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STREET-FIGHTER FLUTIE . . . SOCAL-SOFT JOHNSON . . . WHAT'S THE DECISION?

The prevalent argument in opposition to Doug Flutie as Buffalo Bills quarterback is that a Super Bowl can't possibly be won with him at the helm. Doesn't have the arm. Can't spread the defense. Too damn old. Doesn't measure up to size.

The prevalent argument in favor of Rob Johnson is that someday he might shed his SoCal ambivalence and grow into a leader. That someday he might recognize the benefits of throwing the ball before sundown. That he's only 27 years old and that means, by gosh, he's bursting with infinite possibility.

Potential is seductive. We want to believe Johnson will improve and develop the timing vital to the position, sparing his offensive line the embarrassment of sack after sack and saving himself another concussion or six. We hold tight to the hope he'll shape the Bills with his imprint and become a bold field general who holds teammates accountable to high standards. What we desire, when the thoughts are distilled, is for Johnson to mature into a taller, younger, stronger version of the teammate he's been unable to shake.

And therein lies the solution to the Great Quarterback Controversy to be resolved this week. Flutie is a finished product, Johnson a work in progress. Flutie is East Coast hardened, Johnson SoCal softened. Tom Donahoe would do well to consult his "Internet personality" -- "As a starter Flutie's record is 21-9, what's the decision?" -- and launch this new era of Bills football with Flutie, the more reliable choice.

The cracks in Johnson's armor are simply too numerous to ignore. He was a mental mess by the end of last season, saying before the last game, "I think I need an offseason just to rejuvenate my mind. It's not easy playing quarterback here with the situation I'm in. It takes its toll."

He continually dismissed accusations he holds the ball too long even though any casual fan could see otherwise.

"I think it's magnified because when Doug gets in there he doesn't get sacked as much," Johnson said, presumably in all seriousness. "Obviously, I don't want to get sacked this much. . . . But it's gotten to the point where any sack that happens is going to be my fault, that I'm holding the ball too long."

With the Bills record at 7-7 he whined about the offensive scheme, be it no different from the one he found delightful when the team was 7-4.

And he further revealed the tenderness of his psyche when, after taking eight sacks during a woeful effort at Indianapolis, he was asked if he could ever win over the fans in Buffalo.

"I don't know if I can," was his exasperated reply.

Johnson wanted in the worst way to be the quarterback of choice in Buffalo, and he proved it by emulating Flutie. He understood that the ability to improvise was the springboard to Flutie's popularity and success. Can there be any doubt that as Johnson stood defiantly in the pocket, defenders bearing down upon him, ball glued to his hand, the voice in his head was whispering, "Doug would make something out of this."

Flutie is of a different mentality. He's a street fighter whose confidence never waivers. Overly cocky? Not a chance. Ideally cocky.

His brashness was taken to task when in 1999 he was replaced by Johnson for the regular-season finale against Indianapolis and then the playoff game against Tennessee. He vented during the offseason, saying the Bills would have beaten the Titans had he been the starter. Johnson called Flutie's comment an insult to the whole team. But it wasn't. Jim Kelly and any other NFL quarterback with an ounce of pride would have said the same thing if he had been benched after going 10-5 in the regular season. It was doubly painful to Flutie in that it had happened to him once before, with New England.

It's impossible to understand Flutie without knowing his history, without acknowledging he's been doubted and stomped upon without relent since the day he walked out of the Downtown Athletic Club with the Heisman Trophy. When the NFL cast him aside after four seasons he dominated the CFL like no quarterback since Warren Moon, putting up incredible numbers but unable to change the statistic so hurtful to his pro career: Doug Flutie, 5-foot-something.

Finally, with the Bills desperate at quarterback, Flutie was summoned in '98 and all the guy did was save the franchise, throw for 360 yards in a playoff game at Miami, miss the conference semifinals only because Buffalo's four lost fumbles left the Bills seven points shy of victory. The next year he just kept winning, which is what he does best.

Who knows what this season will hold for the Bills. The offensive scheme is in for an overhaul. The defense will be makeshift. With dependability at such a premium there's no sense in discarding the quarterback best suited to absorbing a new offense and making it work. Flutie's the closest thing to a sure bet heading into a season of uncertainty. He knows his career is nearing its end. He'll want to go out having reinforced his career-long contention that he's always been an NFL quarterback. And who knows? He might carry the revamped Bills to places they never imagined. He's traveled that road before.

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