Josh Allen’s Incredible, Inevitable Contract

It’s hard to analyze the Josh Allen contract without thinking about the best-laid plans of mice, men, Eagles, and Rams.

The most insightful thing I can say about Allen’s six-year, $258-million contract extension with the Buffalo Bills is that it was inevitable. The Bills had little choice but to reset the quarterback market ASAP with Allen. “Waiting and seeing” if he built upon his 2020 success would leave the Bills betting against themselves: if Allen improved, they would owe him post-Patrick Mahomes bucks, while any money they would save if Allen fell back to earth this year would be cold comfort.

Great young quarterbacks sign mammoth contracts. It’s how the NFL business is done. Whether that business makes sense or not isn’t a question Brandon Beane can afford to ask with a Super Bowl within reach and Allen’s agent on Line 1.

Beane handled Allen’s extension as well as such an extension can be handled. He got the deal done before Lamar Jackson or Baker Mayfield signed new deals, preventing the Ravens or Browns from dictating terms and building a bigger hurdle for the Bills to leap over. Beane was fortunate that Allen was amenable to a longer contract, allowing the Bills to maintain the short-term cap flexibility to remain contenders while pushing the big cap hits toward the coming financial windfall. If you have to spend $258 million on a player who had one outstanding year while trying to keep a playoff nucleus together during fiscal lean times, this is how to do it.

With all of that said, if Allen goes full Carson Wentz or Jared Goff, the Bills will incur what looks like a cap hit of $77 million in 2023 or $38 million in 2024. Yet saying the Bills “took a risk” by extending Allen isn’t really accurate. Exposing him to free agency in two years or trading him for Aaron Rodgers would be taking a risk. The Allen extension comes with success and failure rates which fall within acceptable parameters because the alternatives are either much worse or thoroughly impractical.

These “new quarterback contract” columns are typically built around predictable bullet points, each chosen according to the author’s priors. There’s the “PAY THE MAN” talking point or there’s “quarterbacks make too much money,” which is closer to where I lean but is also irrelevant. There’s “he only had one great year” for Allen, or there’s “he’s growing into a can’t-miss Hall of Famer before our eyes,” both of which have some support. Remember: some of the folks assuring you that Allen won’t backslide based on their interpretations of the analytics and/or tape were swearing that he would never amount to anything better than a scrambly Joe Flacco this time last year.

If you are skeptical about the wisdom of the Allen extension, you have a point. If you are writing Beane-Allen slash fanfic about it (Bills Twitter is a tad overoptimistically giddy right now), you also have a point. Huge quarterback contracts are best thought of probabilistically, according to a range of possible outcomes:

  • There’s an x% chance that Allen becomes a Mahomes or Tom Brady. In that case, this new contract is a bargain.
  • There’s a y% chance that Allen becomes Russell Wilson or prime Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger. In that case, this contract will represent fair market value for most or all of its length.
  • There’s a z% chance that Allen becomes Matt Ryan or Matthew Stafford, making Allen just effective enough to keep the Bills hovering in the playoff conversation but just expensive enough to keep them from assembling the best possible roster.
  • There’s a w% chance that Allen is Wentz and the Bills are boned.

Unless you spent the weekend leaping face-first into card tables, you would probably agree that “x” is a pretty small number. It’s likely that “w” is also pretty small, but remember that “w” represents catastrophic failure: a 5% chance of disaster would keep a wise person from leaving the house, and there are enough examples of buyer’s remorse among the highest-paid quarterbacks to suggest that “w%” is greater than 5%.

While the Bills are hoping for “x,” they are probably counting upon “y” and willing to cope with “z.” There’s a very good chance that they get “y” for the first two years of the contract, then settle into “z” for two or three years before everyone returns to the bargaining table. Again, that was probably the best choice they could make, given what few choices they had.

To extend the algebra: Lamar Jackson comes with a higher x-value than Allen but, let’s get real, a worrisome w-value. Mayfield appears destined to waver between “y” and “z.” Mahomes catapulted into “x” territory on his rookie contract, which is why he’s an outlier when discussing the quarterback contract market.

What general managers need, and what they keep failing to invent, is a contract for young starting quarterbacks that falls somewhere between “let’s rewrite the economics textbooks” and “we don’t wuv you anymore.” A three-year, $110-million extension, for example, would give the fourth-year starter coming off one or two good years franchise-quarterback money while allowing the team to pull the ripcord more easily if things go Wentz. Such a deal would ideally be frontloaded with salary so the team wouldn’t have to eat a stiff prorated bonus if it decides to punt on a final year. On the player’s side of the equation: if he becomes Brady in his fourth season, free agency remains right around the corner, which would send the team scurrying back to the table. Basically, teams need to come up with Kirk Cousins-/Ryan Tannehill-shaped contracts for younger quarterbacks who aren’t changing teams rather than for middling veteran acquisitions.

