Bills' Josh Allen, Jets' Sam Darnold: Friendship before rivalry

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Selected four picks apart in the 2018 NFL draft, Josh Allen and Sam Darnold likely will be compared for the rest of their professional careers.

That's the norm for a pair of first-round quarterbacks who are driven by competition. That Allen's Buffalo Bills and Darnold's New York Jets are on similar trajectories makes it seem like the seeds of a budding rivalry have been planted.

Except they're not rivals. At least not by the public's definition.

Despite their different backgrounds and paths to the NFL, Darnold and Allen found commonalities and became friends in 2017 while staying in the same house during a summit hosted by quarterback coach Jordan Palmer. There, they adopted Palmer's definition of competition -- one that emphasizes pushing one another rather than being better than the other.

Allen and Darnold kept in contact only sporadically as rookies, but they attended the Masters golf tournament together in April. They say their friendship won't be changed even if they spend the next decade battling in the AFC East.


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The Bills and Jets open and close the season against each other, starting with Sunday's game at MetLife Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS). Allen is looking to improve his consistency after rushing for eight touchdowns and passing for 10 TDs with 12 interceptions. Darnold passed for 2,865 yards and 17 TDs with 15 interceptions, but he finished strong and will be working with new coach and playcaller Adam Gase in Year 2.

The stakes are high -- the Bills and Jets are fighting to overtake the New England Patriots, and their future success will be determined by these young quarterbacks. Their proximity adds impact to any comparisons. What won't be affected by Allen's and Darnold's on-field results, they say, is their friendship.

QBs 'just kind of met'

Allen's draft stock soared after his first season as a starter at Wyoming in 2016. He tied a school record for touchdowns in a single season at the only school that offered him a scholarship (technically, Eastern Michigan offered, but withdrew it soon after). ESPN NFL analyst Adam Schefter reported after the 2017 draft that a personnel director told him Allen would be the top overall pick in 2018.

But before Schefter's note thrust Allen into the national spotlight, he was a relatively unknown quarterback attending the Archie Griffin Award dinner in February 2017. That's where he first met the star of the evening, USC’s Darnold, who had won a Rose Bowl as a redshirt freshman and the Archie Griffin Award.

"They just invited the top college players to watch for the next season," Allen said. "Sam got, like, the biggest award possible and I was just [someone for them to say], 'Hey, watch this guy, too.'"

The future first-rounders "just kind of met," Darnold said, speaking briefly to each other before moving on. But the interaction he had with Darnold and his parents left an impression on Allen.

"Just talking with his parents, they were super down to earth, they were very interested in my story and where I came from," Allen said. “[Me and Sam] kind of jelled, we understood what position each was in. Obviously, he was a little bigger scale at USC."

A few months later, Palmer invited Allen, Darnold and then-Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham to a summit he hosts for youth football players. The trio stayed in the same house during the camp, where they worked as counselors and ultimately bonded over their upbringing.

Allen and Darnold are California natives, albeit from dramatically different parts of the state. Darnold grew up in San Clemente, a coastal city in Orange County halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego that has produced more professional surfers than football players. Allen was raised in Firebaugh, an agricultural town in central California.

Their similarities began not with their hometowns but rather their homes.

Josh's father, Joel, operated a farm, and Sam's father, Michael, worked as a medical gas plumber. They set examples of hard work, which stuck with their sons.

"His dad was always working just like my dad was always working," Allen said. "We got to see those two types of role models in our lives, who worked extremely hard to put their family first."

As Darnold put it, their friendship grew at the summit and they have remained good friends. Good enough to return to Palmer the following year to train during the NFL draft process. They rented a house with fellow NFL prospect and now-Carolina Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen, right off the beach in San Clemente -- or, as Josh calls it, "Sam Clemente."

The close quarters ensured the competition extended beyond the football field and into video games, where Kyle reigned supreme at Fortnite and Josh dominated anything sports-related.

"Sam's not really the king of anything, video game-wise," Josh said.

As the draft process continued, the narratives surrounding each player shifted. Pundits insisted Josh Allen, after a scrutinized final season at Wyoming, had fallen behind Darnold, who guided USC to a Pac-12 championship.

"When we got in the draft setting and every day on the news is, 'Sam Darnold's going to be the No. 1 pick and Josh Allen's a bust, here's why,'" Palmer said. "And it's just me, Sam and Josh sitting on the couch -- it's never awkward. It's not weird; it is what it is.

