BUFFALO, N.Y. — First, they touch pinkie and index fingers. Then they lock hands, swipe through each other’s arms, tap each other’s backs, bring their arms down to put their finger guns into air holsters and, finally, shoot the guns in the air.
The handshake between the Buffalo Bills quarterback and his No. 1 wide receiver has adapted over time. The teammates do it so quickly and instinctually at this point that it can be hard to break down what’s actually happening. The taps on the back symbolize that they always have each other’s backs.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) August 21, 2021
It’s one of Allen’s more elaborate handshakes he has with his teammates. And the fourth-year quarterback has had oh, so many since he first came into the league in 2018.
He has one for every offensive teammate and goes through them at least once before games, and he surely will again before Sunday’s divisional-round matchup at the Kansas City Chiefs (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS). But Allen’s belief that handshakes bring teammates closer together and establish connections exemplifies several of the quarterback’s hallmarks: his role as a leader that he has stepped into even further this season, impressive memory skills and that finger gun-wagging personality.
“This is a big, goofy-ass dude at quarterback,” Buffalo safety Jordan Poyer said to teammate Levi Wallace while miked up on the sideline of Saturday’s wild-card playoff win versus the New England Patriots. “They have zero idea how goofy he is … I love him to death.”
The necessary skill set
Before practice begins, Allen goes around the huddle and does his “antics” with the offensive starters, as tight end Dawson Knox describes it. Left side of the line to the right, wide receivers and running backs. They embody the fun-loving way some teammates view him, with Knox saying he wished he had known his quarterback in college, “Back when you could go hang out after a Saturday night win.”
So the first thing you need is a playful side. But Allen’s why for the handshakes goes beyond having fun.
“It just gives you that little connection with every guy on the team that you have a handshake with and just to let them know that you care for him, you appreciate him and vice versa,” Allen said. “It’s just a little tiny tidbit of something you could do to help relationships on the team.”
Those handshakes have been part of Allen’s routine since before his rookie season when he was drafted seventh overall out of the University of Wyoming, when he was back in Firebaugh, California.
“I don’t know how they even do those handshakes,” said Alex Gutierrez, Allen’s baseball and quarterbacks coach at Firebaugh High School.
Gutierrez has known Allen since he was 8. He noted that Allen, who played football, basketball and baseball in high school, had certain handshakes he would do with teammates, always finding different ways to have fun.
“Even with the coaches, he was always joking around at times,” Gutierrez said. “Even though you didn’t know he was doing something in the background, he was doing something in the background.”
Another trait fundamental to handshake success? A strong memory.
Allen was known in high school for dropping movie quotes in the middle of conversations. He said his mind thinks in “movies, in Vines and in GIFs.” Of course, it helps any quarterback to be able to retain an extensive amount of information for his job.
Some of his handshakes and touchdown celebrations with teammates over the years have been inspired from movies, such as recreating a scene from “Hot Rod” with Knox to celebrate a score.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) May 19, 2021
But not even his teammates understand how he keeps them all straight in his head.
“I’ve only got a couple [of handshakes], a couple with the receivers, a couple with Josh,” Knox said. “So it’s a lot easier for me to remember than [him], but it wouldn’t surprise me if he, like, goes and practices at home. It’s something I could see him doing.”
Well, does he? Is there a handshake mastery class taking place in the Allen household each week?
“No comment,” Allen said. “I’ll never share my secrets.”
‘You got to get your swag right’
It was veteran running back LeSean McCoy who helped take the handshake tradition to the next level during Allen’s rookie season.
“I think when I really got here it was Shady, LeSean McCoy, he was kind of the one that forced me to make a handshake with him,” Allen said. “Ever since then, it’s just kind of taken off.”
When McCoy first met the signal-caller in 2018, their only season as teammates, a few things jumped out. Allen was a big, physical kid with a big arm. But he needed some pizzazz.
“I’m like, ‘Josh, you will be a great player, man. You got to get your swag right,’” McCoy told ESPN. “You make all these highlight plays, but you don’t have the swag to go with it. After you score, you get a good play, you gotta have a handshake, you have a celebration.”
So, McCoy introduced different handshakes into his routines. They weren’t overly complex.
Slap hands two times, shake hands while jumping up in the air, check the time on your imaginary watch then slap arms. Or as McCoy said, “a lot of shaking hands, slapping hands, jumping up.”
McCoy, who retired in October, now watches Allen take what he pointed out to him and run with it.
“Man, he’s got all the swag, got the swag, he’s got it going on,” McCoy said. “I’m so proud of him, his growth. It’s like you watch somebody evolve into this megastar. It’s so great to see, like he’s having fun.”
The art of creating a handshake
The process is different with each teammate. For most, collaboration is involved.
Diggs, however, doesn’t want to give Allen too much credit for coming up with their handshake. That’s not the way he sees it.
“No, I came to him,” Diggs told ESPN. “I’m the cool one. He’s not the cool one. I came up with it.”
The process for designing a complete handshake takes time; it’s not all at once. This season’s is different from last season’s, which was Diggs’ first in Buffalo. They build up the handshake until it has about seven different components.
Naturally, there also are multiple versions of it: one long, one short
“Depends on the mood. If we’re in a rush, we can’t do the whole thing,” Diggs explained.
With other teammates, the handshakes might be more fluid from week to week.
“We definitely have multiple. There’s a couple in the works that we’re saving, I’m not going to give any spoilers,” Knox said. “But it’s just one of those things, like when you know, you know.”
Knox and Allen’s usual handshake is a finger tap: They connect index fingers in the air. During the course of the week, they might send each other videos or ideas of actions they could do on the field.
But not all handshakes are elaborate.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) August 4, 2021
Left tackle Dion Dawkins and Allen just do a “basic handshake.” Dawkins is one of the more outspoken members of the unit and has no problem showing off his personality. The lineman admits he wished he had a handshake like Diggs’.
Wide receiver Gabriel Davis‘ is simple. He and Allen grab each other’s pinkies and index fingers and shake hands.
“It kind of just happened,” Davis said. “Everyone was doing handshakes around the huddle and me and him didn’t have nothing, so we just did that really quick, and it kinda just stuck.”
The most meaningful handshake to Allen, however, is the one he had with former teammate Frank Gore — basically a traditional handshake with no thumbs.
“I think just ‘fanboying’ for a moment with Frank Gore and having a handshake with him,” said Allen, who grew up a San Francisco 49ers fan. “I think that was really cool to be in that moment and to have a handshake with a Hall of Fame running back who I looked up to as a kid and cheered for on Sundays.”
Perhaps one of Allen’s future teammates is watching him put up sensational performances and hoping to one day have a handshake with him.
While Allen’s numbers this season weren’t as gaudy as last season’s, he has continued to show why he is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He finished in the top eight in passing yards (4,407, ranked eighth), QBR (60.8, sixth) and rushing yards by a quarterback (763, third). He has taken steps forward off the field also, which was only helped by him signing a six-year extension with the team last offseason. Bills coach Sean McDermott pointed to Allen becoming a better leader behind the scenes when asked about his quarterback’s development.
“I think he has always showed those strong leadership traits off the field … I think he has just taken that elevation that every person does who has to progress in the NFL,” Buffalo center Mitch Morse said. “He’s just a good dude. He gets along with the guys. He’s easy to communicate with. He’s easy to vibe with, and that makes it a lot easier, as well.”