Undrafted to undefeated: The five acts of Kyle Allen’s career

Every quarterback this side of Peyton Manning has fought through doubters, shrugged off criticism, bet on himself. But it’s unlikely you’re going to find a bigger all-in gamble that has paid off quite like that of Carolina Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen. Plenty of players plunge from the mountaintop into the valley, but very few of them climb their way out of it back up to an even higher mountaintop.

Let’s take a ride through Allen’s life. See how long you think you would’ve ridden this roller coaster.

Act I: Desert Mountain High School

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Allen, the youngest of three children, grew up in Arizona around big-time college football; his father Mike, a local CPA, was involved with the Fiesta Bowl for many years. As a kid, Kyle had dinner with notables like Urban Meyer and experienced the full college football experience during bowl season. It was about this time when one of the key tales of the Kyle Allen legend took place: the Roger Staubach autograph incident.

Mike Allen knew Roger Staubach through some connections at Navy. Since Kyle wore No. 12, Staubach’s number, on his Pop Warner football team, Mike asked for a Staubach autograph. The Cowboys legend complied, sending an autographed photo that read, “To Kyle, a friend, Roger Staubach.”

Kyle turned right around and sent back a photo of himself, inscribed thusly:

“To Roger, a friend, Kyle Allen”

It’s here that the family takes diverge. Kyle has said the autograph was a manifestation of his ego — or, as he put it, “my cocky, 10-year-old butt” — while Mike insists it was much more of a gentle joke. Either way, the kid did not lack for self-confidence.

A multi-sport athlete as a kid, young Kyle ditched baseball in the eighth grade to focus on football. He popped up on the radar of Tony Tabor, then the head coach at Desert Mountain High School.

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“He was kind of one of those kids that you pinch yourself when you meet him,” Tabor says. “Like, ‘What’s wrong here?’ He worked hard in the weight room, he was a leader, his parents didn’t bother us to play him.”

Kyle would go on to throw for more than 8,000 yards and 86 touchdowns at Desert Mountain High School, where one of his favorite targets was current Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews. Even early on, he showed flashes of the fire that would carry him to the NFL.

Kyle Allen was the top-rated pro-style quarterback coming out of high school. (Photo courtesy of the Allen family)
Kyle Allen was the top-rated pro-style quarterback coming out of high school. (Photo courtesy of the Allen family)

“We were playing Mesa Mountain View in the first game of the season,” Tabor recalls. “Kyle threw an interception. Most kids who throw an interception make an effort to kind of get in the way [of the defender], but not really tackle. Kyle was so mad he just went and blasted that kid. I remember pulling him aside and saying, ‘Son, that’s a great play. Don’t ever do it again.’ ”

As a rising junior, Kyle stood 6-foot-1, and his father began hustling for scholarships on his behalf. Mike Allen told one Ivy League coach that Kyle would grow another couple inches, and the coach’s face fell; as soon as Kyle Allen hit 6-2, every recruiter in the country would be all over him. And that’s exactly what happened.

“I talked to everybody on the planet that year,” Tabor recalls. “Guys like Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin were calling me. I don’t know how, if I was Kyle, I would handle that publicity. But he really kept it together, worked hard, and I don’t feel like he looked past the [Desert Mountain] football team to the next level.”

He earned a five-star Rivals designation, and was ranked the best pro-style quarterback and the seventh overall player in his class. Checking the list today is like getting an early preview of the NFL draft; Kyle Allen ranks just behind notable names like Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers and Leonard Fournette and ahead of Joe Mixon, Sony Michel, Dalvin Cook and Deshaun Watson.

“It was a great time of life,” Mike Allen recalls. “He was doing camps like Elite 11, and I was basically his travel agent and his administrator. It was fun to watch him and be his assistant. We’d go to universities, and I’d sit out in the lobby and let him go talk to the coaches.”

With the country at his feet, Allen’s decision came down to five teams: Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and UCLA. Ultimately, he decided to roll the dice and go with Texas A&M — reasoning that he’d like to play against tough SEC defenses — and he announced his intentions in a since-deleted tweet:

"I will be playing my college football for Coach Sumlin at TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY!! GIG EM!!”

