A welcomed change: Josh Allen and the air raid offense

Allen's strong second half of the season was due to Brian Daboll's integration of air raid concepts

Nate Geary
January 22, 2019 - 11:36 am

Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig - USA TODAY Sports


It’s been a few weeks now since the Buffalo Bills played their final snap in a 42-17 win over the Miami Dolphins. Since then, it’s been an all too predictable start to the AFC East “offseason.” The New England Patriots are headed back to another Super Bowl, and the New York Jets are, well, still the Jets. Which leaves only the Miami Dolphins, who have yet to officially name their new head coach Brian Flores because, well, has one more game to coach in Atlanta before formally taking over. 

Let’s rewind a little bit back to that Week 17 victory against the Dolphins for the sake of analysis. It was a tremendous way for Josh Allen to finish off his rookie season. A lot of ups and downs, but ending on the high he did (224 yards passing, 95 yards rushing, 5 total touchdowns) sets the stage for a big sophomore season. 

This isn’t a conversation about predicting the future though, it’s more about the signs that Allen and, maybe more specifically, Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll showed us in their first full season together that should give us all hope for next year and beyond.

It was an inauspicious start to the 2018 season if you can remember back that far. The whole Nathan Peterman thing against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1, the Los Angeles Chargers debacle in Week 2, the weird Minnesota Vikings win in Week 3 that was followed by one of Allen’s worst performances on the road against Green Bay in Week 4. 

After the Packers loss, I can vividly remember thinking that the stage just looked too big for Allen. I think you could probably make the same argument for Daboll as well. The offense managed only 145 total yards, including just 87 through the air (sacks included) and 58 on the ground for an average of 2.6 yards per-play. Ouch. 

Allen would finish the day 16-of-33 for 151yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a fumble. Outside of the Patriots loss in Week 16, it was Allen’s worst performance as a pro. It left me feeling a whole bunch of ways, maybe, more importantly, I felt that none of us were going to get a good feel about whether Allen was the guy based on how much Brain Daboll attempted to protect him week in and week out. 

The offense was merely playing scared. Scared of ruining their young quarterback by giving him more than he can handle too early on. There is, indeed, some credence to that and examples throughout the years of teams putting too much on a young quarterback only to ruin their confidence forever. 

I didn’t really care, though. I wanted to throw the kid out there without a life vest to see if he’d sink or swim. Protecting him, in my mind, only hurts the team’s ability to evaluate him in the long run, so I saw almost no value in having him throw 15-20 times per-game, especially without a legitimate running attack to bridge the gap. 

Then came the injury, which looking back was the best thing to happen to Allen, and probably the best thing to happen to his teammates. The Bills were forced to play guys like Peterman, who was already deemed unsuited for pro football and Derek Anderson, who walked off the golf course and into NFL action within 10 days. Allen’s teammates were able to see firsthand what life was like without the rookie signal caller and it wasn’t pretty. 

Then something interesting happened; Matt Barkley. Off the street and into the starting lineup, Barkley sparked the Bills' offense in Week 10. For the first time, a bar had been set offensively. The talk all year was no weapons, no run game, no offensive line, and no athletes on the outside. Well, no one told Matt Barkley that. I genuinely believe it was precisely what Allen needed to see before returning from injury. I think Bills fans needed to see it too – that things weren’t as bad as they seemed for the better part of half-a-season. 

That’s when things changed. Brian Daboll scrapped most of what we saw in the first half of the season and decided to implement passing concepts that better suited Allen’s strengths. It was the only way to move forward. When Daboll began running empty, five-wide receiver sets, I started taking notice, and so did my buddy Erik Turner over at Cover1. 

Over the last six weeks, we broke down each game and more and more we saw air raid principles being integrated into the Bills repertoire for weekly usage. 

Let’s just rewind for a second and take a look at this from 30,000 feet. One of Allen’s strong suits coming out of Wyoming was that he ran a “pro-style” offense. An offense he ran a majority from under center and predicated mostly on west coast principles. What do we know about the west coast offense? Well right off the bat, we should understand that it’s not exactly an offense tailor-made for a quarterback like Josh Allen. 

The west coast offense made most famous from Bill Walsh (for those that don’t know) was a set of passing concepts meant to spread a defense out from sideline to sideline using a short, ball control passing structure. I’m not saying this totally explains why Allen struggled so much with completion percentage in college, but it does provide context as to why he appeared to regress his junior year and seemingly struggled immensely with accuracy. 

Simply put, it’s just not an ideal offense for a big-armed quarterback. It’s best suited for the Chad Pennington’s and Matt Leinart’s of the world. Guys with limited arm strength, but above average short-to-intermediate accuracy. Allen’s coaches were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole – it wasn’t a recipe for long or even short-term success. 

Enter the Air Raid. 

Yes, that’s the Lincoln Riley, Kliff Kingsbury, and, maybe most importantly, Mike Leach college offense. I’m not saying the Bills went full air raid because they didn’t. They sprinkled in concepts like mesh (the almighty), all curls, all verticals, and quick screens to receivers that are all building blocks of the air raid. By the way, it really worked. 

Integrating these concepts turned one of college footballs least accurate passers (Allen) into a legit downfield thrower of the ball. Now, I won’t assume every empty set drop back incorporated air raid principles, but this stat was too difficult to ignore. Out of 65 possible dropbacks in 2018 from an empty set, Allen attempted 59 throws. Out of those 59 throws, Allen was on target (these are catchable attempts) 43 times. That means with drops or breakups by the defense included, Allen was on target 72-percent of the time for 429 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. 

Now he only completed 31 of those throws for roughly 52-percent completion, but the on-target number struck me as a huge factor or reason to think Allen is capable of being a more accurate passer than he’s been portrayed. All we needed was a little context into why Allen struggled as much as he did in college and this makes a lot of sense.

Most folks, whom I’d probably tend to agree with, have beaten the anti-Allen drum since he was drafted last April. One of the things they say is that a quarterback who struggled in college likely won’t all-of-the-sudden be good in the NFL. That is probably spot on, but saying that without context can get messy. If he was set up to fail as a passer at one level but given the proper tools at the next, wouldn’t it be possible to see growth considering the tools he possesses? Some food for thought. 

Marcus Mariota is onto his fifth offensive coordinator in five years, Josh Rosen on his third already and Sam Darnold his second. With Daboll back in the fold for 2019, Allen has a coach who was able to harness what it is he does well. I’m incredibly excited to see how they build off that next season with additional weapons and protection up front.

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