ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — By the time Brett Favre became a Minnesota Viking, he was already 40 years old and had started more than 300 games in his NFL career. He had never thrown fewer than 13 interceptions or had a season with an interception percentage lower than 2.3 percent. Then-Vikings head coach Brad Childress would have been justified in thinking he wouldn’t be able to rein in the adventurous nature of Favre’s game.
Yet at 40 years old, Favre had the highest completion percentage of his career and threw for 4,202 yards and 33 touchdowns. He did all of that while throwing seven interceptions and having an interception percentage of 1.3, both career bests.
So maybe there’s hope for Josh Allen after all.
This week, Allen’s turnovers are again a topic of discussion after he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in a 22-16 loss to the Jets on Monday Night Football. He took all of the blame for the loss and vowed to make better decisions. These are familiar refrains from the Bills’ sixth-year quarterback, who has become a star in the NFL due to his ability to extend plays and make throws few people can make. Those same qualities can cause the problems the football-watching world saw on Monday night, though. Allen led the NFL in turnovers last season with 19. Since the start of the 2019 season, Allen leads the NFL in both interceptions (51) and turnovers (70).
As the problem persists, the questions linger. Can Allen cut back on the mistakes while maintaining the style of play that makes him so effective? If he can’t, can he win at the highest level playing this way? And what’s causing all of this in the first place?
Does Josh Allen need to help the Bills’ offensive line more?
Childress didn’t have a magic message for Favre that made him see the light, but it was more a combination of factors, starting with Leslie Frazier, who was the Vikings’ defensive coordinator at the time.
“Leslie is his own inimitable way, Mr. Rational, quiet, mild-mannered, he would take Brett aside and say, ‘Hey, there’s nothing wrong with punting the ball once in a while,’” Childress said. “It goes back to Tony Dungy talking about taking care of the football and taking away the football when he was in Indianapolis. Peyton Manning was in the front row and his eyes barely looked up but Tony was intentional about saying, ‘It’s okay to punt. We’ll play defense.’ Peyton Manning wanted to make every play, too, just in a different way than a Favre or an Allen.”
Frazier was the Bills’ defensive coordinator from 2017 to 2022 but left the team this offseason. Players universally praised his calm demeanor. You wouldn’t immediately think of Frazier as someone who could impact the franchise quarterback, but that’s the type of presence he had in Minnesota.
“I don’t have any doubt if Leslie was there this week he would have somewhere in the back of the bus or on the plane, somewhere he would have had some good meaningful words for Josh Allen that would have calmed his waters a little bit,” Childress said. “I don’t have any doubt about that. I’m not talking about Xs and Os. I’m talking about being a human being.
“If there’s anybody that could right the ship or calm the waters it would be Leslie. That’s just the way he’s wired.”
The psychological component is as important as the Xs and Os in Allen’s case. His numbers over the last three seasons speak for themselves. He’s capable of playing like an MVP candidate when he’s on his game. But part of what makes him great is what can make him prone to mistakes, much like Favre. That can be a maddening ride to be on as a coach — or fan — of one of those quarterbacks.
“I will tell you this, the highs aren’t as high as the lows are low,” Childress said. “That’s for sure. I know they’re feeling that in Buffalo.”
Childress was watching the Bills’ loss to the Jets and thinking through the long list of quarterbacks he coached during a career that spanned more than 40 years. He thought of Donovan McNabb, specifically the game in which McNabb broke his ankle against the Arizona Cardinals. Despite breaking his ankle on the third play of the game, McNabb stayed in the game and threw four touchdowns. His mobility was severely limited, which forced him to win the game from the pocket.
“My conversation with him was, ‘When some of your athletic skills erode late in your career, it behooves you to learn how to play from the pocket, which you did in the second half and which you can do if you want to do it,” Childress. “The problem is the way they are wired, most of them know they can move their feet and get around and in Josh’s case, shirk a guy off at the waist and keep moving. Then he has the throw skills to go along with it. You don’t want to coach it out of him, but discretion sometimes is the better part of valor, right?”
Allen’s courage isn’t in question. That’s been the case since he hurdled Anthony Barr in an upset victory over the Vikings as a rookie. But even on that day, then-Bills pass rusher Lorenzo Alexander said, “Thank you, but don’t do that again.”
Since then, Allen has made it his signature move in the open field. Against the Jets, he tried to hurdle multiple defenders while seven yards short of the first-down marker. In the offseason, both Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane discussed the need for Allen to limit how much he puts himself in harm’s way. His physical health is one factor, it’s also impacting the way he plays the position.