Then-head coach Kevin Sumlin had reason to celebrate, too:

Spoiler: The good feelings wouldn’t last.

Act II: Texas A&M

Kyle Allen was the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country. But at A&M, he’d be stepping into Texas-sized cleats. Johnny Manziel had just taken his Heisman and his hell-raising to the NFL, leaving behind a swath of legend and destruction that no three quarterbacks could match.

As a true freshman in 2014, Allen got the chance to compete for the starting job with Kenny “Trill” Hill, but lost out in the preseason. But when Hill got waxed 59-0 against Auburn, the Trill was gone, so to speak, as Sumlin opened up the starting job competition again.

Allen sought out A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, now the head coach at Texas State, asking if the starting opportunity was really on the table.

“Yeah, it is,” Spavital replied.

“Good,” Allen said, “because I’m going to try to go get it.”

Kyle Allen's time at Texas A&M was effectively shortened after throwing three pick-6's against Alabama. (AP)
Kyle Allen's time at Texas A&M was effectively shortened after throwing three pick-6's against Alabama. (AP)

He got it, all right. He started his first game against Louisiana-Monroe, then led A&M to a landmark win over Auburn on the Plains, throwing for 277 yards and four TDs. He took down Liberty Bowl MVP honors after the Aggies defeated West Virginia, and finished the season with 16 touchdowns, seven interceptions and 1,322 yards.

You’d think that kind of performance would be enough to guarantee him a starting job for the 2015 season and onward into perpetuity. And you’d be right … if not for Alabama.

Allen led A&M to five straight victories to open 2015. But in the sixth game, Allen threw three pick-6’s in a loss to Alabama, then couldn’t manage a single touchdown the next week in a loss to Ole Miss. That was enough for Sumlin to bench Allen in favor of another highly touted freshman: a kid named Kyler Murray. The future No. 1 overall draft pick threw for 223 yards and rushed for 156 more in his first game, a win over South Carolina, accounting for two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Allen would get the ball back, but he knew how this would all play out. The final play of his career at Texas A&M, he got knocked out of the game in a loss to LSU. Again via Twitter, Allen announced his intention to transfer from Texas A&M on Dec. 10, 2015:

“He made great friends at A&M. It was an amazing and wonderful place, and leaving it was really hard on him,” Mike Allen recalls. “In so many ways, [leaving] was the start that’s provided him with what he needed to get where he is now. He learned that everything doesn’t always go your way, even when you’re getting recruited by everybody and you’ve got your head full of that.”

Shortly after Allen announced his intention to transfer, then-Houston coach Tom Herman reached out. This was when Houston was in the midst of its landmark 13-1 season, and Allen watched with interest as Houston decimated Florida State in the Peach Bowl that New Year’s Eve. He liked what he saw, and figured that he could do some real damage with this team.

Spoiler: He couldn’t.

Act III: University of Houston

Allen, intrigued about the possibility of playing for Herman, committed to Houston, but not without a parting shot at A&M. In an interview with CBS Sports, he noted that the “culture” at A&M was a problem, and he knew why: “The way that they let Johnny and [others] act there,” he told Sports Illustrated in early 2016. “They [could] do that and still win games because they had Johnny … and five offensive linemen playing in the NFL right now.”

The Manziel Effect derailed A&M, Allen contended. “A lot of people were riding off that, ‘I can do whatever the hell I want and win on Saturday,’ ” he said. “Everyone wasn’t in a straight line. Everyone was going this way, this way, this way. We had a ton of talent there. I think that, once you get all the right coaches there and get the vision right, you can do a lot of things.”

Allen’s journey then continued at Houston, where he was forced to sit out a year because of the NCAA’s redshirt rules. He loaded up on classes to give himself maximum flexibility should Herman decide to leave. Even though he wasn’t eligible to play in 2016, Allen worked out with the Cougars and delivered a speech before the Las Vegas Bowl to fire up his future charges.

Herman did indeed leave Houston, bolting for Texas, but Allen opted to stay. He had locked down the starting job, but lost it after three games to Kyle Postma, which is as strange as it sounds. Even stranger, Allen decided he’d had enough of college and declared for the 2018 NFL draft. Yes, even though he’d lost his job to Kyle Postma.