Allen did not want such a deal, and the Bills were not in cap position to give him one. Jackson will fall into the same circumstances. The Browns just figured out how to pay Nick Chubb while mitigating the Todd Gurley risk, so maybe they will build a better mousetrap for Mayfield. Until then, it’s pointless to speculate about contracts that one side cannot propose and the other wouldn’t agree to, even if such contracts might represent a better policy for both sides.

Writing about the salary cap for years has taught me that 2024’s worries belong in 2024. Allen is happy, healthy, and wealthy. The Bills are legit Super Bowl contenders. That’s all that matters right now. As non-choices go, the Bills made a great one. Now the real work begins: doing everything they can to make sure it pays dividends instead of consequences.

Around the League

News and notes from training camps far and wide:

Also Getting Paid: Darius Leonard

The Colts made Darius Leonard the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL on Sunday with a reported five-year, $99.3-million extension. Per Ian Rapoport, the deal includes $20 million per year over the first three seasons.

Before the deal, the Colts had an estimated $71.4 million in cap space for 2022, second only to the Steelers. Keep in mind that 2022 will probably be the final year of COVID cap prorations, with the owners generously spreading the pain of last year’s revenue losses over two years for their employees. The Colts and Carson Wentz are bound together for 2022 for better or worse, so it makes sense for Indianapolis to lock down core young veterans Leonard and guard Quenton Nelson (whose current injury won’t impact his long-term status) while they can stuff some cap hits into the early years of the contracts.

Based on the conversation surrounding Fred Warner’s contract a few weeks ago, there’s an analytics-flavored groupthink talking point which states that paying a premium for an off-ball linebacker is an inherently bad investment. And yes: given the chance to extend an excellent young edge rusher, cornerback, or traditional linebacker, a team should prioritize them in exactly that order. But neither the Colts nor the 49ers had that choice. Given the choice between extending a young star at a non-leverage position or turning up their noses and saying, “umm, actually, we’re just gonna let you walk and hoard our money until we find players who fit our idealized template for success,” the Colts and 49ers made the only logical move.

Also Also Getting Paid: Xavien Howard

The argument for paying or not paying a linebacker comes down to principle versus reality. The same can be said for the Xavien Howard situation. As a principle, teams can’t rework contracts with multiple years left on them each time a veteran discovers he has fallen from highest-paid to fourth-highest-paid at his position. In reality, the Dolphins need Howard if they hope to compete for a Super Bowl with their current nucleus. Playing hardball and attempting a Jalen Ramsey-like trade might have scratched some theoretical Moneyball itch, but the Dolphins are just coming out of their veterans-for-draft-picks cycle. It’s time for them to start converting all that draft capital into playoff contention.

Based on the details which were reported on Sunday, Howard was satisfied with a few tweaks and additional guarantees. It pays to actually listen to players and avoid ultimatums. Past Dolphins regimes would have labeled Howard a malcontent and run him out of town. The Chris Greer/Brian Flores administration has a smarter way of doing business.

Life Without Schottenheimer is Truly Living

The Seahawks added former Nebraska and Iowa State forward Michael Jacobson to their roster as a tight end this week. The 6-foot-9 Jacobson averaged 7.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game over his NCAA career. He played basketball in the Ukraine last year.

If Tom Cable were still in Seattle, he would try to make Jacobson a left guard. But Cable is gone, as is Brian Schottenheimer, architect of the “run the ball, even when the defense really hopes you will” offense. New offensive coordinator Shane Waldron has been getting some positive reviews from the skill position players newly liberated from Schottenfailson’s system.

“It looks a lot like what we do in two-minute from the past six years we’ve been here, but now it’s more efficient,” Tyler Lockett said of the new offense, per Jon Manley of the Tacoma News-Tribune. “There’s a whole bunch of plays that Russ can choose from. It’s not just 15 plays like we used to have.”

LOL. Fifteen plays. LOLOL. But please, inject an all up-tempo Russell Wilson speed-cooking offense directly into the pleasure receptors of my brain.

For the record, the Seahawks offense ranked seventh in late-and-close DVOA last year, third in 2019, just 14th in 2018 but fifth in 2017. They had another off year in 2016 (13th) but ranked first in 2015 and fourth in 2014. You get the idea. Late-and-close DVOA doesn’t equate perfectly with two-minute offense, but your eyes have not been deceiving you in the last decade: Wilson is excellent when he’s freewheeling, and the Seahawks offense is usually at its best when the establish-the-run concepts are in the recycling bin.

As for Jacobsen, I spent two days watching Tyree Jackson flash real potential at tight end for the Eagles, so bring on the power forwards, ex-quarterbacks, and pole-vaulters! Just don’t fill the entire depth chart with them.

