NFL experts seem to agree on one thing about the Buffalo Bills' quarterback situation: No matter what the Bills do, they don't have a sure bet on their hands.
Make no mistake, Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson both bring plenty of positives to the table.
But in either case, the negatives loom large enough to make veteran NFL observers uneasy about the Bills' quarterback decision.
The Bills' release of one of the two will have to come by March 1. To date, the best indication of what they plan to do remains the Internet quote from team president Tom Donahoe: "Flutie is 21-9 as a starter. What's the decision?"
If the Bills go with Johnson, they're putting their future in the hands of a guy who has been knocked out of eight of 19 Bills starts. If they go with Flutie, they're putting their future in the hands of a guy who will be 39 in October.
Of course, that's just two aspects of an argument that has about 1,000 sides, which is the reason it has been raging among Buffalo fans for the better part of three seasons.
We put the Bills' QB question in the laps of four NFL experts - former quarterbacks Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason and former front-office executives Pat Kirwan and Gary Horton. Kirwan was a personnel director of the New York Jets from 1989 to '97 and now is an analyst for CNN/SI. Horton spent nine seasons in the personnel and scouting departments of Tampa Bay and Cleveland and now is editor of The War Room, a scouting and draft publication and Web site.
"I think they should go with one or the other, but I think the Bills are in somewhat of a Catch-22 situation either way," said Horton.
"If Doug were 34 years old, I think the decision is easy," Esiason said.
But he's not, and it isn't.
Here's how the experts break down the argument:
One or the other
Donahoe confirmed last week one of the two QBs is gone.
Good move, say three of the four experts.
"When you have two quarterbacks like that, it's always detrimental to the team," said Simms, the former Giants star and current CBS analyst. "Anybody who thinks the situation with Jeff George and Brad Johnson in Washington didn't hurt the Redskins this year is absolutely wrong. I'd read quotes from players about how great Jeff George throws the ball in practice, and this is when they were 6-2 with Johnson. And I'd say to myself, "Isn't that interesting. Why are they saying that?' The Bills have to make a decision."
"I think you have a real mess up there," said Esiason, the former Bengal and Jet who works for CBS Radio. "It's definitely counterproductive for the whole team to have a situation like that. There's an intense amount of pressure on the guys playing that doesn't need to be there. The position is hard enough as it is. It's inevitable that sides are taken.
"I've been in that situation, and you know half the team is pulling for him and half is pulling for you. You know damn well he's not pulling for you and he's probably trying to stab you in the back. And it goes both ways. It's hard not to feel uncomfortable. As much as you want to be a team player, you're thinking about how you look.
"I think a perfect example was the Giants with Kerry Collins and Kent Graham," Esiason added. "They decided they wanted to go with Kerry. They realized it would be good to have a backup as good as Kent if Kerry got hurt. But they also realized there was no way you could have a guy like Kent backing up Kerry, because Kent felt he should be the starter. It doesn't work."
Kirwan is the lone dissenter on this point.
"You can't have too many good quarterbacks, and they don't have to like each other," he said. "One of the biggest regrets I had was the year we had Boomer, Glenn Foley and Jeff Blake, and Blake and Foley were both minimum-salary guys. But there was this notion that we've got to get rid of one of these guys. Who knew? We let Blake go, and we wished we had him back when we got injuries that year."
If he had to make a choice, however, Kirwan seems to favor keeping Flutie.
Johnson and sacks
Johnson will be 28 next month and has six full seasons under his belt. Yet he has just 19 regular-season starts. For his career, he has 24 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions. Wonderful. His rushing totals are comparable to those of Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, the epitome of the young, mobile quarterback.
Of course, he also has been sacked a ridiculous amount, once every 6.2 pass attempts this year, the highest percentage in the NFL. Flutie was sacked once every 23 attempts this season.
Of the four experts, Simms is the highest on Johnson.
"I think Rob Johnson is a franchise quarterback," Simms said. "I also believe he's in a situation that's detrimental to his career. He's a quarterback still looking for personal success.
"As soon as you clear up the situation, I guarantee his sacks will go down. He tries to make too many plays, and it's unavoidable. Subconsciously, he's thinking he's got to do these things. He's got to make the big play. He doesn't give up on a play quick enough.
"There's two things you have to learn in this league as a quarterback: 1. There is another down; and 2. How to manage the game. You have to know when to hang on and try to make a play, and when not to do that. Every play is not designed to go for a touchdown. Sometimes you have to get into third-and-10 and convert it. It's OK to punt. Rob still has to learn this."
Esiason is more critical of Johnson than Simms.
"I think he holds onto the ball too long," Boomer said. "Sacks often are attributed to the wrong people. It's the quarterback's job to get rid of the ball. I played behind a very suspect line in Arizona and I didn't take a lot of sacks. You can avoid them. The quarterback can inspire people to play better and get more out of themselves, and when you're taking a lot of sacks that doesn't inspire teammates."
Esiason broadcast the Bills' December loss at Indianapolis in which Johnson was sacked eight times.
"To take eight sacks in a game is ridiculous," he said. "You're not doing your job as a quarterback if that happens, and I don't care who's playing on the line. That's definitely a problem."
How does Esiason view Johnson overall?