“The guys with athleticism, when they have that, that’s their default,” Childress said. “It’s great to have that in your tool kit. The problem is if you don’t even know it’s in your brain but it’s your default to say, ‘Oh emergency, out I go or out I move.’”
Kevin Gilbride spent more than 20 years coaching in the NFL. He coached quarterbacks like Kordell Stewart, Mark Brunell and Eli Manning among others. In his post-coaching career, he broke down film to provide notes for the Sunday Night Football broadcast crew. He now does the same for the Mannings for their Manningcast. So he’s not only seen a lot of different quarterbacks over the years, he’s now seen a lot of Allen. He’s reminded of his days coaching Stewart in Pittsburgh, where the staff tried to coach him to make running a fallback option instead of his default.
“You don’t just have to run around willy-nilly,” Gilbride said. “That’s kind of what I’m seeing with Allen. He’s looking to take off too early. Sometimes you have no choice and that’s a great weapon. He’s a big, powerful, courageous kid. Sometimes that becomes almost a crutch that’s overused.”
Allen ran six times against the Jets but was also looking to take off on a few of the five sacks he took. Between his runs, sacks and other pressure, he was hit 15 times in the game. Childress was often concerned that McNabb’s running ability would cause him to “shortcut” a read. Gilbride thinks that might be happening at times with Allen.
“Aaron Rodgers a few years ago, he had gotten to the point where he was so good at the secondary phases of the routes and scramble mode that I got the sense that’s what he was looking for rather than throwing the ball on time,” Gilbride said. “He had a terrible year and I was breaking down the games for Sunday Night Football for Cris Collinsworth. I just said, ‘He’s all out of whack here. He’s all out of rhythm. He’s trying to make a big play on every play.’ That’s kind of what Allen is doing. But he’s doing it more with his running or running around and then throwing.”
Coaches all have different ways of trying to get through to a player going through what Allen is. It’s not a complicated message to deliver. Allen knows he needs to take care of the ball, and he’s heard about the team’s desire for him to protect his body. Dirk Koetter, who was an offensive coordinator for the Jaguars, Falcons and Buccaneers before becoming Tampa Bay’s head coach, would show the stats in team meetings about win-loss records for teams that win the turnover battle.
“Quarterbacks have the greatest chance to win the game for you, but they also have the greatest chance to lose the game for you,” Koetter said.
“You’re going to have everything to do with whether the game is won or lost because you have the power of choice,” Childress said. “You have the ball in your hand.”
Gilbride said when he watched Allen in the playoffs against the Chiefs two years ago, he saw a quarterback in rhythm, one who was looking to beat Kansas City from the pocket first and run if he had to. When he watched toward the end of last season and even in the preseason this year, something had changed.
“He wasn’t in rhythm,” Gilbride said. “He wasn’t looking to make the throws all the time. He wasn’t getting the ball out on time.”
Gilbride said Allen needs to get back to being a point guard, where he’s distributing the ball to his playmakers. Right now, he’s not trying to solve his problems by throwing, and that’s throwing the offense off. It’s also providing a blueprint for defenses.
“I would take away the quick throws outside,” Gilbride said. “Right now he’s much more comfortable throwing the clear, easy-to-read stuff outside the numbers. I would play as much quarters coverage (as I could) to force him to read stuff in the middle of the field, force him to see the high-low stuff and make decisions. I’m not sure he’s reading those things at all. That’s what I would do to slow him down.”
This week, Allen referenced the fact that the great quarterbacks have the ability to move on from bad games. That’s not an easy task when playing a position that is dissected the way NFL quarterback is. Allen has been a topic on national sports shows all week long, his rough outing providing fodder for those who think his playing style is too reckless.
But Allen’s problem is not a new one. Finding the line between confident and careless is something all quarterbacks have dealt with.
“Andy Reid used to always say to Donovan McNabb, ‘Keep shooting. Keep shooting,’” Childress said. “You don’t want to discourage them. You want to encourage them. Keep doing your thing. That’s part of the package that you bought and you wanted and that he’s exemplified over his first years in the league.
“I don’t think he’s going to be any less timid. That’s not the Josh Allen you want. You want a guy that’s an aggressive, go-for-your-throat guy. But you want situational football, too.”
So that’s Allen’s next challenge. Can he flush what happened Monday night and bounce back against the Raiders this week? Can he find a way to limit the frequency and severity of the mistakes?
“Bill Parcells told me every one of these games as a coach it takes a piece of you,” Childress said. “It takes a piece of players, too. That’s a scar or a scrape that isn’t going to disappear. You have to learn from it. You can’t just ruminate on it. That’s a game he’ll have in his back pocket for the rest of his career and hopefully it helps him the rest of his career.”
(Top photo of Josh Allen: Elsa / Getty Images)
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.