Kyle Allen's time at the University of Houston did not last long. (AP)
Kyle Allen's time at the University of Houston did not last long. (AP)

“It surprised me,” Mike Allen says. “But these were his decisions. He would talk to us about what he was doing. But he was clear that he wanted to bet on himself.”

“His arm talent was never in question,” says Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm. “People still remembered his pedigree as one of the best recruits. But it was hard to fathom him suddenly becoming an NFL prospect beyond ‘camp arm.’ "

Allen worked out with Jordan Palmer, brother of Carson, at Palmer’s QB Summit camp in Capistrano, California. He shared a house with Sam Darnold and Josh Allen, and together they did yoga on the beach, they learned the nuances of football in a classroom environment, they worked out at JSerra Catholic High School.

It was a wise move on Allen’s part. There’s only a narrow three-month period in a quarterback’s life when he can focus entirely on his own development — not game planning, not preparation, just himself: those three months between the last bowl game and the NFL draft. And that’s when Palmer caught Kyle Allen, teaching him how to read defenses by using poker chips.

“Those two guys [Darnold and Josh Allen] knew they were going to be drafted to be franchise quarterbacks immediately,” Palmer says. “[Kyle] saw that there were things that he did better than them. There were things that they did better than him. But he realized he belonged with them.”

Even as Darnold and Josh Allen met with teams up and down the draft board, Kyle Allen couldn’t draw any looks. He didn’t get an invite to the scouting combine, and a private workout with Seattle didn’t lead to a pick.

“Evaluators have so many players they’re looking at that they’ll just write off anybody who doesn’t measure up at first glance,” Palmer says. “It’s not like his stats jumped out at you. There was nothing physically overwhelming about him. He did not play great at Houston, he was benched at A&M. He looked really good, but not exceptional. I don’t fault them a bit for letting him slip through the cracks.”

Even so, there was something about Allen that intrigued analysts who dug a little deeper. "There was just this strange, out-of-nowhere buzz for a guy who had barely attempted 100 passes his last year,” Edholm recalls. “I heard [New Orleans Saints coach] Sean Payton worked him out but could never verify it. There was even talk Allen could be a Day 3 pick.”

Then came draft day. Darnold went third overall. Josh Allen came off the board seventh overall. Kyle Allen … well, he didn’t come off the board at all. After all his work, after all his accolades, after all his travel through two programs … he went undrafted.

But to hear Mike Allen tell it, this wasn’t a case of Kyle sitting in front of the TV, despondent, as silent friends and family awkwardly made excuses to leave. No, Kyle invited in friends from all over and turned draft weekend into a celebration.

“He knew it was very likely he wasn’t going to get drafted,” Mike Allen says. “We played golf, and we came back to the house and had a big party.” And then, the moment the draft ended, Kyle’s phone lit up.

The Panthers were looking for a backup QB, someone able to learn and lead an offense quickly. Would Kyle Allen be that guy?

Spoiler: Eventually.

Kyle Allen celebrates during the Carolina Panthers' win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Oct. 13, 2019, in London. (Getty Images)
Kyle Allen celebrates during the Carolina Panthers' win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Oct. 13, 2019, in London. (Getty Images)

Act IV: Carolina Panthers

“When I’m looking at a quarterback, I want to know if there’s a pattern of facing adversity,” Palmer says. “When someone has proven that they’ve overcome adversity, that says something. If they can self-generate confidence, without having to be told how great they are, that says something. You can have all the arm talent in the world, but if you can’t handle adversity, it’s not going to work.”

Allen spent the summer of 2018 doing the waiver-wire dance. He signed with the Panthers, then got waived. Signed with the Jets, then got waived. Spent the summer back in Scottsdale, working out with high school teammates and even, on one occasion, Cardinals receiver and old friend Christian Kirk.

Finally, the day before Halloween, he signed with the Panthers again, and this time, it stuck. As the Panthers chewed through quarterbacks, Allen moved up notch after notch. He made his NFL debut against the Falcons when second-string QB Taylor Heinecke hit the turf, and turned in a respectable first effort, going 4-for-4 for 38 yards.

