“So this is the kid.”
That was the first thought that ran through Derek Anderson’s head when he met Josh Allen for the first time in October of 2018.
Anderson had first read about Allen in an ESPN article that appeared prior to the 2017 college football season, as Allen was heading into his junior year at Wyoming. That would wind up being Allen’s last season in Laramie, because that 6' 5" and 240-pound kid with a cannon for an arm, freakish speed and athletic ability for his size would forego his senior season to enter the NFL Draft.
Allen wound up being drafted seventh overall by the Bills in the 2018 NFL Draft. He started the season as the team’s backup to Nathan Peterman, but was thrust into the starting quarterback role after just one week.
Just a month later, the team signed the, then, 35-year-old Anderson. His job was to be a mentor for Allen. To help the young quarterback understand what it means to be the quarterback and leader of a team - on and off the field.
Think Bull Durham. Anderson was Crash Davis to Allen’s Nuke Laloosh, and when he finally saw the rookie on the field for the first time, Anderson, who was known for having a strong arm himself, was blown away.
“I was shocked at his ability to throw the ball,” Anderson told me by phone in an exclusive interview this week. “I haven’t seen many people who could throw that hard with that accuracy. Then I said to myself, ‘it all makes sense now.’”
Anderson could see why the Bills tapped Allen to be their franchise quarterback, and why it was so important for him to have someone to lean on and learn from.
“My job was to help him get ready. To prepare him week-in and week-out,” Anderson explained. “We aren’t just going to run plays at practice and go home. We are here to work,” he said to me as if he was back talking to Allen himself on a Wednesday morning getting ready for a game.
The veteran, who thought he might retire until he got the phone call from Bills general manager Brandon Beane, said he would impress upon Allen how important it was to always be on time, and to never be the last person to arrive at the facility or even into a meeting. Just those simple things would go a long way with his teammates in showing them that he was committed to doing what it took to help the team win, and to be their leader. He would tell Allen to meet him, where and when, and Allen always did.
“It didn’t take much,” Anderson said.
According to Anderson, who spoke from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, Allen never hesitated to ask questions. He wasn’t defensive or put-off by having someone like Anderson around or in his ear as some young, highly-drafted quarterbacks might be. He wasn’t insecure. More importantly, Allen asked the right questions. That was evident right away when Anderson stood on the sidelines for his first game as a member of the Bills in Houston. Anderson wasn’t even active or dressed in a uniform yet, but Allen would come off the field and ask him questions about what he was seeing with the Texans defense or what was happening on offense. Anderson had been with the team for only five days and still learning the offense himself. But he did whatever he could to help the rookie.
Coincidentally, that was the same game Allen points to where he feels he started to get more comfortable and things started slowing down for him. It was also the same game in which he hurt his elbow, causing him to miss four games.
It was Anderson who had to fill in for Allen while he was out. Two weeks later, on a Monday night against the New England Patriots, the 13-year veteran suffered a concussion and joined Allen on the inactive list for the next two games.
The team signed Matt Barkley, who was inserted as the starter just 10 days later and wound up leading the Bills to a 41-10 win on the road against the New York Jets. Even though Anderson was still “a little light-headed” when Barkley arrived, as he put it, he still credits Anderson for helping him get ready as quickly as he had to. Barkley also saw the impact Anderson had on Allen right away.
“He was just a cool vet in the room to have,” Barkley told me when asked about Anderson. “He wasn’t judging others, wasn’t acting like he knew everything, but was there to help, was there to encourage us, to push us, and was just a great teammate to have in that room. He’s been in football long enough to see both perspectives. He’s been a backup for long enough. He’s been a starter. He knows who he is and what he’s capable of. He knows he can play, but he also knew Josh was here and he’s a a rookie and he’s the future and whoever was playing at that time, whether it was me or Josh or whoever, he needed to help him.”
When Allen returned to the lineup, he seemed like a different quarterback. A more confident quarterback. A better quarterback. In his six games played prior to the injury, Allen averaged 138 yards passing, with two touchdowns and five interceptions. In the six games after he came back, he averaged 208 yards passing, with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. But it wasn’t just the stats that were changing for Allen.
“The injury allowed him to take a step back and take a look at things,” Anderson said. “There was no more rush. He saw more football. His practice habits improved. His tempo and communication got better. He started demanding more out of the other guys.”
The final book on Allen’s rookie season wasn’t particularly impressive on the stat sheet, but it showed an improving quarterback who now had the right people around him. The Bills recognized that, too, so they re-signed Anderson to another one-year contract, hoping he could keep helping to extract even more out of Allen. They also re-upped Barkley, wanting to keep the entire quarterback room together. Everyone was excited about being together and working together for a full offseason, with Anderson and Barkley helping Allen continue on his trajectory.
But something wasn’t right for Anderson. He was still dealing with some of the lingering effects of the concussion suffered two months before that. He had to contemplate his future and if he wanted to put himself at risk anymore, especially with three kids and a family to think about. The team was set to report for the start of their offseason workout program on April 15. Anderson wasn’t there, but it wasn’t a surprise to the Bills. The quarterback was upfront and honest with Beane about the situation, and he said Beane and the Bills understood and were very supportive and appreciative of him letting them know what was going on. The Bills made it an easier process, but that didn’t remove the emotions Anderson was feeling.
“I felt like I was letting them down,” he told me. “I was all-in and trained until the last minute. I had a blast the short time I was there, but my body, mentally, the concussion, I just couldn’t do it.”
Four months later, as his former team gets ready for the 2019 regular season, Anderson says he’s still having a hard time getting back to himself and still dealing with things that are, as he says, “unpleasant at times.”
“It was a hard decision,” he said of retiring. “But the right one.”
That decision led the Bills to have to find another quarterback to add to the room, and another veteran mentor for Allen. They signed the University at Buffalo’s Tyree Jackson after the draft, and hired Ken Dorsey to be the team’s new quarterback coach, taking over for David Culley, who left for the Baltimore Ravens.
Anderson knows Dorsey well. The two were teammates on the Cleveland Browns from 2006 to 2008. Then Dorsey was his quarterback coach in Carolina from 2013 to 2017. Anderson says Dorsey will be great for Allen and that “he won’t settle for average or worse.”
Anderson can feel good that he had a little something to do with Allen’s progress Orlovsky pointed out in the video. Some will always recognize that he was responsible for a part of Allen’s early development. But as years go on, most won’t. But that’s not what’s most important to Anderson when it comes to how he wants his 13-year career to be remembered.