Bills' Josh Allen starts 2020 red hot after offseason focused on flaws

Josh Allen sat stone-faced. The Buffalo Bills quarterback had completed a fourth-quarter comeback against the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, setting a career-high with 417 passing yards and four touchdowns.

Coming off a 2019 season in which he completed 26.5% of his passes beyond 20 yards, Allen faced constant criticism for his accuracy deep despite his obvious arm strength. But in Week 2 this season, he completed three passes of 40 or more yards, two of which traveled at least 45 air yards.

"Are the long ball accuracy questions done now? Are we done with that?" Allen was asked by a reporter.

Finally, the grin he fought so hard to conceal revealed itself.

"I'm asking you," he smirked while taking a sip of water.

The skepticism over the third-year quarterback's ability to push the ball downfield has been reduced to embers over the first two weeks of the 2020 season. Allen has passed for a league-high 729 yards and six touchdowns for the Bills (2-0), who play host to the Los Angeles Rams Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

It's a small sample size, but Allen has looked like the quarterback the Bills envisioned when they used two second-round picks to trade up five spots and select the Wyoming product with the No. 7 overall pick in 2018.

Incredibly self-aware, Allen knew what he needed to improve on this past offseason, even if the sports world wasn't already reminding him he ranked last in the NFL in completion percentage (58.8) for the second straight year in 2019. The criticism kept him motivated through a truncated offseason, and he now has a 70.4 completion percentage after 81 attempts.

"Just look at who this kid is, man," said quarterback coach Jordan Palmer, who trained Allen the past three offseasons, including in 2018 when preparing for the draft. "He sent over 1,000 emails [to college coaches] and if they responded, they said, 'Sorry, bud.' This guy's never not had a chip on his shoulder ... I'm not saying he needs it, because I think he wins an MVP here at some point, but he's gonna look for something.

"This whole deep ball thing -- this isn't the guy where you go, 'Oh man, I hope he doesn't hear all this criticism because it's gonna mess with him.' No, he uses it."

Palmer said his first few offseasons with Allen were spent working on mechanics, like tightening his base and making sure he isn't overstriding. After his rookie season, they also worked on throwing with anticipation. Palmer said the process took plenty of trial and error to find what worked for Allen. This offseason was all about control -- particularly when wide receivers are coming across the field or working toward the sideline.

The results have been obvious.

Allen flashed that progress in Week 1 against the New York Jets when he hit wide receiver Stefon Diggs on a crossing route for a 22-yard gain, placing the ball with touch in a spot where Diggs could catch it with ample room to get his feet in bounds.

He did it again in Week 2, notably to Cole Beasley on the Bills' go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter. Facing second-and-24 after taking a sack on first down, Allen found Beasley for a 24-yard gain -- throwing with both anticipation and control to put Buffalo in the red zone.

His accuracy on crossing routes has improved notably this season. He ranked 32nd in 2019 with a 50.6 completion percentage on such throws, but is at 71.0% (8th) this season. And his off-target percentage on crossing patterns has improved from 27.5% last season (32nd) to 16.7% (T-12th) according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Palmer said Allen has always had the ability to control the football, and can put a surprising amount of touch on his passes despite his arm strength.

"I feel like that's what really surprised me was the amount of touch for the speed that it's coming," Bills rookie receiver Gabriel Davis said. "It's still got some good spin on it -- it's real easy to catch."

While he's inside the pocket, Allen has completed 71.6% of his passes with an off-target percentage of 14.9%, an improvement from 62.1% and 21.2% in 2019, respectively. He's missed a few throws during the first two games this season -- a topic that has made the rounds on social media -- but the misses generally occur when his feet aren't set or he's rolling to his left.

Outside the pocket, Allen has hit on 64.3% of his throws, good for eighth best in the NFL on 14 attempts, which tie Rams quarterback Jared Goff for the most in the league. Allen completed 40% of his throws outside the pocket last season. Allen has also connected on 7-of-9 passes that travel 20 or more yards this season.

"I can't tell you how proud I am of him," Bills coach Sean McDermott said. "Just the way he's approached his offseason, the way he's approached camp, training camp. I'm talking about that and then the way he approached the early start to the season. Very humble approach, very hungry approach, and very team-first approach -- which is, it's a great foundation from which to build on.

"[We're] two games into the season. We all, including myself, have to continue to improve and evolve and grow. But real happy with his start to this point."

Part of Allen's emergence as a premier passer this season has to do with his supporting cast. Gone are the days of Allen scrambling around the backfield, waiting for Kelvin Benjamin, Zay Jones or Robert Foster to get open, as are the days of Buffalo's conservative passing attack.

The Bills have run a league-high 33 plays with at least four wide receivers on the field -- more than the bottom 27 teams in that category combined, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. With pass-catchers such as Diggs, Beasley, Davis and John Brown, Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has unabashedly put the ball in Allen's hands.

Daboll has created an environment that allows Allen to take what the defense gives him without feeling like he has to will a play to success -- a trait that led to some poor decisions in the past. He's opened the playbook in his third season with Allen, who has looked like a quarterback who is fully integrated into an offensive system.

"Since he's been here, he's improved -- he kind of has that 'improve' mantra every day," Daboll said. "I think he has a pretty good grasp of what we're trying to do offensively, there's a lot of trust built up with he and I and with him and his assistant coaches and also the players. You take a look at from where he came from to where he is, he's made incremental improvement each year.

"It's so early in the season to say, 'we've got this down.' We all know that there's a long way to go."

Beating teams like the Jets (0-2) and Dolphins (0-2) was a step forward in Allen's development; the next is producing against an opponent like the Rams, who feature All-Pros Aaron Donald (defensive tackle) and Jalen Ramsey (cornerback).

Allen complimented Ramsey's ability to read routes and recognize a quarterback's dropback speed -- specifically when that quarterback wants to get the ball out quickly.

But it's not enough for him to completely avoid Ramsey's side of the field.

"It's not time to shy away from anybody or anything," Allen said.