Ready or not, making Josh Allen the starter raises stakes for Bills

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- It is not uncommon to see Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula at practice, but his presence at Wednesday's session had an unmistakable undertone: He almost certainly was there to get his latest up-close look at rookie quarterback Josh Allen ahead of his NFL starting debut Sunday.

The Bills announced Wednesday that Allen will be the starter against the Los Angeles Chargers, which means there is more on the line sooner for the No. 7 overall draft pick and, by extension, those who made him the highest-drafted quarterback in franchise history.

Pegula and general manager Brandon Beane kept a close eye on Allen's warm-ups less than an hour following coach Sean McDermott's announcement that Allen will continue to lead Buffalo's offense after replacing Nathan Peterman in the third quarter of Sunday's season-opening loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

McDermott said Wednesday he will "go to his grave" believing he made the right call in starting Peterman to begin the regular season, but history will not judge McDermott as much for his decisions about Peterman than for those about Allen.

Allen is the centerpiece of the Bills' plan to build a long-term contender. Most general managers and many head coaches who fail when hand-picking a quarterback near the top of a draft don't get the opportunity to make the same mistake twice.

On Wednesday, the stakes rose more quickly than expected for both McDermott, who was involved in the pre-draft evaluation of Allen and is responsible for when he plays, and Beane, who had the final say in selecting Allen.

Had the Bills stuck with Peterman -- or had they not traded AJ McCarron to the Oakland Raiders at the end of the preseason -- and the results were merely not disastrous through a grueling schedule the first half of the season, McDermott could have made a more natural progression to Allen with the focus on developing him to be the full-time starter in 2019 rather than trying to maintain postseason hopes in 2018.

Instead, Peterman's performance Sunday was so dreadful -- he was 5-for-18 for 24 yards and two interceptions in a 47-3 defeat -- that McDermott was all but forced to turn to Allen with 15 games remaining in the season and making the playoffs still the primary goal. McDermott stressed Wednesday that Allen is still a young quarterback who will suffer growing pains, but those will now be on full display -- not simply behind the scenes on the practice field -- as some fans yearn for both discernible progress from Allen and winning. In Allen's limited debut Sunday, he was 6-for-15 for 74 yards and was sacked three times.

There are benefits to the approach of starting Allen almost immediately, even if it is more out of necessity than strategy. The on-the-job experience for Allen will be more valuable than watching from the sidelines, and if the Bills indeed did strike gold with their selection, he could emerge the way Carson Wentz did in 2016 for the Philadelphia Eagles and put the Bills back in the AFC playoff conversation.

It's more likely that Allen -- a starter for just two college seasons at Wyoming -- will resemble most young quarterbacks who take time to adjust to the professional game, and he could struggle to claw the Bills out of the NFL's basement. Results in such cases can be delayed. Jared Goff, selected first overall in 2016 before Wentz, did not play until the final seven games of his rookie season, completing 55 percent of his passes for five touchdowns and seven interceptions. Goff also had seven interceptions in his second season -- along with 28 touchdowns. He led the Rams to their first division title in 14 years.

If Allen stumbles, it would not put Beane's or McDermott's job in jeopardy. Both have been engaged in a Jenga-like rebuilding of the Bills since their arrivals last year, making successive changes to players and staff while still attempting to field a competitive team. The strategy worked last season in getting Buffalo to a 9-7 record and its first postseason appearance since 1999, earning Beane and McDermott plenty of slack to remain in their jobs for the foreseeable future.

However, Allen will face a lot of challenging moments at a very early point in his career, likely earlier than McDermott anticipated as part of his "calculated" plan for introducing Allen to the NFL.

When he was drafted by the Bills in April, Allen acknowledged Beane and McDermott "stuck their neck out for me" while adding, "Now it's my chance to go prove and make sure that they look like they [made] the right move by trading up for me."

Opinions about whether the Bills made the right move will begin to form Sunday when all eyes at New Era Field -- from Pegula in the owners' box to fans in the far reaches of the upper deck -- will be on Allen.