Sam Darnold and Josh Allen entered the league the same year, in the same division and with the same expectation: that they would be the answer at quarterback for their franchises.
The Jets traded up to get Darnold with the third overall pick in 2018, envisioning a player who might be the modern-day equivalent of Joe Namath. The Bills took the strong-armed Allen out of Wyoming at No. 7 overall, hoping he’d be to this generation’s Bills what Jim Kelly had been to a previous one.
Less than three years later, their fates have been widely divergent. Darnold may be on his way out as the Jets’ quarterback after a 2-14 season and Adam Gase’s firing. Allen comes off an MVP-caliber performance in a 13-3 season that could lead to the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship.
Jets general manager Joe Douglas offered no assurances this week that Darnold will continue as the Jets’ starting quarterback. Only after the next coach is hired will the former USC star know where he stands for 2021 and beyond.
Allen, meanwhile, has benefited from coaching stability with Sean McDermott and the careful roster construction engineered by GM Brandon Beane.
While the Jets have foundered during Darnold’s career — there have been two general managers, two coaches and three losing seasons — Allen is surrounded by a terrific cast of players who have fueled the team’s meteoric rise to the top of the division.
With Tom Brady moving on to Tampa, this is Allen’s AFC East. Perhaps for a long time.
But with success comes increased expectation, and Allen is not content simply with winning the division for the first time since 1995, when Kelly was in the twilight of his Hall of Fame run.
Allen led the Bills to the playoffs last year, but they lost to the Texans in overtime, 22-19, in the wild-card round after squandering a 16-0 lead. There is much to atone for as he prepares for Saturday’s home playoff game against the Colts.
"Nothing matters unless we win this one," said Allen, who threw 37 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in the regular season. "That’s our mindset, going from playoff-caliber to championship-caliber, something Coach McDermott always preaches to us."
The Bills are among the hottest teams in the league. They have won six straight games, including last Sunday’s 56-26 rout of the Dolphins that helped eliminate Miami from the playoff race.
But playoff history will weigh heavily on the minds of Bills fans, because the team hasn’t won a postseason game since the 1995 tournament. They’ve lost six straight playoff games, the third-longest streak in the NFL. McDermott owns two of those losses, the first with quarterback Tyrod Taylor in the 2018 postseason.
Allen won’t soon forget last year’s playoff collapse.
"It still lingers a bit, just knowing the situation of the game and things I could have done differently and reads I could have changed," he said. "If I could change it, I obviously would."
In a way, though, the loss served as motivation that resulted in a Pro Bowl season.
"I’m glad for the lessons that I’ve learned throughout that game," he said, "and really throughout the three years that I’ve been playing so far. Without failure, people don’t know success."
But failure is a relative term, especially when comparing the early careers of Allen and his 2018 draft classmate. He and Darnold became friends during the draft process and still text one another. While Darnold certainly doesn’t begrudge Allen’s success, rest assured he hopes to someday enjoy the same advantages Allen has had in this early part of his career.
Beane delivered Allen something Darnold never enjoyed: an elite receiver. He dealt a first-round pick to the Vikings for Stefon Diggs, who immediately became Allen’s go-to receiver. Diggs led the NFL in catches (127) and yards (1,535) with eight touchdown receptions to add an explosive dimension to the Bills’ attack that hadn’t been there since Kelly’s famed K-Gun offense of the 1990s.
Now Allen gets to see if that added dimension can help him in his pursuit of turning the disappointment of last year’s playoff loss into a win on Saturday — and perhaps more after that.
"I think the main lesson was not to press, understanding the situation we were in," Allen said. "[But] I was able to learn a lot from it and hopefully carry that playoff experience into Saturday’s game."
COMING OF AGE
Josh Allen’s break-out season:
Comp. %: 69.2
QB rating: 107.2