4 Buffalo Bills
Not about to rest on his laurels, even after a season that played out like a Hollywood script, a diminutive star is planning a blockbuster sequel
Thomas, a running back and the unofficial team psychologist, acknowledges that he did this to motivate Flutie by picking at a very old and sensitive scab. Flutie hardly needed to be reminded that a 5'10", 36-year-old Canadian Football League refugee taking over a 1-3 team and guiding it into the playoffs was considered by far the most stunning feat in the NFL last season. "I know people are saying I shouldn't be doing what I've done, that I don't fit the mold and so I must be tricking people and doing it with mirrors," Flutie says. "On the highlights, everybody sees me scrambling and improvising, but the majority of plays, I just take my reads and throw the ball. There's this impression that it's all the 'Flutie Magic,' but there's no magic to it. It's hard work."
In fact, Flutie delights in parroting the many critics of his diminutive stature. On Oct. 11, during the final moments of Buffalo's 31-24 win over the Colts, in which Flutie relieved an injured Rob Johnson early on and completed 23 of 28 passes for 213 yards, 6'5" Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning threw a pass that was batted down at the line. Flutie began playfully screaming toward Manning, "He's too short!"
That victory began Flutie's improbable run. He steered the Bills to eight wins in their next 11 games. In those 11 games the Bills averaged 26.3 points and 356 yards, and for the year Flutie helped the offense produce 51 more first downs and 145 more points than it did in '97. "Getting Doug was one of the best moves we've made since I came to Buffalo," says Thomas, who is entering his 12th season. "You have to go back to Fran Tarkenton to find anybody with the creativity to win games like he can."
Over a busy summer the newly lionized Flutie delivered the commencement address at Cazenovia (N.Y.) College, recorded a CD with his band, The Flutie Gang, and reluctantly agreed to become a consultant on a movie about his roller-coaster career. He also endured rampant speculation about whether he could repeat his success against defenses whose coaching staffs presumably have toiled during the off-season plotting ways to counter Flutie's unique style. Flutie scoffs, saying that he has already seen every conceivable defense.
Dating back to his days at Boston College, when he started out as the Eagles' fifth-string quarterback and went on to win the '84 Heisman Trophy, Flutie has grown accustomed to hearing the doubters. He's convinced he'll never silence all of his critics. "Some hardheaded people took a stance 15 years ago and swore by it, and that's why I was out of this league for eight years," Flutie says. "I used to worry about what people said and wrote, but I've learned to ignore it."
Fortified by a new four-year, $22 million contract extension, Flutie enjoys as much job security as anybody whose backup (Johnson) has a five-year, $25 million contract. Bills coach Wade Phillips insists that he won't be buffaloed into a change, even if Flutie struggles. "Doug has established himself as our quarterback," Phillips says. "Doug is the present. Rob is the future." It's just that nobody knows exactly when the future might arrive in Buffalo. In fact, going into training camp, Flutie and Johnson were listed as costarters on the depth chart.
Flutie benefits from a solid receiving corps that includes the indomitable Andre Reed, rookie Peerless Price and rising star Eric Moulds, who led the AFC with 1,368 receiving yards in '98 and averaged an extraordinary 48.9 yards on his nine touchdown catches. However, the Bills will need more consistency from running back Antowain Smith and the rest of their rushing attack, which struggled in the red zone a year ago.
Above all, Flutie hopes to prove that winning the job as the Bills' quarterback isn't a Hollywood script after all. "I still feel like every game we win, I have to go out and win the next week to prove that last week wasn't a fluke," Flutie says. "It kind of bothers me when people ask me if I could have imagined anything like this would happen in my wildest dreams. To heck with that. This is exactly what I hoped and expected would happen, and I expect to play even better this season. My wildest dreams haven't come true yet."
-- Tim Crothers
1998 RECORD: 10-6 (3rd in AFC East)
1999 SCHEDULE STRENGTH (rank): 25 (tie)
Player to Watch
When Sam Cowart was a freshman linebacker at Florida State in '93, teammate Derrick Brooks tagged him with a daunting nickname that would stick for the rest of Cowart's college career: NFL. Five years later Cowart fulfilled the prophecy as Buffalo's top choice in the '98 draft. Coach Wade Phillips compares Cowart's quickness and instincts to those of the player he replaced, Chris Spielman. Phillips marvels at Cowart's ability to start five yards off the line of scrimmage yet still make tackles in the backfield. "I was a running back in high school," Cowart says, "so when the ball is snapped, I put myself in the running back's shoes and ask myself, Where would I go? Then I meet him there."
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