fewer catches (63), showing more of his ability to break receptions for long gains. His 17.9 yards per catch was third among wideouts with at least 50 receptions.

The Bills are now the only NFL team with two players who had 1,000 yards receiving (Diggs and John Brown) last season, plus a third wideout who had at least 60 catches (Cole Beasley). With dynamic tailback Devin Singletary entering his second season and a revamped offensive line back together, the offense should be considerably better.

So why wouldn’t the Bills be the favorites in the division next season (New England remains the betting choice), especially now that Brady is gone to Tampa Bay and the Patriots’ best answer at quarterback is Jarrett Stidham, who has thrown four passes in his NFL career?

The obvious answer is Allen, more specifically the lack of faith among some in the football cognoscenti in his ability to take the next step and become the best quarterback in the division — and presumably, one of the best in the entire NFL — in his third season in the league.

There’s ample optimism about Allen among fans, and with reason. I ran into an older fan in a local establishment last week and he was positively combative about Allen and still resentful about my skeptical attitude towards him at times.

Allen’s supporters believe he has the physical tools, including an infectious competitive character that makes fans want to believe in him. He was more accurate in his second season, more decisive in his throws, better at reading defenses and leading his team as the year went on.

But there are no excuses now. The time for coddling Allen and coaching to his limitations is over. Beane has given him one of the best group of receiving weapons in the NFL. Allen needs to make full use of that offensive stable and take the passing game to another competitive level.

Some fans are wondering if there will be enough targets to satisfy all the targets — especially Diggs, who was known to become moody about his role in the offense in Minnesota. Will there be enough footballs to satisfy Diggs, Brown, Beasley, the tight ends and Singletary, who will no doubt be a regular option out of the backfield?

It won’t be a problem if the Bills act like a modern passing team. They’ve attempted the fewest passes of any team in the league in the 15 years since Drew Bledsoe left. Their passing numbers reflect that. In 2019, despite Allen’s emergence and the enhanced weapons, the Bills were only 26th in the NFL in passing with 202 yards a game.

At least it was an improvement. In the four years before that, they finished 30th, 31st, 30th and 28th in passing yards. All you Tyrod Taylor fans can send your encomiums to me via Twitter. I’ll ignore them, as always.

This has to stop now. Sure, you can win with a strong running game and defense. But as the Chiefs showed in the Super Bowl, you’re more likely to win big with a relentless and efficient passing game, one that attacks teams down the field and scores 30 points more than once a year.

The Bills have the weapons to be that team now with Diggs in the fold. It’s time to unleash Allen and act as if he’s the first legitimate young gunslinger they’ve had since Kelly. Attack teams with the pass. You have the receiving corps to do it now. Let Brian Daboll loose. Tell McDermott it’s 2020, not 1970.

And if Allen fails, well, at least you’ll know you gave him a fighting chance. It’ll be fascinating to see what he does with a top receiving corps at his disposal. The guy attempted 10 passes to Duke Williams in his first playoff game, for heaven’s sake. I’d say Diggs is a step up in talent.

This is the vital fourth year for Beane and McDermott, and the third year for the presumed franchise quarterback. They bought a lot of good will by making the playoffs twice in three years. But to the extent that Beane’s reputation is tied to drafting Allen, there’s a lot left to prove.

Beane made that crystal clear by trading for Diggs and paying a pretty heavy price. It’s time to win big. No more excuses when Allen goes three months without completing a single deep ball. No more rationalizing when your supposed stud quarterback throws for 146 yards in a loss.

The roster says you’re a passing team. That means having a franchise QB who throws for 300 yards in a game now and then, and passes for 4000 yards in a season. Those have become some kind of magical standards in Buffalo.

But in today’s NFL, with a legitimate passing game, it’s really not that much to ask.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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