It's the discussion which won't die, at least along the Niagara Frontier. No, not "boxer shorts or jockeys?" It's "Flutie or Johnson?"
Rob Johnson's promotion to starting quarterback of the Bills just before the playoff game in Tennessee and the team's obvious shift to a future with him at quarterback rather than Doug Flutie created a furious argument among the team's followers.
Most of the fury comes from the Flutie side. Their arguments ranged from the contention that their man would not have been sacked in his own end zone for a safety as Johnson was in Tennessee, that Flutie's scrambling ability would have carried Buffalo far in the playoffs, that he is able to overcome sizable deficits as well as Johnson, that neither his low passer efficiency rating nor his sub-par accuracy record meant much, that 10 games were won with him as the starter and that the Bills were disloyal for demoting him.
This requires a reality check. Let's examine each of the arguments.
Operating behind an offensive line that had seldom-used backup Marcus Spriggs at right tackle; Dusty Ziegler, who had not played tackle since his sophomore year at Notre Dame, at left tackle, and Jamie Nails in Ziegler's normal right guard spot, Johnson was sacked in the end zone by Jevon Kearse of the Titans. Johnson fumbled as he moved toward the back of the end zone and the ball came loose, rolling beyond the end line for the safety.
Would Flutie have avoided that sack?
Six weeks earlier he hadn't. In the second quarter of a critical game in New York against the Jets, Flutie was sacked in the end zone while scrambling. He fumbled, producing not a safety but a Jet touchdown, giving New York a 14-0 halftime lead.
The comeback capabilities
In the playoff game, Tennessee led, 12-0, at halftime. Johnson rallied his team to a 16-15 lead with 16 seconds to play before the Titans' now-famous kickoff return.
In the Jets' game, in the first Buffalo possession after his end-zone fumble, Flutie drove the Bills to a first down on the New York 11-yard line, but on the next play he was intercepted at the nine. Then Buffalo opened the second half with two three-and-out possessions while New York added a field goal for a 17-0 lead.
Flutie engineered a 66-yard touchdown drive to cut the Bills' deficit to 10 points, but when they again drove to a first down on the New York 10, on the next play his pass was batted at the line of scrimmage and intercepted.
The fact is that only once in his 26 starts has Flutie overcome an enemy lead of 10 points or more in the second half. That was in a Nov. 1 home game against Miami in 1998.
The Flutie adherents can make a rational case against the true meaning of Doug's low efficiency rating because of all the intangibles he has used to pull football rabbits out of a hat. They are undeniable.
The low completion percentage is another story. If accuracy doesn't mean much, why does every coach in the NFL have his passers charted in each practice?
The loss to the Jets and the later one to the Giants in Orchard Park cost the Bills the championship of the AFC East. The Giants led, 13-10, at halftime. Throwing into an injury-depleted secondary, Flutie completed just four of 11 passes in the second half. Those completions gained 7, 3, 13 and 7 yards.
"Flutie had no accuracy at all," said an NFL scout for another team who was scouting the game. "He had receivers open all over the field."
10 victories and loyalty
The Bills' disloyal? After just one season owner Ralph Wilson gave Flutie a multi-million dollar contract that pays him eight times as much as he ever earned in his long career. In the NFL, keeping your job is a matter of production. The Bills averaged six points a game less than they did in 1998.
As for the 10 victories, Buffalo's No. 1 defense held opponents to just 14 points per game. The Johnson-for-Flutie switch was similar to what happened to the Dolphins in 1983, when David Woodley, who quarterbacked Miami to the Super Bowl the year before, lost his job to rookie Dan Marino six games into the season.
"There's a difference between a very good athlete playing quarterback and a pure quarterback playing the position," explained Don Shula, Miami's coach back then. "There are quarterbacks you can win with and there are quarterbacks you can win because of. This was one of those situations."
Does this end the Flutie-Johnson argument? Hardly. We'll be hearing it for a long time.
Reversal of fortunes
The pay is good, the hours horrible, the ascents exhilarating and the descents steep. That's the life of an NFL assistant coach.
Just a year ago Willie Shaw, the Raiders' defensive coordinator; Kippy Brown, Miami's offensive coordinator; and Sherman Lewis, Green Bay's offensive coordinator, all were mentioned -- mostly by the media but in Brown's case by his boss, Jimmy Johnson -- as hot prospects for NFL head-coaching jobs. All three were fired in the last three weeks. Less than two hours after Dave Wannstedt was hired as Johnson's successor with the Dolphins he fired Brown and two other assistants.
On the other hand, Seattle's Mike Sherman, with just three years of experience in the NFL, just one as a coordinator and none as a head coach even at the high school level, was hired as head coach of the Packers.
If the college draft of 2000 turns out to be as bountiful as some scouts feel it will be, watch who Carolina picks with the first-round choice (23rd overall) it received from Miami two years ago in exchange for its second-round pick that year, the 44th overall.
Jimmy Johnson used the choice to select cornerback Patrick Surtain, who embarrassed himself with his shoddy play in Miami's 62-7 loss to Jacksonville last Sunday. If Carolina's pick in the upcoming draft turns out to be a good one, it will represent Johnson's last piece of legacy to the Dolphins in his disappointing four-year stay with the franchise.