"No. 1 is sacks, and No. 2 is injury," he said. "He's labeled as a guy who you can't count on for 16 games. Until he proves otherwise, that's the way it is. The fact of the matter is he's injury prone. I'd be very concerned about going into a season with him without somebody reliable backing him up. You better be sure you've got somebody behind him.
"I think his arm is fine," Esiason added. "I think his athleticism is fine. He's smart enough to handle the job. I think he's a really good person. I think he can be an effective quarterback in the right situation. But he's 27. He's not 23. He's been in the NFL for awhile now. Along with that contract and that big (salary) number he has comes responsibility. You've got to stay on the field. For the money he's making, criticism is going to come, and it's deserved."
Kirwan, likewise, is starting to doubt Johnson's upside.
"In analyzing a guy, I like to go back and look at his total history," the former Jets executive said. "Rob was a fourth-round pick. He was the first pick of the second day of the draft. I remember it clearly. There was a lot of talk he might be a little brittle and might not be the full package.
"We could look at a lot of guys over the years who flashed great play and then nothing happened. Scott Mitchell is a perfect example. He looked great in Miami for awhile. There are guys who show enough for a team to get excited about them and drop the mother lode on them. And then it doesn't happen."
On the other hand:
"Nineteen starts is not enough to say he's great or he's bad," Kirwan added.
The debate over Flutie's age
Flutie clearly outperformed Johnson this year, going 4-1 and moving the offense better. He also faced worse defenses. The average ranking of the five defenses he faced was 21st. The average of the units Johnson faced was 13th.
In 1999, Flutie went 10-5 as a starter. His TD-to-interception rate was OK - 19 to 16. His arm strength became questionable down the stretch. Say what you want about the decision to pull him for the playoffs. But if Flutie was unquestionably wonderful, Wade Phillips wouldn't even have considered switching to Johnson.
On the other hand, consider some of Flutie's more dubious outings in '99. Three of the defenses he struggled against were Baltimore, the Giants and Oakland, all of whom proved to be great defensive clubs in 2000.
"Doug Flutie is such a novelty at his age," said Horton, whose Web site is nflwarroom.com. "But I think if you get one more good year out of him you're lucky."
"Flutie is 38? So what?" said Simms. "I see nothing in the way he plays that says he's 38."
"What I see in Doug is an enormous heart," Esiason said. "I sense an enormous competitive desire, and a great deal of insecurity because of all the things he's had to deal with his entire life. . . . What Doug lacks in arm strength and sight visibility he makes up for in heart and experience.
"How much longer can he go on? Two years? Maybe three years. He's a young 38. I think you can get three more years out of him."
"I talked to a lot of defensive coordinators in the league this year, and there's not one of them who really wanted to play against Flutie," Kirwan said. "Not one. Doug is a quick decision-maker. His ego never got rattled during the whole controversy up there. . . . His last performance in Seattle was more than a statement. It was a statement of what could have happened during the year. It was a statement of "what I've got left to show you.' . . . Doug has magic in him."
A tough decision
Simms stopped short of making a call.
"I don't know what they should do," he said.
But he stresses that one can't undervalue Johnson's ability.
"The big thing I see when I watch Rob is he throws a nice ball. He has a really nice arm. You can not overrate that in the NFL these days. You watch a lot of quarterbacks in this league, even with winning teams, and they don't do that. There's not that many great quarterbacks around. You still have to throw that ball."
Horton says the bigger picture needs to be considered. The Bills' offense needs help.
"I think the lack of a running game killed the quarterback position in Buffalo this year," he said. "The way for the Bills to win was have a strong running game. The run sets up the pass. But they didn't have a running game. Now the secondary sits back and double-covers your receivers. They're covering with seven guys all the time, and you don't have people open. Now Rob Johnson can't use his play-action pass. Nobody respected it all year. If they had a running game, they would have gotten more single-coverage matchups and Rob would have done better.
"I do like Rob's potential, especially when you look around and see how few good quarterbacks there are in the NFL," Horton added. "I mean, tell me, where are you going to find one? They're not out there."
At the same time, the experts say the Bills should try to win as soon as possible.
"What is the future in the NFL? People used to talk about a four- or five-year plan," Simms said. "There's no such thing anymore. If you decide you can get two more good years out of Flutie and you want him to be the guy, then you can go with him."
"Pete Carroll was coach of the Jets for 352 days," Kirwan said. "You've got two years to win in this league anymore.
"Rob is brittle. He's not a 16-game quarterback. You've got to get another reliable guy behind him, a Neil O'Donnell, who's going to cost you about $1.5 million."
"I can't fault the Bills for taking the approach they did last year," Horton said. "I understand what they were doing - looking ahead. They're not one player away. They had the foresight to say we've got to reload. . . . The only thing I worry about with Rob Johnson is his durability. He gets banged up a lot."
"The negative with Doug Flutie is he's going to be 39 years old," Esiason said. "You want to look for somebody who you can build your team around, somebody to lead your franchise. Given that, you think you'd go with the younger quarterback. . . . But the bottom line is winning as many games as you can right now. I think the Bills are a good team. I think they're a team that can beat any of the top 10 teams in the league on a given day.
"Maybe they should get rid of both of them," Esiason added.
He was only half kidding.