When Bills quarterback Jim Kelly announced his retirement in January 1997, one of the first things that went through the mind of Buffalo director of pro personnel A.J. Smith was, Doug Flutie's going to be a free agent after this season. I've got to get to work.
Smith spends about a third of his time during the season preparing a scouting report each week on Buffalo's upcoming opponent. On Sundays he sits in the press box and scrutinizes the Bills' next foe for weaknesses. The rest of Smith's job revolves around the magnetized boards that line the walls of his 10-by-18-foot office at Rich Stadium. On one wall are posted the depth charts of every NFL team with the players' names color-coded (blue for excellent, red for very good, purple for good, black for run-of-the-mill). On other walls are lists of prospects from the Canadian Football League, NFL Europe and the Arena Football League.
Smith's most important meeting of the year occurs a few days after the end of the Bills' regular season when he visits with John Butler, the club's general manager, and the coach, which was Marv Levy when they convened last Dec. 23. Smith goes to the meeting with a list of players he thinks will be the top 150 free agents on the market, with 15 highlighted as the best of the bunch. Then, like a carnival barker, he touts three or four players. Last winter one of his favorites was the 35-year-old Flutie, the 5'10" Toronto Argonauts quarterback, whom Smith had scouted twice in person and five times on tape in '97.
When he began pitching Flutie, Smith was ready for the funny looks he got from Butler and Levy, but he pressed ahead. "I don't care about age, I don't care about height, I don't care about how defensive coordinators say they can game-plan him easily. There's an exception to every rule. Some guys are just football players, and Doug Flutie's a football player who can help the Buffalo Bills."
In the weeks that followed, Butler quizzed Smith about Flutie. "He's been in the shotgun in Canada, and we'll have him under center," Butler said on one such occasion. "Can he make the adjustment?" Another time the question was, "Is his arm good enough?" Smith kept plugging his man, and he also dispelled one of the biggest concerns about Flutie. When he came out of Boston College in 1984, Flutie ran a 4.9 40, mediocre for a quarterback. Smith timed Flutie in 4.7 and presented his evidence that the quarterback could outrun many of the linebackers who would be chasing him.
Helping Smith's cause was the fact that Flutie wanted no guarantees—only a chance to make the Bills and a pittance of a signing bonus ($50,000). When he closed the deal on Jan. 20, Flutie turned to Smith and hugged him. "Thank you," said the quarterback who had last played in the league in '89, with the Patriots. "I'm back in the NFL."
With a vengeance. In two extended outings in relief of the injured Rob Johnson, Flutie completed 72.9% of his passes, with four touchdowns and only one interception. With Johnson hobbled, Flutie got his first start for Buffalo on Sunday and engineered a last-minute drive, capped by a bootleg run for the winning touchdown, in the Bills' 17-16 upset of the Jaguars.
"A lot of teams are afraid to [take a chance]," Smith says. "I'm lucky to work for one that isn't."