The NFL had never seen anything like him.
Randall Cunningham was all sinew and slither, a human elastic band who could loop and snap on every run or pass. Sports Illustrated labeled him “The Ultimate Weapon.” Vapor trails whooshed from the Eagles quarterback as he leaped, arm cocked, across the cover of its 1989 NFL preview edition.
“He was a nightmare,” Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts said.
Make Cunningham two inches taller, 25 pounds heavier and willing to truck a linebacker and you’ve got Josh Allen. Thirty-three years after Cunningham’s skill set was deemed nonpareil and the future of the sport, Allen has looked ultimate-r.
“John Madden was fixated by Josh Allen,” said Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Farmer, who communicated regularly with Madden until the football icon’s December death. In texts, Madden referred to Allen as “an animal,” “a beast” and “worth the price of admission.”
“Josh Allen is unusual,” said Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, the NFL’s all-decade coach for the 1990s. “There are not many who come along like this guy.”
Allen wasn’t voted to the Pro Bowl last year and never has led the league in a conventional passing statistic, but he enters 2022 as the Super Bowl favorite’s wickedest weapon and the leading candidate for MVP. But what if Allen is more than that? What if his unique combination of rocketry, elusiveness and verve can transcend being the man of the moment to become a quarterback for the ages?
He is already part of a young quarterback generation that has made coaches reimagine the game.
Patrick Mahomes won an MVP Award at 23 years old, Lamar Jackson at 22. Joe Burrow led the Bengals to the Super Bowl in his second season. Justin Herbert, also entering his third year, is a popular choice in the “what one player would you build your team around” conversation.
Within that group, however, Allen might possess the most complete array of desired traits: size, arm strength, accuracy, running ability, football IQ, character and ambition.
“We’ve seen moments where Josh has put that all together,” said Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner. “When he does, I mean, he’s as unique as anybody that we’ve seen play the position.
“When you add the unicorn running skills and the size that goes with it, your mind’s blown at all the possibilities with Josh.”
In discussing what makes Allen so remarkable, his physical stature is paramount. He is listed at 6-5, 237 pounds, identical dimensions to Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson, aka “Megatron.”
“He’s a big freaking dude,” said NFL Films senior producer and analyst Greg Cosell.
What’s more, Allen applies his bulk in ways most quarterbacks only fantasize about. Since Allen entered the NFL in 2017, just three other quarterbacks of similar size ran for at least 300 yards in a season: Cam Newton, Blake Bortles and Herbert. Allen’s lowest rushing output was 421 yards in 2020, his highest was 763 yards last year.
“Size is a talent,” said Phil Simms, who at 6-3, 213 pounds won two Super Bowls as Parcells’ quarterback with the New York Giants. “When I get around him, I think, ‘My god, I can’t believe we even played the same position.’ ”
But size in itself means little. As does brute arm strength. All 32 NFL clubs knew how large Allen was and how far he could chuck a football at the University of Wyoming, yet questions about his competition level in the Mountain West Conference and his 56.2 completion percentage fostered doubts.
The long-held belief was that passing accuracy is virtually impossible to learn. Allen pulverized that chestnut.
If the NFL had the opportunity to re-do the 2018 draft, Allen likely would be the first overall choice. In reality, he went seventh. The two quarterbacks taken before him — Baker Mayfield first to the Browns, Sam Darnold third to the Jets — are trying to re-establish their careers with the Panthers now.
The idea of Allen in another uniform, meanwhile, is absurd. The Bills wouldn’t trade him for anyone or anything. He has continued to improve each season to the point of exceptionalism.
True, the Bills have improved Allen’s supporting cast over the years. They traded for Stefon Diggs two seasons ago, and his connection with Allen has produced an All-Pro campaign and two Pro Bowls for the wideout. Young receiver Gabriel Davis and tight end Dawson Knox have also emerged.
But Allen deserves credit for honing his fingerprint-scorching throws and learning how to decipher NFL defenses.