By the season’s final game, against the Saints, the Panthers were on a seven-game losing skid, a face plant that had detonated their playoff chances and torpedoed their season. Allen got the start for an utterly meaningless game — New Orleans was going through the motions in preparation for the playoffs, and Carolina had ejected weeks before — and turned the emergency start into a career audition.

Allen started the game with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, leading Carolina to a 23-0 halftime lead. Before leaving the game with an injury, he’d thrown for two touchdowns and run for a third, leading Carolina to a 33-7 victory that meant nothing in the standings but everything to Allen’s future. Panthers coaches told him to work out and bulk up in the offseason. Allen knew that meant he’d have a chance in 2019, and that was all he needed.

And then came 2019, and the Cam debate. Newton started the season for Carolina, but clearly wasn’t anywhere close to 100 percent. His throws were offline, and his arm strength appeared in question. He’d lost eight straight starts, including the first two of this season, throwing nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions over that span.

So when Newton went down with a Lisfranc injury, in stepped Allen— he’d beefed up from 206 pounds to 220, and he proceeded to rip off four straight impressive games heading into the Week 7 bye. He’s thrown for 901 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions, albeit with seven fumbles. Even so, he’s winning praise for his preparation … almost as if, you know, he’d been preparing for this all his life.

“He’s a very bright quarterback and he understands the game,” head coach Ron Rivera said of Allen. “He grasps it very well. He’s got a good arm, good decision-maker. He plays fast. All the intangibles you’re looking for in a quarterback.”

So why is it all clicking for Allen? The typical M.O. for a backup quarterback pressed into service due to injury involves slimming down the playbook and narrowing the focus on it, avoiding a leap off a cliff by edging the offense along at a crawl.

But Palmer sees it another way. To him, this success is the natural outcome of both preparation and the right system for Allen’s skills — a system that utilizes Allen’s “touch and anticipation” while giving him room to make his own decisions and recover from his own miscues.

“Successful people get behind successful behaviors,” Palmer says. “He moves past mistakes really well.”

He cites Allen’s first game against Arizona, where Allen led the team on a 60-yard drive only to fumble in the red zone. “He went to the sideline,” Palmer says, “and he said to himself, ‘They haven’t stopped us yet. I stopped us.’ ” On his very next possession, Allen led the Panthers on a 75-yard touchdown drive en route to a 38-20 victory.

He’s also winning over his teammates, both by spreading the ball all over the field and by, you know, winning. “To get to this level at that position is a journey all in and of itself,” tight end Greg Olsen said shortly after Allen took over. “The moment’s not too big for him. He’s not somebody that we have to go out there and really handcuff and spoon-feed him the offense.”

Act V: ???

Could Kyle Allen — who couldn’t stick at Texas A&M or Houston, who couldn’t get a pity pick in the late stages of the NFL draft — finally find his place in football is at the very top? It’s not just possible, it’s happening.

There’s always been a pocket of Cam haters in the Panthers’ fan base, and the combination of Newton’s ineffectiveness and Allen’s ascent has given them more courage, and ammunition, than ever before. Suddenly the thought of trading Newton isn’t quite so absurd, and the idea of sticking with Allen is gaining traction in Panther Nation.

On one hand, there’s the superstitious element to consider; never change horses in midstream, never do anything to mess with a winning streak. But beyond that, there are both statistical concerns — Allen’s current run matches anything Newton has managed since his MVP days — and financial ones. Newton is slated to make $16.7 million this year and $19.1 million the next, the final year of his current deal. Allen, meanwhile, will make $495,000 this year and $585,000 next, and pivoting from Newton to Allen would fit right into that build-around-a-rookie-contract-quarterback method that’s helped Seattle, Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Rams reach the Super Bowl in recent years.

Allen is that rarest of unicorns in the NFL: a backup quarterback who doesn’t play like a backup. And if he keeps on this current trend line — he’ll get the start this weekend on the road against San Francisco — he won’t be a backup by any definition.

“If there's a lesson, it's that sometimes talent trumps everything,” Edholm says. “There was talk that Allen had it all physically as a prospect and not enough mentally, but those obviously have proven to be pretty faulty. It also shows what an inexact science this all is, and just how important opportunity and coaching are.”

____

Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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