One was deemed a “huge project” with considerable “bust potential,” the other a wide receiver or running back in quarterback’s clothing.
Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson came from different coasts. They could hardly have looked less similar filling out a uniform or covering ground on a football field. Jackson was a college superstar at Louisville, Allen an out-of-the way curiosity at Wyoming.
But as the 2018 draft approached, these quarterback prospects were united in their ability to fuel the imagination of skeptics. No matter Jackson’s transcendent speed, they said, his lithe frame would not hold up to the violence of the NFL game. No matter Allen’s John Elway-like arm, they said, his poor accuracy would doom him to a path more like that of Ravens draft misfire Kyle Boller.
So call Saturday night’s playoff matchup between the Ravens and Buffalo Bills the Comeuppance Bowl, a giant thumb in the eye to all those who thought Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen were the can’t-miss quarterbacks of 2018. Jackson will arrive as a former Most Valuable Player, Allen as a candidate to win the award this year. Both won their first playoff games last weekend. Both are expected to keep their teams near the top of the AFC for years to come.
“You look at it and you see the top quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar — this is a quarterback league and you’re going to need a good quarterback to compete for a long time,” NBC analyst Rodney Harrison said.
All four teams left in the AFC draw — including the Kansas City Chiefs with Mahomes and the Cleveland Browns with Baker Mayfield — are led by former first-round quarterbacks who are 25 or younger.
As a former NFL safety, Harrison knows how rare it is for a quarterback to galvanize the entire team as Allen and Jackson have done.
“What I love about these guys is they’re all team guys,” he said. “That’s where I fell in love with Josh Allen. You watch and see how his teammates gravitate toward him. You look at how the Ravens embrace Lamar. They love football, and that’s what gets me excited as a former player. … Both of these guys, when you have designed quarterback runs and you get hit by 240-pound linebackers or you’re getting taken down by 300-pound linemen, [teammates] see that. They get pumped up because they see the toughness of their quarterback. That’s what these teams are defined by.”
Jackson and Allen admire the same qualities in one another.
Though Jackson doesn’t give much credence to media narratives pitting him against the other team’s quarterback, he praised Allen unreservedly: “People always just, talking about Josh, say, ‘His big arm.’ But he’s doing it all out there. He’s getting out of the pocket, taking advantage of what the defense gives him, throwing the ball on a rope, and he’s slinging the ball, like a Patrick Mahomes.”
Allen, in turn, gushed about Jackson, saying he’s “as explosive as any player who’s ever played the game” and “one of the greatest dudes you can be around.”
When they take the field as rivals, they’ll display the evolving nature of their position, where mobility is no longer a luxury.
“Baltimore, they had a vision for Lamar just like we had a vision for Josh,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “It’s great for the league when you have young quarterbacks playing like these two.”
Allen has defied NFL norms by improving steadily over three years. Unlike Mahomes in 2018 or Jackson last year, he did not burst forth in his first full season as a starter.
Plenty of evaluators thought Allen should be a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick in 2018. “He’s the same size as Carson Wentz with bigger arm talent and he’s a better athlete,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock raved. “Out of maybe any player in this draft, his upside might be the highest.”
The Ravens, prospecting for a potential successor to Joe Flacco, were among those who fancied him.
“Just the arm talent, the ability, the athleticism and the strength,” coach John Harbaugh recalled. “He’s just a big, strong guy. And then you heard about his story; I really liked his story and what he overcame to get to where he was at. He kind of came up the hard road and the underestimated road.”
A chorus of skeptics offered their counters. If Allen couldn’t complete more than 56% of his passes in the Mountain West Conference, they said, how could he become a franchise passer in the NFL?
Allen answered some questions in his first two seasons, taking over as the Bills’ starter in his second career game and leading them to the playoffs in 2019. But after 27 starts, his completion rate sat at 56.3%, exactly the same as in college.
To his credit, Allen was not satisfied with being a gifted but erratic NFL starter. He spent the offseason reworking his mechanics, especially his footwork, with personal quarterback coach Jordan Palmer. When Palmer talks about getting Allen to plant his cleats in the ground instead of relying just on his one-in-a-million arm, he sounds remarkably similar to Jackson’s personal quarterback coach, Josh Harris.
Like Jackson, Allen was fortunate to land with an offensive coordinator who understood how to build around him. Brian Daboll came to Buffalo with a pedestrian track record running NFL offenses, but he and Allen bonded, professionally and personally. From the first snap of this season, Daboll trusted Allen to throw early and often.
“He’s just done a wonderful job getting Josh comfortable with the system,” Harrison said. “When he first came in, he would force things down the field. He felt like he had to make all the big plays. And now, you see him and he’s so much more patient.”
Allen completed 70.9% of his passes, with just one interception, over the Bills’ first four games, all victories. He closed the season in similar form and completed 26 of 35 attempts for 324 yards and two touchdowns in Buffalo’s tense wild-card victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Allen devastated the Colts when he left the pocket, carrying 11 times for 54 yards but more importantly, completing seven of nine passes for 117 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. He might be the only quarterback in the league who can plow over a safety on one play and sling a 30-yard rope on the dead run the next.
Veteran Ravens referenced a young Ben Roethlisberger in describing the challenge Allen will pose.
“It’s young Ben Roethlisberger, because of his size and how he extends plays, with like [Dan] Marino’s arm, is what I told the secondary coaches and the defensive staff,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said, digging into his bag of colorful superlatives.
The Ravens destroyed Allen with their blitzes in a 24-17 victory last season, sacking him six times and holding him to 17-for-39 passing. But he’s punished teams that have rushed him this season.
“It makes you have to cover longer,” Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “You’ve heard the terminology ‘plaster’ before. ‘Big Ben’ is a person we’ve had to do that a lot with when they had Antonio [Brown] and all those guys back in the day. But when they extend plays, you’ve got fast guys running all over the field, and you have to ‘plaster’ them for four, five, six seconds; while an athlete like Josh Allen can still launch the ball 50, 60 yards down the field.”
Allen doesn’t run as often as Jackson, but at 237 pounds, he’s a bear to bring down, especially near the goal line. “You better throw big bodies at him, because he’s a big body,” Martindale said. “And I told the defense earlier, we need to tackle him like you tackle [Derrick] Henry, because that’s the way he runs.”
Where Allen is a passing threat on every down and from every angle, Jackson presents a different strain of cruelty for defenders.
“You can bottle him up seven or eight times in a row and feel like, ‘You know, we’re doing a great job on defense,’” Harrison said. “And then all of a sudden, he breaks a 50-yarder like he did last week and changes everything. He snatches your heart.”
Jackson has spent three years quieting those who said he could not survive the pounding he’d take as a running quarterback or that he could not throw well enough to rally his team from early deficits.
He has played as well over the last six games as at any point in his career, in part because he resolved to be himself after a hiatus on the reserve/COVID-19 list. When he saw his receivers tied up by the Tennessee Titans’ Cover-7 defense on Sunday, he took off without hesitation, improvising the 48-yard touchdown run that Harbaugh called the greatest he’d ever seen by a quarterback. The play called on tape studies with offensive coordinator Greg Roman and on Jackson’s unmatched instincts in the open field.
“I’m just attacking the game more, being more aggressive,” he said. “I’ll say, in the beginning of the season, I was conservative a lot; just staying back and getting sacked a lot more. But as the season went on, [when] things break down, my first read is not there, second read is not there, I take advantage of what the defense gives me.”
AFC divisional round
Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
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Line: Bills by 2½