ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- As the Buffalo Bills assessed the damage last week after a 1-3 start, there was a noticeable divide in how coach Sean McDermott and at least some of his players viewed the season.
"I think one of the goals out of this year, No. 1, is to win games, but also to develop these players [with] Josh being a big part of that," he said last week. "[When] we get to the end of the season, we can say that he is exponentially better because of the reps that he has gotten."
The Bills began the season with the NFL's fifth-oldest roster, but McDermott has routinely pointed to rookies starting at key positions -- particularly Allen at quarterback and fellow first-round pick Tremaine Edmunds at middle linebacker -- as reasons to take a more patient approach in evaluating his club. He used the word "young" three times in his news conference last Monday and another six times on Wednesday, saying at one point, "We’re a young team overall, and there’s going to be some of these [rough] moments."
Running back LeSean McCoy, who hasn't won a playoff game in his first nine NFL seasons, saw it differently on Wednesday.
"I don’t look at it as we’re just focusing on developing our young franchise quarterback because our team is kind of older," he said. "The guys on defense who are stepping up and playing lights-out for the last couple of weeks, [and] the main guys on offense are a little bit older. I think that the main focus is winning games. I don’t think the main focus is trying to develop Josh. I think that will come along with us just trying to win games now."
Added safety Micah Hyde to reporters: "We want to win games. ... The way you develop, you have to go out and compete each game. We're not getting paid off moral victories. We need to go out there and win. It's just a part of the process. I was a young guy at one point. You gotta hop on board, and you have to learn and learn fast. You gotta not make the same mistakes twice. You gotta develop fast. Everyone around here wants to win."
The Bills' direction, at least in the short term, became clear during a 13-12 victory Sunday over the Tennessee Titans. Allen's development as a passer took a back seat to the veteran locker room's desire to win immediately and resulted in a conservative offensive game plan that kept the ball out of Allen's hands as much as possible.
Allen dropped back to pass on only 34.4 percent of plays Sunday, the lowest rate of any NFL game this season. Of the Bills' 223 total yards Sunday, 64.6 percent were rushing yards, the highest percentage by any NFL team in a game this season.
"You do what it takes to win the game," McDermott said Monday.
Buffalo won, but barely. The Bills averaged only 3.3 yards per carry on their 43 rushes, tied for the fifth-lowest average in franchise history in a game in which they gained at least 144 rushing yards. Asked Monday why the Bills were able to gain a season high in rushing, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll candidly responded, "I called a bunch of [runs]."
Part of the Bills' run-heavy script Sunday was attempting to exploit the Titans' 27th-ranked run defense, but another factor was protecting Allen and perhaps hiding his weaknesses after he was sacked seven times and generally appeared overmatched in the loss at Lambeau Field.
"I’ve been around young quarterbacks before, and to put too much on a young quarterback’s shoulders, or whatever, to go out and win the game, that is a little unrealistic," McDermott said Monday. "We’ve got to make sure that we put a good plan in place every week that gives us a chance to win and the quarterback [a] chance to develop and also keep the quarterback upright as well."
Expect the Bills to stick to that strategy as long as they are able during an upcoming road swing to Houston and Indianapolis, but it will not be easy. The Texans currently own the league's fourth-best run defense, allowing 3.44 yards per carry, while the Colts rank 11th, giving up 3.96 yards per rush.
The goal seems to be to shield Allen from injury and also from the chance to make the sort of rookie mistakes that would continue to hold back an offense that is already one of the NFL's worst.
Through five games, the Bills rank 32nd in Total QBR (19.4), 31st in yards per game (221.2), 31st in offensive points scored per game (12.6), 32nd in yards per play (3.64) and 32nd in third-down conversion rate (25.4 percent).
Among the 38 quarterbacks to start games this season, Allen ranks 37th in Total QBR (26.3) and passer rating (61.0), ahead of only teammate Nathan Peterman in both categories. Allen also ranks 34th in completion percentage (55.1), 32nd in yards per pass attempt (6.3) and 37th in passing touchdown-to-interception ratio (0.40).