"Sam says, 'Man, that's bulls---,' and Josh says, 'I'm gonna prove them wrong,' and they both try and do that."

'A vacancy of jealousy'

Unlike in the NBA, where many players are close friends off the court, Palmer -- who played eight NFL seasons -- said he has rarely seen quarterbacks with the type of relationship Josh, Sam and Kyle have been able to develop.

"The NBA is an interesting perspective on it, because I think the reason you do see a lot of camaraderie off the court is because there's also a lot of settings where they play with each other," he said. "Then in the offseason, they work out in the same place. For a long time in the NFL, quarterbacks might've thrown a little bit in the offseason together, but it still can be adversarial.

"When I was playing, I would throw down in San Diego and you'd have my brother [Carson] and Drew Brees and Aaron [Rodgers] and a couple different guys -- but they weren't living together, you know?"

As Josh Allen's and Darnold's futures were compared, it didn't affect the way they competed. Neither is willing to concede defeat -- whether on the field, PlayStation or the golf course -- but there are too few people in the world who can relate to their line of work to waste relationships with bitter rivalries.

Palmer preaches that approach to competition: "I take the original approach to the word -- I'm going to compete with you. I don't have to be better at everything than you, but I'm going to use whatever you've got to get the best out of myself. If we both do that, then the sky is the limit and we'll both get what we want. But if I just beat you, then I'm not necessarily reaching my potential."

Said Josh: "When we were throwing, we wanted to compete and throw better than the other person. It was a friendly rivalry, for sure. When we got on the board, we wanted to explain things better, we wanted to know more [than the other person]. Every day, it was like we were pushing each other."

Though Darnold went to a Power 5 school, was drafted higher (No. 3 overall, four spots ahead of Allen) and landed in one of the world's most visible markets, Allen never let the draft process affect their friendship.

Once they entered the NFL, Allen received the most praise from critics, changing games with his scrambling. He won five of his 11 starts, becoming the first NFL quarterback to rush for at least 95 yards in three consecutive games (Weeks 12–14) and setting a league record for most rushing yards by a QB in a three-game span (335) during that same stretch.

If Allen's star continues to shine, Palmer believes Darnold will handle it the same way Allen handled the draft process.

"During the draft process ... I think Sam watching Josh not be bothered by that, not get jealous, not get moved by it at all, speaks volumes about Josh but also puts Sam in a position where he probably won't ever be jealous," Palmer said.

"There's just a vacancy of jealousy."


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Darnold did secure some bragging rights of his own. After missing the first meeting against Buffalo with a foot injury, one of his four victories last season was against Allen and the Bills on Dec. 9.

Allen shook hands with Darnold after the Jets' 27-23 win, but he couldn't get the game-sealing interception he threw out of his head. It didn't help that Darnold orchestrated a game-winning drive minutes before, highlighted by a picture-perfect 37-yard pass to put the Jets in the red zone.

After the game, Allen and Darnold exchanged the customary pleasantries and darted out of the colder-than-usual Buffalo weather.

Still, game recognizes game, and Darnold's throw deserved praise.

"That was a dime," Allen texted Darnold from the locker room.

Shortly after, his phone buzzed with Darnold's reply: "New phone, who this?"

Allen thought Darnold was jabbing him. He wasn't -- he'd really just gotten a new phone.

Still competitors

Two meetings each season should in theory provide plenty of opportunities for friendly jabs, but don't expect Allen and Darnold to talk much this week.

"No, can't do that," Darnold said, smiling. "Definitely after. Maybe after Week [17] when we play them last."

Though these young QBs put their friendship before their rivalry, the reality of playing in the same division is always there.

"It's fun to think about," Darnold said. "Even on draft night we talked about it a little bit -- jokingly. But now that it's actually here, it's very serious. We're both very competitive people."

Palmer knows deep down the competitive juices are always flowing.

"Make no mistake about it," he said, "they both want to go 2-0 versus the other guy."

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were evaluated against one another throughout their careers. Nobody is comparing Allen or Darnold to either future Hall of Famer, but Allen hopes for the same treatment in time.

"I'd say most of the rivalries are media-produced," Allen said. "Tom and Peyton got along, but in the media's eyes it was, 'They can't stand each other, and every time they play each other it's a blood bath.' That just wasn't the case.

"For mine and Sam's sake, I hope that's how it is between us. I hope the media does that, because that means we're playing well and we're playing for a long time."