Justin Case

Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson sprained the AC joint in his shoulder on Friday after landing the wrong way in practice. Despite initial appearances, the injury isn’t considered serious. That’s great news for the Vikings, whose backup wide receivers behind Jefferson and Adam Thielen are Chad Beebe, K.J. Osborn, Dan Chisena, and various late-round and undrafted rookies (including Blake Proehl, who must battle Chad Beebe for the “Son of a Fan Favorite” role on the depth chart). Those backups have a combined 26 career NFL receptions, all of them by Beebe.

The last Vikings wide receiver not named Jefferson, Thielen, or Stefon Diggs to receive more than 70 targets in a season was Mike Wallace, with 72 targets (and a meager 39-473-2 statline) in 2015. The most productive non-Jefferson/Thielen/Diggs wide receiver of the Kirk Cousins era was Laquon Treadwell, with a 35-302-1 stat line on 53 targets in 2018. When Thielen was hurt for much of 2019, the Vikings replaced him by not throwing 10 yards downfield anymore to anyone but Diggs. (Olabisi Johnson averaged 9.5 yards per reception on 31 catches that year; Johnson tore an ACL at the start of this year’s camp).

Long story short: the Vikings are downright committed to NOT having a dangerous third wide receiver on the roster.

As Bryan Knowles wrote for Football Outsiders in July, the Vikings used two tight ends on a whopping 439 snaps last season, and two or more running backs on 397 snaps. They’re devoted to the 12 and 21 personnel lifestyle. But while they used 11 personnel on a league-low 27.5% of snaps, that’s still more than one-fourth of their offensive plays, including most of their high-leverage third-and-long and late-and-trailing plays.

The Vikings should really get serious about developing a third wide receiver. Especially since third receivers are one hard landing away from becoming second receivers.

Injured, But Also Not Very Good

The Bears are dealing with an offensive line emergency. Rookie left tackle Teven Jenkins has a lingering back injury and an unclear timetable to return. Guard German Ifedi is on the PUP list with a hip flexor issue. Fifth-round pick Larry Borom and second-year tackle Lachavious Simmons (Jenkins’ primary backup) entered concussion protocol late in the week. Elijah Wilkinson is on the COVID list. The Bears only had nine healthy linemen on the preseason roster as of Friday.

The Bears were in such an offensive malaise during the Mitch Trubisky epoch that I lost track of how bad their offensive line had become. After all, there was little point in trying to analyze the unit’s strengths or shortcomings over the last three years when the entire offense was so clearly designed to hide the weaknesses of the quarterbacks. The Bears finished 28th, 28th, 29th and 25th in adjusted line yards since 2017, so it’s hard to argue their run blocking was good (though it was strangely consistent). But their adjusted sack rates bobbed from seventh to 23rd based on the effectiveness of the Hide-a-Mitch protocols, and their line was once populated by well-regarded veterans such as Charles Leno, Bobby Massie, and Kyle Long. Those guys are gone, leaving Cody Whitehair surrounded by rookies and Seahawks reclamation projects.

Anyway, Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy will try to protect Andy Dalton and/or develop Justin Fields behind a ramshackle line that isn’t likely to be very good even when healthy. This is what having no idea whatsoever how to build a roster looks like.

East Rutherford Middle School Progress Report

When we last checked in on the Giants, Joe Judge’s “Respect My Authori-tah” disciplinary tactics indirectly resulted in a team-wide brawl, which of course resulted in more disciplinary tactics. It turns out that increasing the beatings until morale improves doesn’t work: veteran guards Zach Fulton and Joe Looney retired last week, as did veteran linebacker Todd Davis.

Judge shrugged off the retirements, saying that “all three situations are different” and hinting that the departing players didn’t quite want it enough to push through what he called the “demanding phase” of camp. If you are the kind of coach who thinks it’s wise to punish 30-year-old linemen with gassers and pushups, you’re not the kind of coach who will ever figure out that the gassers and pushups are the problem.

Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett instructed the Giants media to call him “Coach,” not “Jason.” I’m not going to go into the etiquette of press conference forms of address here, because it’s the most tedious, navel-gazing topic on earth. But I know the Giants press pool pretty well. Garrett is gonna be called “Jason,” “J.J.” “Ginger,” “Clapper,” “Big Shooter,” and “Jerry’s Widdle Puppet” at his next press availability.

The only reason I don’t think Judge will get fired after a team-wide mutiny before the Week 10 bye is that the Giants are the organization of Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin and have therefore swallowed the hook on this Father Flanagan hornswoggle. They’ll play this season with the guys who want to be there. In other words, the guys who have no other choice.

Lions Kicker Battle!

Walkthrough interrupts its breathless coverage of the Titans kicker battle to report on the situation in Detroit, where veteran Randy Bullock missed a pair of 50-plus-yard field goals during an open practice at Ford Field. Challenger Matthew Wright, who had a cup of coffee with the Steelers, also missed a pair of 50-plus-yarders.

