CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Imagine the Carolina Panthers signed an undrafted quarterback who began his NFL career as a practice-squad player. Imagine he won his first two starts and ultimately led the team to the Super Bowl.
This isn’t a whimsical look into the future of Kyle Allen, who on Sunday at Houston will attempt to improve his record to 3-0 overall and 2-0 this season while Cam Newton continues to rehab a left mid-foot sprain.
The Super Bowl quarterback was Jake Delhomme, who actually won his first four starts for the Panthers in 2003 en route to the title game.
Delhomme is among a long list of undrafted quarterbacks who have gone from off-the-radar to NFL stardom. No rags-to-riches story is greater than that of Kurt Warner, who went from stocking grocery shelves to a Super Bowl MVP and ultimately a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Allen is a long way from either. But he showed in his four-touchdown performance on Sunday at Arizona, a 38-20 victory after an 0-2 start under Newton, that the draft process on which organizations spend tons of money is not an exact science.
“There’s a lot more that goes into it that are the so-called intangibles,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said.
Allen seemingly has those intangibles. While he always expected to do well once given an opportunity, he knew it was a long shot he'd be drafted coming out of the University of Houston with one year of eligibility remaining.
“I got benched the third week of the season,” Allen said as he recalled his the college 2017 season. “I’m self-aware.”
Self-awareness, in this case, is another word for confidence. That’s why Allen opted to enter the draft instead sitting on the bench at Houston another season or transferring to his third school.
“I was ready to bet on myself because I thought I had the ability and I thought if I was given a chance like I was at Carolina ... hopefully somebody would want me,” said Allen, who began his college career at Texas A&M before being replaced by Kyler Murray.
“As an undrafted quarterback in this league, you’ve got to keep betting on yourself because no one else is going to bet on you ... because you’re not going to get as many opportunities as everybody else.”
Delhomme saw Allen's intangibles early against the Cardinals, intangibles that draft scouts missed.
“It was the smile that he had,” said Delhomme, now a color analyst for the Panthers’ radio broadcasts. “The moment never seemed too big. Always smiling. Coming back to the sideline, good play or bad. His demeanor seemed very, very good.”
Delhomme had that smile, which helped him set most of the Carolina passing records until Newton broke them.
Delhomme believes it speaks to the love of the game that keeps a player from giving up on himself.
Allen had every reason to give up after his experience at Houston. He lost the starting job after committing six turnovers (four interceptions, two fumbles) in the first two games.
Allen also had every reason to give up after being cut from the Carolina practice squad at this time a year ago. He didn’t because of what he called on social media in his goodbye to Houston “the love for the game and a chance to play.”
So when Carolina re-signed Allen and made him the starter in the finale at New Orleans, he was ready.
“I understand everybody wants measurables,” Delhomme said. “It’s easier to make a mistake on a kid who is 6-4, 225 with a rocket arm. But there’s really three things a quarterback has to have -- anticipation, accuracy and leadership.
“And a fourth one, you really have to love the game. To be a special player, you really have to love the game.”
Elite 11 link to Watson
Allen loves telling his story, whether it’s to the media or kids at a camp, to provide inspiration.
“It’s important to who I am as a football player and who I am as a person. It’s shaped me,” Allen said.
In 2013, Allen’s story was all positive. He was invited to a quarterback competition called the Elite 11, which brings 11 of the top high school quarterbacks in the country into one camp.
Watson -- who will be on the opposite sideline on Sunday when the Panthers take on the Texans -- saw the competitive drive in Allen since they first met at Elite 11.
“Regardless of the adversity or the different paths he has to take, he's going to always fight,’’ Watson said. “He's a fighter, he's a guy that loves football, he loves to compete and that's what he's been doing. It's a different path than mine but we both ended up in the same position and he's got a perfect opportunity to start for the Carolina Panthers and do something good for them.”
But as Allen reminded, Watson’s story included adversity just as his did. Watson grew up in public housing, endured his mom’s battle with cancer and worked jobs at night while in high school.
“It puts my adversity I faced in college to nothing,” Allen said.
‘Play the game the right way’
Much like going undrafted does not guarantee failure, being a high draft pick doesn’t guarantee success. Of the 14 quarterbacks drafted in 2018, including five in the first round, their cumulative record is 30-40. Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, the first pick of the draft, is 7-9. Sam Darnold, taken at No. 3 by the New York Jets, is 4-10.
So Allen’s 2-0 start stands out.
“I don’t really think about undrafted or drafted,” Allen said. “I look at guys who play the game the right way, I look at guys who play the game similar to me; I look at guys who live their lives the way I want to live my life.”
Allen's play against the Cardinals made him look like a first-rounder. He had great pocket presence, enough mobility to escape pressure and the patience to let a play develop. He also had great rhythm, which is essential in coordinator Norv Turner’s offense based on timing.
“The thing that stood out the most, the touchdown pass to DJ Moore,” Delhomme said of the 52-yarder on a crossing route over the middle late in the first half. “You want to talk about rhythm and timing. I mean, this guy threw it right when [Moore] came out of his break, accurate as you could be.”
Those are things NFL scouts didn’t get to see in 2017 as Allen collected dust on the sideline.
“To me, a guy’s knowledge and understanding of the game, you see that just by watching them play,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “Some guys see the whole field when they play. Like in basketball, a good point guard has vision all over the place.
“That’s kind of what you see when you see Kyle play.”
Whether Allen goes on to become the next great undrafted quarterback story remains to be seen. He could be forgotten in a week or so if Newton returns and resumes his role as the starter.
Allen isn’t thinking past the Texans. His past won’t let him.
“Obviously, down the road, I want to become an established player in the league,” he said. “But I know what got me here. I understand my story and the things I went through that got me to the point I am today.”