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You know what they say about consultants and experts around here: A consultant is someone who lives 500 miles away from Buffalo; an expert is someone who lives 1,000 miles away.

But even consultants and experts remain divided about the Buffalo Bills' quarterback situation.

In a mini-survey of four football figures of high repute in Sunday's Buffalo News, there was the usual even divide about the Bills' dilemma. Half thought they keep Doug Flutie, half were for Rob Johnson.

You could step into any local sports bar or listen to any radio talk show and get the same results.

The only vote which counts, however, is about to take place at One Bills Drive. The voters are Tom Donahoe, the club president/general manager; Gregg Williams, the new head coach; and Mike Sheppard, the freshly-hired offensive coordinator.

For the last two years we've yearned for a second opinion on the two quarterbacks and now we're going to get it.

About a week ago, I speculated that Rob Johnson would be the choice to run the attack of choice, some form of the West Coast offense. I based that on certain evidence I picked up from remarks made by Williams when he was introduced as the new coach.

I'd like to re-speculate. I think Johnson will be slipped the queen of spades and Flutie will be the starting quarterback for the 2001 season.

The reason for my change of mind is that Williams, in his introductory remarks, mentioned that Kevin Gilbride was a candidate for the offensive coordinator's job. Gilbride is a Johnson guy, Rob's mentor for a season in Jacksonville. The last time I talked to Gilbride he was near bubbly in his appraisal of Johnson.

As it turned out, Gilbride wasn't the No. 1 candidate for the job. Sheppard was. He has no previous ties to either quarterback. Neither do Donahoe and Williams.

They come here detached, with no major pre-conceived notions about either man. Well, almost none. Donahoe is tagged with the Internet chat-room comment he made last year while working for ESPN, reciting Flutie's won-lost record as a Bill and then asking, "What's the decision?"

Understandably, the new boss has done a tap dance around that quote, but it seems to be a fair reflection of his thinking on the matter. Williams is 0-2 against the Bills in games started by Johnson (OK, 1-1, through the courtesy of Home Run Throwback), but the Bills' defense was the major factor in those games.

The last time Sheppard saw Flutie was the final game of the season in Seattle when Doug looked like Joe Montana in his prime. I assume he understands that his Seahawks made a classic run for the bus that day. I expect his judgment will go far beyond that one game.

I get the feeling the new guys feel Johnson is too much of a risk, considering the amount of games he started and didn't finish. Under their stringent salary cap he would be cheaper to keep than Flutie, but then they add the relatively high salary of an experienced backup who might have to start four or five games and the savings suddenly disappears.

I also get the feeling they think Flutie's durability relates to that of Warren Moon at a comparative age. If that turned out to be true, the Bills probably could get by with Alex Van Pelt at the veterans' minimum of $460,000 plus a drafted rookie. Donahoe prefers to have a rookie quarterback, even an undrafted one, in camp every year.

There is risk in allowing Johnson to get away -- his bloody record of sacks or not. The last time the Bills allowed a bright young quarterback to leave was 1967 and Daryle Lamonica became a Raider. It seemed every time we turned on our television sets, Lamonica was throwing touchdown passes. Then again, Lamonica, unlike Johnson, was constructed like a tackle.

There is risk in Flutie, too. He'll be 39 by midseason. He suffered a groin injury early in training camp and wasn't ready until a month into the season. It was a typical old-guy injury. That's a big reason he had a fresh arm once he did get to start.

We may continue this argument through next Christmas, but it appears clear to me now that Flutie is the guy for the new administration.

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