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BILLS HAVE TO TIP THEIR CAP TO FLUTIE

As Doug Flutie churned his ageless legs down on the artificial turf in Ralph Wilson Stadium Sunday night, thoughts churned high above, in the boxes from where Wilson himself and other Buffalo Bills brass watched in amazement.

Their collective conclusion was this: "Thank God for Flutie!"

It wasn't just relief that he had made several decisive plays that helped the Bills to an important victory over the wounded New York Jets.

It was the realization that he had almost single-handedly (or is it -footedly?) provided all of the excitement and entertainment that the souls filling 68,839 seats expected for their money.

It was the recognition that in Flutie the Bills have not only the No. 1 gate attraction in Western New York, but also the fancy of the National Football League.

Flutie's tumble into the end zone to punctuate his 24-yard touchdown run and his textbook open-field block on linebacker Mo Lewis were featured during halftime highlights on Monday Night Football. When a Dallas defender stepped over the feeble attempt at a block by Atlanta quarterback Tony Graziani Monday night, Boomer Esiason cracked, "He should have watched No. 7."

After sleepwalking through their season-opener, the Bills needed every bit of what Flutie gave them Sunday night. After watching superstar after superstar disappear via retirement or major injury, the NFL needed a Flutie fix, too.

With 14 weeks left in the regular season, one might think it is a bit premature to begin pondering exactly how the Little Quarterback That Could will fit into the Bills' plans next year.

It isn't. Like all teams in the era of tricky salary-cap management, the Bills have no choice but to look far into the future or risk disastrous consequences.

It is no secret the Bills have one of the league's more expensive quarterback tandems in Flutie and Rob Johnson. It is also no secret that in 2000, their combined cap hit will be $10.3 million.

There is no way the Bills can allow that number to stand, unless they intend to do some serious purging of their roster that would likely render them uncompetitive for years to come.

Something has to give. Someone probably has to go.

When you think about the performance Flutie gave Sunday night and the way that he saved the Bills' 1998 season, it is almost impossible to imagine him not being the team's starting QB in 2000. It is hard to picture any club asking fans to pay substantial dollars to watch something as dull as Sunday's game was before Flutie ignited his fireworks.

Believe me, such thinking has already been done at One Bills Drive and at Wilson's corporate headquarters in Detroit.

After a year of ceaseless public debating over Flutie vs. Johnson, the arguments for and against each of them have become almost cliches: "Flutie is the quarterback of the present . . . Johnson is the quarterback of the future . . . Flutie is too old and too small to take the Bills to the Super Bowl . . . Johnson is too indecisive and too easily sacked to get the job done."

Based on what transpired Sunday night, I think the resolution will and should come down to a very basic principle of business: Give the people what they want. What they want in this community is heart, toughness, courage and the willingness to do everything possible -- even if it means hurling your 178-pound body into the path of someone 80 pounds heavier and with many times more strength -- to win. What they want is a reason to scream, yell and stomp their feet beyond the fact it will disrupt the opposing offense's signal calling.

What they want is what they get from Doug Flutie.

This has nothing to do with slick commercials or cereal or candy bars or fruit snacks. This has everything to do with the essence of what makes pro football at the NFL level the most popular of all sports.

Don't hit me with the age thing. Tell me there is anyone left with even the slightest doubt about Flutie's athletic ability despite the fact he turns 37 next month. Show me how many players in Sunday night's game -- including those paid to carry the football -- could outrun him. Name the last quarterback who threw a block so perfect that it could even draw a smile from Bills line coach Carl Mauck.

Flutie is a physical marvel. Somehow, during those eight seasons he spent in Canada before joining the Bills, his body wasn't exposed to the same natural erosion that time brings to most pro athletes and weekend warriors.

It really doesn't matter why Flutie can do the things that he does. All that matters is that he does them, that people love watching him do them, and that there is no reason to assume he will stop doing them a year from now.

So if a quarterback has to be removed from the Bills' roster in 2000, it could very well be Johnson.

Johnson is 10 years younger. He offers plenty of promise and hope that he can still be a star in this league.

But because of the salary cap, the Bills just might not be in a position to deal in promise and hope after this season. They just might have to concentrate on getting all they can from their No. 1 gate attraction.

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