'I can't continue to do this': Bills' Josh Allen wants to embrace safer style of play

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Josh Allen said the message going through his head when he is running downfield is “don’t get hit.”

Hits are what lead to injuries. While Allen hasn’t missed a game since his rookie season, losing the quarterback for any length of time would be bad news for a Buffalo Bills offense that has revolved around him. But the mindset Allen has maintained throughout his career is that he is a football player first and a quarterback second.

“He thinks he’s a linebacker sometimes,” general manager Brandon Beane said last year.

Allen has acknowledged the need to take fewer hits before, yet he has taken the most hits of his career over the past two seasons. But when meeting with reporters Tuesday for the start of offseason workouts, Allen looked at the issue in a way he hasn’t before. While emphasizing he had never been "as focused or locked in on football than I am right now," he said he was only “getting older” and would at some point need to change his style of play.

“I can't continue to do this. I know when I'm using my youth, I feel like I can. But over the course of my career, I'm gonna have to learn to adapt and change,” said Allen, who turns 27 in May. “... When that point [comes], I don't know. I guess I'll let my body tell me. But I do want to be, like I said, I wanna be the smartest quarterback with the football in my hands. I don't wanna put the ball in harm's way.”

Allen finished 2022 with a league-leading 19 turnovers.

“I know how detrimental that is for our team with those interceptions and the fumbles,” Allen said.

The debate surrounding Allen and other mobile quarterbacks is nothing new: Should they play it safe or make plays with their legs? It will continue to be a narrative because of the risks that style of play brings. But as Allen enters his sixth NFL season, he acknowledges the impact of age and the effect it could have on his playing style and what it could mean for the Bills.

“Josh is a competitor. I'm gonna say that,” safety Micah Hyde said Tuesday. “He's gonna do whatever it takes to help this team win. But at the same time, I feel like as long as he's trusting his teammates and we're trusting him to be able to take care of himself, I think we'll all be better off.”

Since being drafted by Buffalo No. 7 overall in 2018, Allen has been contacted 850 times while throwing or rushing, the second most in the NFL during that span. (Baltimore QB Lamar Jackson leads with 877.) Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson is the only other player who has been contacted more than 700 times during that stretch.

While Allen has started every game since 2019, last season he dealt with an injury to the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow suffered on a strip-sack against the New York Jets. The injury forced Allen to adjust his throwing mechanics, but he said it didn't affect him that much and it has not required surgery. Allen said Tuesday that his elbow feels “really good.”

Allen understands recovering from injuries will change as he gets older, and he wants to think more about how he handles his body.

“I'm a realistic guy. I think very logistically, and I know Father Time is undefeated and football's a game where it's not if you get hurt, it's when you get hurt,” Allen said. “... We go through our bumps and bruises, and it takes a while to heal up as you get older ...

"Finding a routine that now works for me, whether it's spending more time in the training room or hot tub, cold tub and just being smarter with that aspect and developing that routine to allow my body to heal faster and being smarter as time goes on.”

Publicly, Beane and coach Sean McDermott have said Allen needs to protect himself better.

“I don't know if we'll ever stop this conversation, right? It's Josh's style of play and his personality, his competitive nature, but the style of play needs to continue to evolve,” McDermott said at the annual league meetings in March. “I think with that we'll chip away at some of those unnecessary hits, and we'll be left with, hopefully, the goal is, left with just ones that come up through the course of doing the job, because it's important that he's healthy.

“... But the mobile quarterbacks I've been around, that's an ongoing conversation for pretty much their whole career.”

One of those quarterbacks that McDermott, Beane and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey have been around is Cam Newton, who dealt with multiple significant injuries toward the end of his time with the Carolina Panthers.

Allen said he's the one taking this view of his career -- it's not being driven by the organization.

But to truly lower the hits Allen takes, the coaching staff will also have to make changes, considering the quarterback had a career-high 124 rushing attempts last season.

Help could come from the addition of running back Damien Harris, while also putting more on second-year back James Cook and Nyheim Hines. Continuing to invest around Allen in part to put less on his plate -- he accounted for a league-high 84% of the Bills’ offensive touchdowns in 2022 -- should be a point of emphasis in next week’s draft.