According to the best available research, missed field goals at Family Night are not reliable indicators of a kicker’s future performance. That said: Bullock is 6-of-13 from beyond 50 yards since 2018. Sample sizes for long field goals are misleadingly small and volatile, but there is no evidence to suggest that the 31-year-old Bullock is going to become Justin Tucker. He’s steady enough on kickoffs, however, to satisfy the most basic prerequisite for a kicker on a rebuilding team: he shouldn’t make things worse than they have to be.

Oatmeal Raisin Dalton

And finally…

Andy Dalton is apparently outplaying Justin Fields in Bears camp, much to the chagrin of some observers who do not read Walkthrough and therefore don’t realize that the Bears quarterback competition is just a long political exercise. Anyway, Friend-of-Walkthrough Ty Schalter Tweeted on Friday that “Andy Dalton is the Nickelback of quarterbacks: somewhere along the way we all decided to pretend he’s the most horrible, awful thing of all time even though he’s basically fine.”

I disagree with Schalter on both counts. Dalton is not “basically fine” but has been in decline for years; he’s one more tiny setback away from becoming Matt Schaub. And Nickelback is so inoffensive that they’re highly offensive. But Schalter’s “things we pretend to hate” remarks dovetailed with a similar conversation I had with my younger son on the way home from marching band practice last week. In honor of Dalton, Michael J. and I came up with the following list of things people pretend to hate on the Internet:

  • Oatmeal Raisin Cookies: No, it’s not a chocolate chip cookie, and that’s disappointing. But it’s not a hardened clump of potter’s clay flecked with hamster droppings, either. You’re just being overdramatic and acting a little pampered when you make retching noises about a semisweet dessert which is far healthier than the $14 red velvet cupcake with bourbon-caramel cream cheese icing you talked yourself into instead.
     
  • Clowns: It’s not like modern kids dream of running away with the circus anymore, or even attending the circus. Our only frames of reference for clowns these days are the Joker, Pennywise, and Insane Clown Posse, all of whom are such over-the-top edgelord villains that just about anyone dressing as a clown in the 21st century is doing so for ironic spooky effect, not because they think it’s delightfully childlike. So no one actually hates clowns; we’ve just repurposed them culturally. And yes, some benighted parents still hire clowns for toddler birthday parties. Our problem here is not that we hate clowns, but that we hate being forced to attend toddler birthday parties.
     
  • Ranch Dressing and Mayonnaise: This is totally an “agree with the popular person to sound cool” Twitter seventh grade cafeteria phenomenon. Everyone pretends to eat nothing but perfectly smoked brisket with freshly grilled vegetables washed down with light-bodied regional microbrews at every single meal when they are discussing food on the Internet. Then we all log off and plunge face-first into the two-quart vat of supermarket macaroni salad.
     
  • New/Alternate NFL Uniforms: So many folks used to post knee-jerk snarky “blech” remarks the new uniform is unveiled (“anyone who likes that stripe down the middle of the helmet is pretty much a serial killer”) that it has created a reactionary pushback in recent years. “I’d choose to be buried in the new Browns jersey.” Or, “Why, I would purchase pornography in which the participants wore the Bengals all-blacks.” Uniforms didn’t look better when you were a kid, folks. They’re just what you imprinted upon, and young fans will likely fall in love with modern styles. Even young Rams fans.
     
  • The word “moist”: I don’t know if pretending to be grossed out by the word “moist” started with a Letterkenny skit or if the Letterkenny skit was based on something that had already become a meme. But there is nothing inherently disgusting about the word “moist” or about most of the things on this planet that can appropriately be called “moist.” The “moist is gross” routine comes with a juvenile quasi-sexual component, as of course does the “mayo/ranch is gross” meme. I’d speculate that even folks who welcome the sudden recent changes in sexual mores are subconsciously reacting to them by finding safely adjacent and sociopolitically harmless words/foods/objects to be repulsed by, but this is supposed to be a football column. Anyway, I recommend starting all conversations with people you don’t know by offering them a moist oatmeal raisin cookie. They can accept or politely decline, but if they start acting like you offered them a rotting pigeon you found in a gutter, smash the cookie in their face Jimmy Cagney style and run away laughing.
     
  • Imagine Dragons: New York Post digital editor Jeremy Layton offered Imagine Dragons as an alternative to Nickelback as an Andy Dalton allegory on Twitter. My son assures me, however, that Imagine Dragons do indeed stink, and as a 15-year-old he is the supreme authority on contemporary pop music.

At my age, acts like Imagine Dragons sound like nothing but chants and synthesizer boops, so it’s best that I decline comment. Though I have the feeling that it’s more appropriate to compare Imagine Dragons to Matt Schaub.

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