Doug Flutie's solid performance will force the Bills to make a tough call when Rob Johnson returns from injury
Asked last Thursday about a percolating quarterback controversy involving him and erstwhile starter Rob Johnson, the Bills' Doug Flutie tried hard to seem every bit the good soldier. "I know that no matter what I do, I won't be the starter for this team," he said, his face grim and emotionless. "I'll play only when Rob goes down."
However, in Buffalo's 23-20 last-play victory over the AFC East rival Jets—a win that helped the Bills (4-4) claw their way back into the crowded AFC playoff picture—Flutie made his third consecutive inspired appearance in place of the injured Johnson, connecting on 18 of 35 passes for 253 yards without an interception. From his timely scrambles to his calming sideline influence, Flutie has the offense humming.
While Bills players refuse to take sides in the debate-publicly, at least—it is apparent the 38-year-old Flutie provides a spark that the 27-year-old Johnson does not. "There's no question we're a different team with Doug in there," said one Bills offensive player. "All Doug thinks about is helping the team win and how he can do that. Rob seems distracted by things, like wanting everyone to like him."
Several Bills believe Johnson holds the ball too long due to an obsession with making the big strike. Others speculate that he is reluctant to attempt throws that might hurt his quarterback rating. "He'd rather get pummeled by four guys than throw the ball away," said another Bill.
Whatever Johnson's motivation, his inability to avoid the sack is all the more evident when compared with Flutie's elusiveness. In 16 games with the Bills, Johnson has been sacked 55 times in 381 drop-backs, or once every 6.9 attempts; in his 32 games, Flutie has been sacked 41 times in 919 dropbacks—once every 234 attempts. Moreover, Johnson's hesitancy in the pocket has been a hazard to his health. Before going down with a separated right shoulder in overtime of a win over the Chargers on Oct. 15, he was on pace to be sacked a whopping 67 times this season. The San Diego game marked the sixth time in 14 career starts with Buffalo that he had been knocked out of a game.
The Bills traded first-and fourth-round draft picks to the Jaguars in February 1998 for the cannon-armed Johnson, at the time a 24-year-old with seemingly limitless potential. When Johnson was knocked out of three of Buffalo's first five games that year, though, Flutie seized the opportunity, leading the team to victory in eight of its next 11 games and into the postseason. He was at the helm for the first 15 games again last year, but with the Bills locked into a wild-card spot, the coaching staff decided to rest Flutie for the regular-season finale against the Colts. After Johnson threw for 287 yards and a pair of touchdowns, coach Wade Phillips surprised everyone by naming him the starter for the following week's playoff game at Tennessee.
"When he's in there, Rob puts up some great numbers," says Phillips. "We benefit from Doug's experience and his leadership, but for Rob to develop those things, he's got to play."
Certainly Buffalo's shaky line and punchless running attack (a 20th-ranked 105.6 yards a game) make for problems either quarterback must overcome. Perhaps an even bigger hurdle is the erratic play-calling of offensive coordinator Joe Pendry, who made numerous questionable decisions inside the red zone against the Jets. When he called for a fade route to wideout Eric Moulds on first-and-goal from the New York one-foot line midway through the fourth quarter of a tie game, several offensive players swore loudly and repeatedly until just before the ball was snapped. (Moulds was called for pass interference, moving the ball back to the 11, and Buffalo settled for a field goal and a 20-17 lead.)
Still, Flutie shone with the game on the line. Scrambling away from pressure and demonstrating a knack for coming through in the clutch, he drove the Bills 57 yards in 11 plays over the final 2:20, including a 17-yard pass to wide-out Peerless Price on a third-and-10, to set up Steve Christie's 34-yard game-winning field goal. Flutie will probably have one or perhaps two more starts (at New England, then home against Chicago) before Johnson is ready to play. Phillips has remained coy about his plans, even saying he envisions scenarios in which both quarterbacks could see playing time in the same game.