“A lot of times you get these big, strong-armed guys who really struggle with accuracy because their arm is so powerful. It’s tough to be able to figure out that change of pace that they need to have,” said Warner, a two-time league MVP. “That, to me, has been the most exciting thing about Josh — his growth in terms of accuracy and putting the ball where it needs to be on a consistent basis.”
As a rookie, Allen completed 52.8 percent of his throws, but he improved to 58.8 percent his second season and then soared to 69.2 percent in 2020, when he was the distant runner-up to Aaron Rodgers for MVP. Allen’s accuracy dipped to 63.3 percent last year, but he still finished fourth behind Tom Brady, Herbert and Mahomes with 5,004 yards of total offense.
“That is rare,” Cosell said. “I’m hard-pressed to remember quarterbacks who became meaningfully more accurate. There are guys that get a little better, but not like him.”
Allen turned 26 in May, but already he has amassed 60 regular-season and six playoff starts. That experience, along with a mostly stable coaching staff, has created a stark contrast from the quarterback we saw playing hero ball as a rookie.
He sees what defenses are doing earlier, often before the ball is snapped. He’s more comfortable in the pocket. He works through his target progressions more efficiently. He’s calmer, bearing no resemblance to the player Cosell described as “that wild stallion” at Wyoming.
“Inaccuracy a lot of times is just decision making,” Simms said. “Yes, he has changed his throwing motion and the speed he puts on the ball to make it better for his receivers. Before, he made throws early where his guys truly couldn’t handle it. But he’s figured that out.”
Every bit of Allen’s growth has been cultivated holistically, those who have worked closely with him say. They praise his eagerness to learn, a professional pride that drives him not to make the same mistake twice and an eagerness to be the Bills’ leading man.
“He’s more mastered the details, the nuances, the subtleties of the position,” Cosell said. “That’s why he is who he is now. He works at it and wants to be coached.
“Quarterback is a lifestyle. It’s not just a position. The physical traits are special, but to be a great quarterback, you’ve got to be disciplined at the craft. Some guys don’t get there.”
So is Allen extraordinary as a harbinger of football’s next phase, a slightly ahead-of-his-time revelation after three decades of pre-teen hopefuls receiving increasingly specialized instruction and youth coaches putting their best athletes at quarterback instead of running back or receiver?
Or is Allen an outlier, an all-intergalactic athlete with attributes that we shouldn’t expect to see in future NFL Draft pools just because generational advancements have brought such specimens to the fore?
“The next phase? No, I don’t think that’s the case at all,” Parcells said. “There aren’t guys that look like him in the league right now. Physically, they don’t compare.
“Burrow is not physically like Josh Allen. Mahomes certainly is not physically like Josh Allen. Neither are Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray. Justin Herbert is a little better comparison, but they don’t use him like the Bills use Josh Allen’s feet. Even an athletic guy like Aaron Rodgers, the Packers don’t use him like that.”
To Parcells’ point, saying that Allen is helping to revolutionize the position would suggest organizations have the ability to find their own version of Allen and replicate what he has done. But teams can’t deploy their quarterbacks like Buffalo has with Allen. They aren’t versatile enough, big enough or intrepid enough.
Asked whether Allen represents a new wave or a different creature, Cosell compared him to a groundbreaking superstar most football historians consider among the finest three ever to play his position.
“Years and years ago,” said Cosell, “people might have asked if Randy Moss was going to be the wide receiver prototype, but there’s just not a lot of guys like Randy Moss. How many guys will there really be like Josh Allen? Not many.
“There might be someone else, but I don’t think that in 15 years half the quarterbacks in the NFL are going to play like Josh Allen.”
That’s not to say he can’t become even better.
Allen already keeps defensive coordinators awake at night because, as Fouts said, “Josh has such unpredictable, big-play potential.” Allen has posted a 100-plus passer rating 28 times, including two nearly perfect playoff games last winter. He has 20 games of at least 50 rushing yards. In each season he has run for more yards than the season before while analysts insisted those numbers would go down for his health’s sake. Allen has two receiving touchdowns.
