Josh Allen looked every bit an MVP candidate in Week 1’s finding of the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams.
The Buffalo Bills quarterback put his arm on full display in a 297-yard, three-touchdown effort the likes of which even All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey had no answer. The accuracy that has become the hallmark of his development as an NFL quarterback manifest in an 83.9% (26 of 31) completion rate that set a franchise record for a regular-season game.
When the Rams took away the deep ball, he didn’t force things. When they didn’t, he made them pay. And when he ran? Well, good luck.
That run up and over eight-time All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner embodies the Josh Allen experience. His traditional quarterback skills—arm strength, accuracy, field command—make him special. Add in his physical presence as a ball carrier, and he makes the short list of elite NFL talents.
That style of play is also the biggest source of unease in Buffalo. Allen led the Bills in rushing Thursday with 10 carries for 56 yards, including the 4-yard score. There was more than one occasion in which he appeared to seek contact. In doing so, he exposed himself to repeated physical punishment that raises short- and long-term concerns about his health.
Can Allen stay healthy with his playing style?
The short-term concerns are obvious. The Bills entered the season as Super Bowl betting favorites. Nothing from Week 1 has altered that status. Buffalo has a stout defense, a respected head coach in Sean McDermott and a talented corps of playmakers featuring Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis and Dawson Knox.
But make no mistake. Allen is the reason No. 1 for Buffalo’s status as Super Bowl favorite. If he sustains a significant injury during the season, Case Keenum would take over at quarterback, and Buffalo’s championships dreams would be all but dashed.
Allen’s aware of the concerns. His physicality has been a featured part of his game since he joined the NFL in 2018. He addressed them on Wednesday after last week’s display in front of a primetime audience renewed concerns.
“I think I can be better in that aspect,” Allen told reporters in a news conference on Wednesday. “But given the circumstances of what it was, understanding the flow of the game, I do things sometimes that are necessary in my eyes to help our team win a football game. That’s all it is.
“But at the end of the day, availability is the best ability. So, just understanding that — and getting down and not taking too many hits, obviously that’s year-in and year-out.”
Allen’s “year-in and year-out” acknowledgment addresses the long-term concerns. Even if he gets through this season relatively healthy and with a Super Bowl ring, the cumulative impact of the collisions he endures are bound to take a toll. Look no further than Cam Newton.
Injuries ultimately took their toll on Cam Newton
Newton joined the Carolina Panthers in 2011 as a rookie with a profile similar to Allen’s. Allen stands 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds with a cannon of an arm and running back skills. Newton stands 6-5 and 245 pounds. He likewise joined the league with a cannon of an arm and running back skills.
Newton exceeded the expectations that came with his No. 1 draft-pick status as his unprecedented skills resulted in Rookie of the Year honors. His 706 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground alone would have put him in contention for the award.
In each of his first five seasons, he ran the ball more than 100 times per year with rushing totals ranging from 585 to 741 yards. At his best in 2015 he was a league MVP who led his team to the Super Bowl. He was a Pro Bowl level quarterback and Carolina’s best running back wrapped up in a single package.
But it wasn’t sustainable. Injuries mounted. His performance showed signs of decline in 2016, a year after his MVP campaign and his sixth season in the NFL. In 2019, he acknowledged that he’d played through lingering shoulder issues since that 2016 season, a span that saw his downfield accuracy decline. It wasn’t just his shoulder. There were likewise foot injuries, walking boots, concussions and ankle surgery.
In 2017, anonymous team officials whispered concerns that his body was breaking down. In 2020, team owner David Tepper said the quiet part aloud when asked about Newton’s future with the franchise. His response: “Is he healthy?”
He was not. Newton had played in just two games the previous season, and the Panthers ultimately released the best player in franchise history after nine seasons in Charlotte. Newton went on to take over for Tom Brady in New England in an eight-touchdown, 10-interception passing campaign that fall before returning to Carolina for what ascended to a nostalgia tour as Sam Darnold’s injury replacement in 2021. A week into the 2022 campaign , Newton is not on an NFL roster.
This is the fate the Bills want Allen to avoid. In his first four seasons, Allen’s averaged 105.5 carries and 581 rushing yards per year. Most of those carry end with a hit. That’s in addition to the 118 sacks and additional quarterback hits he has endured. So far, he has remained relatively unscathed, as Newton did through his first five seasons.
Does Newton’s career trajectory mean that Allen’s will traverse the same path? Of course not. But the parallels are impossible to ignore. Meanwhile Allen’s physical on-field heroics continue to draw deserved praise and celebration.
There’s no easy answer as Allen’s play continues to produce wins and highlights. But it behooves both Allen and Bills to seek out the proper balance.