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IN ROB THEY TRUST
TALENT WINS OUT FOR JOHNSON

Buffalo Bills coach Gregg Williams was sitting in the stands of the RCA Dome in Indianapolis last weekend watching quarterback draft prospects work out for pro scouts.

It was obvious to him none of them could throw as well as Rob Johnson.

"As I watched the quarterbacks work out there this past week I constantly asked myself who was out there who was better than Rob Johnson," Williams said.

"I know we've got the right guy for this offense. Rob can make all the throws. He can make every throw that needs to be made. He's mobile. We've got to coach him to be smarter in how he takes care of his body. We've got to coach him to get rid of the ball quicker. But that was one of the reasons the West Coast offense was brought in here, to fit his skills and the other offensive players' skills here very well."

After watching reams of video, Williams and his offensive coaches fell in love with Johnson's talent. That's the biggest reason, they said, that Johnson will be quarterbacking the Bills next season and why fan favorite Doug Flutie is on the free-agent market today.

The Bills think they can make Johnson reach his great potential.

"The truth is it was based totally on who we felt was the best quarterback for the team," Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe said. "It was not based on age. It was not based on size. It was not based on how much of a hit we will take on the salary cap. It was based solely on which quarterback was best suited to lead this football team."

"I think you'll see exciting things out of Rob," Williams said.

From the time he was hired, Williams thought the West Coast offense, with its emphasis on quick throws, could be good for Johnson. But Williams said it wasn't until his face-to-face interview with Johnson last week that he started leaning in favor of the younger quarterback.

"He was very impressive, and I think he got a good feel for me and for (offensive coordinator) Mike Sheppard and for (QB coach) Steve Kragthorpe," Williams said.

Williams said the final decision to go with Johnson wasn't made until Wednesday morning at a meeting among himself, Sheppard, Kragthorpe and Donahoe.

"Other than the four people involved in this decision, there was nobody in this organization who would have known which way we were leaning one way or the other," Williams said. "I'm not for sure all four of us knew how unified we were until we got together and compared."

Johnson turns 28 on March 18. Flutie turns 39 in October.

Johnson has thrown 24 career touchdowns passes and just 13 interceptions in his six-year career. His rushing totals are comparable to those of Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, the epitome of the young, mobile quarterback. At one point this season, Johnson had thrown 17 TDs and four interceptions in his last 11 outings.

"One of the stats I've monitored in the league throughout the years is when you win the turnover battle each and every week, you give yourself a chance to be in all the games," Williams said. "That's an ideal part of being a good quarterback in this league."

Of course, the big risk with the 6-foot-4 Southern California product is his inability to stay on the field. He has been knocked out of eight of 19 starts with the Bills. He was sacked once every 6.2 attempts this year, the highest rate in the NFL.

"One thing about Rob's injuries, people act like he's taken weeks off for hangnails," Donahoe said. "This guy's had some major injuries. He's a tough guy, there's no question about that. He has to get smarter with the way he runs and he has to get smarter with the way he plays the game. And that's coaching.

"We talked to Rob about it. He obviously knows he can't be sacked as much as he's been sacked in the past."

Johnson is 7-10 with the Bills in games in which he has started and played most of the way. Flutie ends a three-year run in Buffalo in which he went 21-9 as a regular-season starter.

"It's tough when you see one warrior have to be released," Williams said. "But there is no more controversy, the locker room is unified, and it's time now to start working on the West Coast offense."

"I don't think I've ever run into anybody who didn't like Doug Flutie," said Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. "When he was hurt last year at training camp in Rochester, he signed autographs for an hour (most days). He was a very, very popular player. . . . I appreciate what he did for us."

Cutting Flutie saved $3 million against the Bills' salary cap. Donahoe said the Bills would not need to restructure Johnson's contract before today's 4 p.m. deadline to get under the cap. He indicated they would look to restructure it in the coming months, but did not suggest they would extend it beyond 2002.

Donahoe said long-snapper Ethan Albright also would be cut along with perhaps one other player, whom he would not name. The Bills still need to make a decision on the contract of linebacker Sam Rogers, who will either need to take a significant pay cut or be released.

Despite all the cap moves, the Bills are virtually assured of not being able to sign their top free agents, defensive end Marcellus Wiley and kicker Steve Christie. It's believed Philadelphia and Indianapolis may be lining up to pursue Wiley.

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