Bills quarterback Josh Allen has turned hurdling into art. But is it a good idea?
The NFL career of Josh Allen has reached a crossroads.
In fact, it’s a specific intersection in the middle of Buffalo, N.Y, where Wellington Road meets Hertel Avenue. There, a local artist has changed the street sign to read “Hurdle,” and mounted a cutout of the Bills star quarterback bounding over it.
It’s an homage to the spectacular play the 6-foot-5 Allen made Sunday in a road victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, when he rolled to his right and spread-eagled over the attempted low tackle of Chiefs safety Justin Reid.
For Allen, it was a case of Reid and react.
“Just trying to make a play for our team,” the quarterback explained.
Leaping over a defender in the open field is risky and exceedingly uncommon, especially for a quarterback. But by his father’s count, Allen did it once in junior college, twice at Wyoming and four times since the Bills drafted him seventh overall in 2018.
Joel Allen, who was at Arrowhead Stadium for the game, said it was the first time his son hurdled a defender and kept running, as opposed to losing his footing and falling to the turf. The quarterback landed and was pitched forward for a few strides before tumbling out of bounds.
“I’d give him a 10 out of 10 on that one,” said the elder Allen, a farmer in the San Joaquin Valley town of Firebaugh. “It sends a clear message to your teammates that ‘I’m gonna win it, no matter the cost it takes.’”
Last season, after Allen bounded over Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, the Buffalo neighborhood of Allentown was temporarily renamed “Josh Allentown” and a similar cutout of him was mounted over a wooden town placard.
NFL players who opt to leap over would-be tacklers are a rare breed. Pittsburgh running back Najee Harris has done it, as did former Rams tailback Todd Gurley, who successfully executed the occasional, well, “Gurdle.”
Russell Wilson couldn’t muster anything for the Denver Broncos in overtime against the Chargers. So what’s going on with the nine-time Pro Bowl player?
In truth, most ball carriers have an undeniable fear of flying.
“It looks cool on tape, but I believe in trying to stay on the ground as much as you can,” Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson said. “It still makes me kind of cringe when I see a guy hurdle.”
Said former Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers: “When I see these guys jump it makes me go, `Oh, my goodness!’ But Josh Allen is unbelievably athletic and can run. So the guys go to tackle him a little different than they would me. With him, they’re really more worried about getting run over.
“I always felt like a fish out of water in the open space and that I needed to get down as soon as possible.”
Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young said that although he never jumped over a defender, Allen has the athleticism and body type to mitigate the gamble of such a decision.
“I actually don’t think he’s that at risk as he does it,” Young said. “His whole body’s not six feet off the ground. If you talk about somebody who’s 5-8, they’re going to have to hurdle by having their whole body go six feet in the air.
“There are certain crash athletes that know how to get to the ground. Like skiers. They can ski their whole life and never get hurt because they know how to get to the ground. Other guys don’t and they blow their knee out or whatever. It’s so true on the football field; so many guys don’t know how to get to the ground.”
That said, even skilled hurdlers have been known to lose their attitude for altitude once they’ve strapped on the shoulder pads.
“Once you leave your feet you have no balance, no anything,” said Renaldo Nehemiah, the former San Francisco 49ers receiver who was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 110-meter high hurdles four years in a row.
“So if someone’s coming in your size or bigger at full speed, it could be ugly. That’s why I was really shocked that Josh Allen did it, the star player of that team. They could take out your knees, do a lot of things, and they would just be doing their job. Some guys would lick their chops at taking a shot at guys like that.”
Then again, Nehemiah played in the NFL from 1982 to 1984. The league was a different place.
“In the 1980s you wouldn’t dare to do that because the game was so violent and so dangerous,” Nehemiah said. “No, you wanted your feet underneath you. Today there are a lot of safeguards in the game as far as protecting players so players are a little bolder doing that. Can you imagine [Hall of Fame safety] Ronnie Lott coming to hit you when you’re in the air like that? It wouldn’t be pretty.”
There’s a difference between trying to hurdle someone and leaping over the top of a pile the way a running back might at the goal line or on a fourth and short. That was a signature tactic of Hall of Fame running backs Walter Payton and Marcus Allen, for instance.
“Really that’s more of a dive,” Dickerson said. “You’re going to land on bodies or land on the ground. Nine times out of 10 you’re going to land on somebody, so that one’s OK.”
That’s not to say those plays are layups. They’re scary too. Former NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew tried that once as a UCLA player and immediately took it out of his personal repertoire.
“I was playing San Diego State, it was my junior year first game,” he said. “Fourth and goal. I’ve never been a big jumper. I jumped a couple of times but I just never liked it. I don’t like to not have control.
“A lot of guys, they jump not understanding what may happen. I jumped over the line and scored the touchdown, and I got flipped. I landed on the back of my neck and I was like, yeah, that will never happen again.”
The Rams have an off week and opportunities to improve, but trading for Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is not the answer.
Beyond the physical peril, a leaping player often has a harder time holding on to the football. There’s a reason for that.
“When you jump, usually to get that kinetic energy you boom throw your arms up to try to explode and get more height,” longtime NFL fullback Lorenzo Neal said. “Think about jumping, you use your arms. That’s why when a lot of guys jump they fumble the ball.”
That hasn’t been a problem for Allen, who was remarkably smooth in his latest up-and-over adventure. Likewise fluid was CBS play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz, whose poetic call in the Chiefs game was: “Here comes Allen with the keep … and the leap!”
“It just popped into my brain,” Nantz said days later. “I don’t know how it popped in there, but it did. Then we just kept going.”
Like Allen, he stuck the landing.
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