But Warner stressed what would make Allen borderline unstoppable: embracing the unsexy aspects of quarterbacking.
“I still believe, until shown differently, that you have to compete for championships and win against good teams while playing inside the pocket,” Warner said. “We’ve seen incredible quarterback play — and at a skill level and variety — that we’ve never seen before. But what turns them into great quarterbacks is the evolution inside the pocket and the ability to play consistently there without having to be a unicorn.”
Playing from the pocket, Warner said, is “still the purest form” of quarterbacking, an ability to gain yards with minimal risk of turnovers and injury. Brady is the hallmark of the style. The 45-year-old owns a gazillion passing records, has won seven Super Bowls and led the NFL in passing yards last year. He didn’t rush for 1,000 career yards until his 19th season. Allen has rushed for 2,325 yards already.
“You don’t have to be special,” Warner said. “You can win by making mundane layups. When you can see it and you can throw it and can make the plays you’re supposed to make, that’s what makes the game easier.”
As the Greatest Show on Turf’s triggerman, Warner led the NFL in completion percentage three times and ranks ninth in career accuracy. He led three teams to the Super Bowl and was the game’s MVP when the St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans.
So he knows “mundane layups” work even on high-octane offenses, advice he extends not solely to Allen, but also to the other dual-threat quarterbacks. He insisted those who can mingle the boring and the theatrical will level up.
“That’s what leads to competing for championships,” Warner said. “When you’re playing against a hodgepodge of teams and not always playing a good opponent, you’ll put up numbers and win games.
“The determining factor to your legacy is what you do come playoff time when you’re playing nothing but good teams that can take away your strength and force you to have to do things differently. What are you then?”
The season Sports Illustrated designated Cunningham the be-all and end-all, he went to his first of three straight Pro Bowls and finished second in MVP voting. But his career didn’t pan out as the magazine foretold.
He suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 1991 season opener and never was the same again. He struggled to learn the West Coast offense and was benched for Rodney Peete before retiring in 1996.
Cunningham returned as a Minnesota Vikings backup and, with starter Brad Johnson downed by an ankle injury, took over for one more season in 1998. From the pocket, he lit up defenses with receivers Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed while rushing for just 132 yards. The Vikings lost in the NFC Championship Game, the closest Cunningham got to a Super Bowl.
The Ultimate Weapon didn’t glimpse the ultimate prize. His career sputtered too much to be considered for the Hall of Fame.
In other words, Allen’s magnificent skills and admirable mindset guarantee nothing.
“A quarterback is like a gunfighter,” said Fouts, who never reached the Super Bowl despite being a perennial MVP candidate over 15 years with the Chargers. “You’re going to face all the other gunfighters of your day, and you’re not going to beat them all.
“The guys coming after him are professional tacklers and big and strong and mean. I hate to say it’s just a matter of time, but all quarterbacks get hurt.”
How well Allen can avoid the injury report and keep dominating will determine how supremely he’ll be remembered.
No one interviewed for this story dismissed the notion Allen can be an all-timer. He has been playing at an elite level — but for only the past three seasons.
“I really don’t know if he can get much better because he’s borderline about as good as we can see,” Simms said. “Am I willing to say he can be one of the greatest ever? No, not yet. These guys are setting standards by compiling 10, 15 years of nothing but good work. That’s what you’re going against.”
But Allen has proven capable of capturing the imaginations of some top football minds. Cosell has predicted Allen might be the most physically gifted quarterback in NFL history. It’s amazing to ponder that the Bills’ quarterback — after a quarter century trying to find someone merely decent — could become historically special.
“Can he take those moments that have wowed us and make that his norm?” Warner asked. “If he does that, and we’ve seen glimpses, he could become that guy.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Tim Warner, Joshua Bessex, Brett Carlsen, Timothy T. Ludwig / Getty Images)
This content was originally published here.