The Bills begin training camp Thursday at St. John Fisher. After more than six months of incessant analysis, it’ll be a welcome relief. Really, how many times can we debate the merits of a bunch of new offensive linemen we’ve never seen practice?
Hope is soaring for the Bills, and with good reason. By most accounts, general manager Brandon Beane did a masterful job of filling in the team’s various needs, particularly at wide receiver and along the offensive line. Their rookie class has been graded highly by virtually every draft expert.
It’s the third year for Beane and coach Sean McDermott, who has a defense that ranked third in the NFL last season in total yards. The defense should be better with a year of experience for rising stars Tremaine Edmunds, Tre’Davious White and Matt Milano — along with a gifted rookie defensive tackle in Ed Oliver.
There’s ample reason for optimism, and for rising expectations and attendant pressure for the McBeane regime. I’ve set the bar at 10 wins. Maybe that seems too high for a team that hasn’t won 10 games in 20 years, since they won 11 in 1999.
But why shouldn’t they be expected to win 10 games and compete for a playoff spot? This is the NFL, where half of the league’s dozen playoffs spots change every year on average. It’s amazing that any team could go two decades without 10 wins (the Patriots have won at least 10 in each of the last 16 years, which is part of the problem.)
The big issue, of course, is the quarterback. The Bills have fortified the roster and made strides in McDermott’s “process,” but history shows that a team will generally go only so far as its quarterback will take them. Regardless of the record, Josh Allen’s evolution as a franchise QB will be the main story of the season.
Over the years, especially since Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season, I arrived at one simple rule as a columnist: When in doubt, write about the quarterback. Allen is the story, every day, and with training camp a week away, it’s time to lay out the expectations and set the stage for a compelling second season.
The question is, how much should be expected of Allen in his second year? Some want to set the bar low, out of a creeping trepidation that he might not be good enough. They’re fearful of expecting too much too soon from a talented but raw kid.
There will be a temptation to rationalize Allen’s performance if he falters in Year Two. But how high should expectations be set for the Bills’ gifted young quarterback? The evidence suggests that if he’s going to succeed, the bar this season should be set high.
People love Allen’s talent, his arm, his competitive demeanor, his upside. It’s justified. So it’s fair to compare Allen to the guys who have succeeded at a high level, the young quarterbacks who have met expectations in their second NFL seasons and in some cases exceeded them. If you want him to be among the best, you compare him to the best. The standard is necessarily lofty.
With that in mind, I took the eight current franchise quarterbacks who have been drafted in the top 12 over the last eight years who have made the Pro Bowl. That’s the group Allen needs to be compared with, the guys who broke through in their second years, lived up to the hype and — most important of all — won.
It goes back to 2011 and Cam Newton, taken first overall by Carolina; Andrew Luck, first overall to the Colts in 2012; Jameis Winston, first overall to the Bucs in 2015; Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, who went Nos. 1 and 2 overall to the Rams and Eagles in 2016; Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, who went second, 10th and 12th in 2017, all to teams that traded for the rights to draft them.
So I added up the combined passing stats for the eight QBs in their second seasons and averaged them over a full 16-game slate. Five of them did start all 16 games in Year Two. Wentz started the fewest with 13 the year the Eagles went to the Super Bowl.
They went 2,516 for 4,058 passing, exactly 62 percent accuracy, for 31,366 yards. The average season for them was 315 of 507 passing for 3,920 yards. They combined for 231 touchdown passes and 86 interceptions. That’s an average of 29 TDs and 11 picks.
Since Allen’s running is a big part of the package, I averaged the rushing numbers for the eight QBs in their second seasons. They combined for 562 carries for 2,877 yards and 24 TDs: Average — 70 for 360, 3 TDs. I imagine Josh can reach that standard.
The thing that was most striking to me was their teams’ records as starters in that second year. All but one, Winston, had a winning record in Year Two and six (!) won at least 11 games. Five of them started all 16 games. Their aggregate record was 83-39, or a winning percentage of .680. That translates to a record of 11 wins.
All got better except the Colts, who went 11-5 in Luck’s second year after going 11-5 when he was a rookie. Their teams were a combined 53-75 when they were rookies, an average of 6.6 wins. Their second year, the average record was just under 11 wins.
So in their second seasons, these eight QBs helped improve their teams by more than four games on average, from roughly six to 10 wins. So why shouldn’t the Bills be expected to win 10 games in Allen’s second season? It’s a high bar, I guess, but it’s the exact bar if you’re comparing him to the quarterbacks who have been drafted high and succeeded in the last seven years or so.
I’m comparing him to the top guys, though it’s debatable whether some of the younger players, like Trubisky and Goff and Watson and even Mahomes, will continue to perform and win at a high level. But the evidence is there. In today’s NFL, franchise quarterbacks are expected to prove it quickly, and the record shows that happens in Year Two.
Hopes for Allen are soaring. People expect him to be the Bills’ best quarterback since Jim Kelly, not a disappointment like EJ Manuel or the many other first-round QBs who didn’t live up to their draft status. So it’s fair to compare him with the ones who did.
That’s why I picked the players who won and made Pro Bowls. Not the likes of Marcus Mariota, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Christian Ponder and Blake Bortles. Would Bills fans prefer that Allen be compared with that group of failed franchise quarterbacks? I think not.
Fair? I think so. Maybe we can’t expect Allen to do what Patrick Mahomes did for the Chiefs a year ago. But to reach the average level of this gang of eight and win 10 games? That’s the bar. The story of the coming season is how close he comes to reaching it.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at email@example.com.