ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- After the Buffalo Bills spent the summer insisting they had a "calculated" plan for when first-round pick Josh Allen would become their starting quarterback, it took less than 34 minutes of regular-season game action before Allen saw the field.
When Allen replaced ineffective opening-day starter Nathan Peterman in the third quarter of the Bills' Week 1 blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens, it abruptly kicked off a rookie season that will end Sunday when Allen and the Bills (5-10) host the Miami Dolphins (7-8).
Although it is doubtful that the Bills wanted Allen to be inserted as a starter at such an early point in his career, coach Sean McDermott believes there was value in exposing the Wyoming product to life in the NFL.
"We feel ahead of where we would’ve been had he not played this year," McDermott said Wednesday.
An elbow injury Allen suffered in Week 6 sidelined him for four games and effectively split his season in half. Statistically, the second portion has been only marginally better than the first. But behind the scenes, Allen's teammates have seen noticeable improvement in the No. 7 overall pick.
"Huge strides," safety Micah Hyde said.
The intangible aspects for Allen, the highest-drafted quarterback in team history, have progressed faster than his performance on the field. The rookie's gutsy hurdle of Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr during a Week 3 upset victory caught the attention of teammates, as have Allen's competitiveness and enthusiasm on the sideline.
Allen's confidence, Hyde says, is contagious.
"That confidence to go out there and know that you're untouchable as long as you study and do what you do -- I think that's the point where he's getting," Hyde said. "He's not worried about throwing picks. He's not worried about doing all that. He wants to go out there and run for first downs, run for touchdowns and get his guys involved.
"Sitting out a few games with his injury and seeing older guys go in there and compete kind of gave him a little more confidence when he got back -- I don't know if he was studying more or what -- he was just ready to play. We saw that and rallied around it."
On the field, Allen's rushing has been his best attribute this season. With 536 rushing yards, he is both the Bills' leading rusher and leading passer, and 409 of Allen's rushing yards have come on scrambles rather than designed running plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, the most of any quarterback.
Allen's arm has not been nearly as consistent as his legs. He was one of the NFL's worst statistical passers before his injury and has remained in that territory since.
Allen has thrown interceptions more frequently since his Week 12 return (3.9 percent, third-most in the NFL) than through Week 6 (3.6 percent, fifth-most). Allen's rate of off-target throws, as charted by ESPN Stats & Information, has increased from 19.5 percent (seventh-most in the NFL) through Week 6 to 27.3 percent since Week 12, the league's highest rate. Only 26.2 of Allen's third-down passes have been completed for first downs since Week 12, ranking him 32nd in the league, compared to 34.1 percent (27th) before his injury.
Hyde acknowledged Allen's accuracy issues earlier this season but has seen gradual improvement from him.
"Dating back to OTAs, [you saw] how inaccurate he [was]," Hyde said. "I think throughout training camp, you saw some of the throws that he can make. Some other throws were just like, 'Oh, who's he throwing it to?' But he hasn't had those situations at all lately. He's dialing in and making some precision passes.
"I'm excited what he can do from Year 1 to Year 2, because I think that's the biggest jump you see guys make in this league."
The Bills will undoubtedly use their allotment of draft picks and more than $80 million in salary-cap space this offseason to address their offensive skill positions, after Allen's young supporting cast and problematic offensive line have played a role in his stagnant statistics in 2018.
In last Sunday's loss to the New England Patriots, Allen's top three receivers (Zay Jones, Robert Foster and Isaiah McKenzie) and top tight end (Jason Croom) were all either rookies or second-year players. Dropped passes have been a concern among that group, although the rate at which Allen's passes have been dropped has dipped from 6.5 percent (fourth-most among NFL quarterbacks) before his injury to 2.6 percent (tied for 22nd) since his return.
Behind an offensive line that has struggled to sustain blocks, Allen has been pressured on 37.6 percent of his dropbacks this season -- a rate that has not changed from before his injury to after and is among the worst for any quarterback in the league.
Allen and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll have also opted for longer, lower-percentage throws, which has added a degree of difficulty for the Bills' receivers and the offensive line. Allen's passes this season have traveled an average of 11.0 air yards, the third-highest average for a qualifying quarterback since ESPN Stats & Information began tracking pass distance in 2006. Only Tim Tebow (12.28 yards in 2011) and Michael Vick (12.16 yards in 2006) had a greater average distance to their passes.
Allen's 51.7 percent completion rate this season would be the worst by any NFL quarterback with at least 250 attempts since Tebow (46.5 percent) and Blaine Gabbert (50.8 percent) in 2011. However, Daboll and McDermott have publicly de-emphasized completion percentage as an effective tool for evaluating Allen.
ESPN's adjusted completion percentage, which is weighted for air yards per pass and excludes both throwaways and drops, rates Allen more highly but still among the worst in the league. Allen's 63.7 percent adjusted completion rate is second-worst to Arizona Cardinals rookie Josh Rosen, although Allen's mark has improved from 62.8 percent before his injury to 64.7 percent after it.
Allen has seen dramatic improvement in avoiding sacks since returning. He was sacked on 11.8 percent of his dropbacks through Week 6, third-most in the NFL. That rate has plummeted to 3.2 percent since Week 12, the fifth-lowest in the league.
"I've seen a lot of growth and maturity," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "I think the biggest thing that I've noticed is just the little things that QBs with experience have. It's simple things. But knowing when to throw the ball away. Slide and get down."