What a difference one game can make.
Brandon Allen came to the Cincinnati Bengals as an insurance policy. He was third on the depth chart, behind rookie starter Joe Burrow and backup Ryan Finley.
Allen, a fifth-year player out of Arkansas, responded in his usual workmanlike manner. The results weren’t too bad, either. Allen had completed 55 of 84 (65%) of his passes for 506 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions in his first three starts.
In his third game against the Dallas Cowboys, Allen suffered a knee injury that would eventually sideline him for Cincinnati’s Week 15 upset victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Finley somehow managed to keep the Bengals’ offense above water in that game, but the coaching staff wanted to turn back to Allen for the remainder of the season.
In Allen’s first game back, he caught fire. He hit on 29 of 37 passes (78.4%) for 371 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 37-31 shootout win over the Houston Texans.
Just how much of a difference did this game make?
It was good enough for a Pro Football Focus grade of 91.0, the highest by any Bengals quarterback all season, including Burrow. And it also earned him the FedEx Air NFL Player of the Week Award.
Never the kind to let success go to his head, though, Allen took all of the accolades with a grain of salt. Was this the best game of his career?
“Yeah,” Allen said after the game. “I think I’ve had a couple bad games too, so I’ll take this with a grain of salt and just keep trying to get better.”
How good was Allen against the Texans? With seven minutes left in the first half, he found A.J. Green for a 33-yard reception, then followed that up with a pass to Tee Higgins that gained 30 yards. In the second half, he hit Higgins for 31 yards, then found Alex Erickson for a gain of 42 yards before hitting Higgins with a 20-yard scoring strike, all in one series.
“Brandon was locked in from the first snap,” Higgins told ESPN’s Ben Baby after the game. “You could tell the way he was communicating with the guys in the middle of a play, on the sideline when the defense was on the field. He was just being that vocal guy you want running the offense.”
The evidence was clear. The Bengals had found a quarterback who would be able to backup Burrow for the foreseeable future.
In his first four starts, Allen had passed for 877 yards with five touchdowns and only two interceptions. His completion percentage (69.4%), yards per attempt (7.2), touchdown percentage (4.1%) and even sack percentage (5.5%) were all better than Burrow.
“I’m glad we’ve got Brandon,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “He’s done a great job for us, particularly in these last two games he’s played. Those decisions are decisions we’ll make in the offseason.”
But, oh, what a difference one game can make. Again.
Against Baltimore, in the final game of the season, the literal bottom fell out. Allen completed just 6 of 21 passes (28.6%) for an average of only 2.3 yards per completion. After his two interceptions, his passer rating bottomed out at 0.0 and his QBR was a minuscule 3.1.
“That’s just this league—it’s going to be tight-window throws and contested catches,” Allen said after the game. “I can definitely help our receivers out by making better throws to get them open. It’s just how this league is—tough—and I’ll definitely learn from this game and get better.”
The question now is whether he will have an opportunity to get better in Cincinnati, or elsewhere.
Allen finished the season by completing 90 of 142 passes (63.4%) for 952 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions. His final passer rating of 82.0 would have put him at No. 29 on a list of the top 35 quarterbacks of 2020, ahead of names like Alex Smith, Sam Darnold and Carson Wentz and just behind Burrow and Andy Dalton.
All in all, not a bad showing. But will it be enough for the Bengals to conclude that Allen is the insurance policy they need? We will soon see for ourselves.