January 20, 2012

1998: Doug Flutie Returns to NFL with Buffalo

The Buffalo Bills had the NFL’s 25th-ranked offense in 1997 with Todd Collins and Alex Van Pelt at quarterback. On January 20, 1998 they took a step toward addressing that problem by signing 35-year-old QB Doug Flutie to a two-year contract loaded with incentives.

The diminutive (5’9”, 180) scrambler with the big throwing arm had been an exciting player at Boston College and won the Heisman Trophy in 1984. His game-winning 50-yard “Hail Mary” touchdown pass on the final play of the game to beat the University of Miami (and QB Bernie Kosar) became an instant classic. But there were doubts that he could succeed in pro football with his short stature.

The Los Angeles Rams picked him in the 11th round of the ’85 NFL draft, but he signed with the USFL’s New Jersey Generals instead, who obligingly dealt away veteran QB Brian Sipe to open up the starting job for him. He struggled initially and also sustained a broken collar bone, but had a respectable year in which he threw for 2109 yards with 13 TDs and 14 interceptions and rushed for 465 yards.

Following the demise of the USFL, the Bears traded for his rights and he mostly sat on the bench (and drew the ire of veteran starter Jim McMahon). He got to start the season finale, a win, and a playoff game that was a loss. At the time of the players’ strike in 1987, Chicago dealt Flutie to New England. He started the last of the replacement player games for the Patriots and saw occasional action in 1988 and ’89, but failed to impress and was let go with Head Coach Raymond Berry suggesting that he try coaching.

Flutie didn’t try coaching – he went to the Canadian Football League instead and had a tremendous career. Over eight years, he was named the CFL’s outstanding player six times and led his teams to three Grey Cup titles. He played for British Columbia, Calgary, and Toronto and threw for over 41,355 yards, including a record 6619 in 1991 alone, and 270 touchdowns.

In ’97, Flutie passed for 5505 yards and 47 TDs in leading Toronto to its second consecutive Grey Cup title. While he was within sight of the CFL career records in passing yards and touchdowns held by Ron Lancaster, Flutie preferred to return to the NFL. He had been earning 1.1 million Canadian dollars per year ($700,000 American at the time).

“I always said that if there was a reason to go back it would be to play two more years and shoot for the record,” said Flutie. “But as far as I'm concerned that's probably behind me now. This (NFL) is my future.”

The Bills didn’t just add Flutie at quarterback, however. They also obtained QB Rob Johnson, a third-year pro who had been backing up Mark Brunell in Jacksonville and was considered to be a promising talent. The conflict with the younger quarterback added an element of drama to Flutie’s tenure in Buffalo and proved highly divisive to the team.

The Bills lost their first three games in ‘98, and Johnson was the starting quarterback. He led the team to a win over the 49ers but suffered a rib injury and Flutie took over. The result was four straight wins and six in ten games. The turnaround owed much to the veteran’s leadership skills and, even after Johnson was available again, first-year Head Coach Wade Phillips kept Flutie in the lineup. Buffalo’s record improved from 6-10 to 10-6 and the team returned to the playoffs, losing in the first round to division-rival Miami. While the numbers might have paled next to his CFL performances, Flutie still completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 2711 yards with 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and earned selection to the Pro Bowl. All in all, it was an impressive return to the NFL.

The Bills chose to keep both Flutie and Johnson, and restructured Flutie’s contract accordingly. It was a rockier road in 1999. While Flutie passed for 3171 yards and 19 TDs, against 16 interceptions, his yards per attempt dropped from 7.7 to 6.6 and the team did not score as readily. His arm was no longer as strong, defenses were catching up to his style of play, and in a controversial move, Coach Phillips chose to start Johnson in the Wild Card playoff game at Tennessee that the Titans won with a stunning kickoff return referred to as “the Music City Miracle”.

The bitter quarterback conflict continued for one more year. Johnson again moved ahead of Flutie on the depth chart, but was injured once more and the team’s performance improved with Flutie behind center. Johnson was far less mobile and prone to taking sacks, in contrast to the nimble veteran who also displayed superior leadership skills. Overall, the team’s record was a drop to 8-8 (4-1 in Flutie’s starts, 4-7 with Johnson) and Flutie ended the battle by moving on to the San Diego Chargers as a free agent. He had his highest passing-yardage season in the NFL with the Chargers in 2001 (3464) but eventually gave way to Drew Brees, finishing his career back with the Patriots as backup to Tom Brady in 2005. At age 43, he said good-bye to pro football by drop-kicking an extra point in the season finale.

Doug Flutie brought a unique style of play and a great deal of excitement to pro football. Despite his small stature and many detractors, his return to the NFL after a brilliant run in the CFL proved successful. He led the Bills to back-to-back winning seasons and was selected to a Pro Bowl. In all, he lasted 21 years as a pro quarterback, playing in three different leagues, an impressive feat in itself.