When Kyle Allen declared for the NFL draft with one year of eligibility left at the University of Houston in early 2018, the response was mostly some variation on, “um, okay?” Allen’s college football career wasn’t exactly distinguished.
The quarterback was a five-star recruit out of high school, considered perhaps the best pro-style prospect in the nation. Kevin Sumlin, who led Texas A&M in 2014 as he sought a replacement for Johnny Manziel, convinced him to take his arm to College Station. As a true freshman, Allen claimed the starting job midway through the season. He was impressive—especially relative to the unranked program’s expectations—and entered 2015 as an entrenched starter.
That season didn’t go as planned, though. After a 5-0 start, Allen backslid—he threw three pick-sixes against Alabama, and posted a 35% passer rating against Ole Miss. Sumlin, looking for a spark, turned to Kyler Murray as his starting quarterback. The two went on to trade starts for A&M that season, without much success—in the final eight games of the year, they went 3-5—before both transferring to other schools.
Allen landed at the University of Houston, attracted to the idea of playing with the Cougars’ then-head coach Tom Herman. Per NCAA rules, he sat out the 2016 season, then emerged as the team’s starter in 2017. He lasted three games in that role, before being benched once again. He made sporadic appearances off the bench as a Cougar that season, then declared for the 2018 NFL Draft—where he was not selected. Before the start of the season, he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Carolina Panthers.
When Allen decided to go pro, his prospects were not widely lauded. Houston sports blog House of Houston wrote about the decision with the headline: “Why Kyle Allen’s NFL Draft decision is perplexing,” tracing how little he had for NFL scouts to look at.
The fact that Allen went undrafted wasn’t a surprise—but what’s happened in Carolina since then is. He spent time in 2018 on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster following an injury to starter Cam Newton. In the last game of the season—following an injury to Newton’s primary backup—Allen made his first NFL start. He acquitted himself well in a meaningless game, passing for two touchdowns and rushing for a third in a win over the playoff-bound New Orleans Saints’ backups.
The win did snap the Panthers’ losing streak, though, and Allen impressed brass enough that they rode into the 2019 season with him as Newton’s primary backup. And after a rough start to the season, Newton—who’d been playing through shoulder and foot injuries—sat out in week three against the Arizona Cardinals. In his stead, Allen suited up (opposite his former teammate/foil Kyler Murray, the top overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft)—and tossed four touchdowns in a 38-20 win.
Those were the first four touchdown passes the Panthers completed all season, and so it’s no surprise that instead of rushing Newton back to the field, they’ve decided to let him rest his foot and send Allen back to Houston to play against the Texans on Sunday. Now the Panthers are suddenly facing a mini-QB controversy. Allen looks great—he’s the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for six touchdowns and no interceptions in his first two starts (the other, also an undrafted free agent, was Hall of Famer Kurt Warner), with a bright future ahead of him. It’d have been unthinkable a year ago, but Cam Newton is now in a position where he might lose his job to Kyle Allen, even when he’s back up and running.
There’s a lot out there about the implications of this that we could unpack. The fantasy football consequences, what it means for a talented Panthers team’s 2019 season, if this is another example of people rooting for Newton to fail—but we’re wondering how y’all feel, Aggies and Cougars.
Allen never delivered on his potential as a college football player, and it’s rare that a college bust lands in the NFL as a star. Two games is an extremely small sample size, though, so it’s risky to anoint Allen right now. He had a lot of impressive games at A&M and Houston before doing things like tossing 3-4 interceptions in a single game and grinding his team’s hopes into the dust beneath his heel. Is his success with the Panthers an illusion?
There’s reason to believe it might be. Allen’s 5-0 start in 2015 was against schools like Ball State and unranked Nevada and Arkansas squads. When he took on Alabama and Ole Miss, he couldn’t compete. At Houston, he played great against Arizona and Rice, but blew it when he had to play Texas Tech. So far as an NFL starter, Allen played a Saints team that had already clinched its playoff berth and was starting backups. Then he overtook the NFL’s #30-ranked defense, the Arizona Cardinals—a team playing like the NFL equivalent of Ball State.
So there’s a version of this story that says that Allen’s finally cracked the game at the NFL level, and he’s on a Kurt Warner-like trajectory from unknown to future superstar. But there’s another one more familiar to fans of Allen’s Texas stops that says that this is just what the guy does: He plays well for a few games, and then ends up riding the bench after a miserable performance.
We don’t know yet if that’s how Kyle Allen’s NFL career will go. We might not find out this week, as Allen returns to Houston to take on a middling Texans defense. But either way, the question is whether Allen is for real, or if this is the same mirage that fans saw in College Station and at the University of Houston is one that he’ll try to answer on the field—at least for as long as Cam Newton can afford to rest his foot on the bench.