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When Doug Flutie signed with the Buffalo Bills on Jan. 20, 1998, no one knew exactly what the team was getting.

But over the past three seasons, Flutie energized a city that longed for a new hero in the aftermath of Jim Kelly's retirement in 1996. Flutie rejuvenated a franchise many thought was going to leave town. He also stirred more passionate debate in Western New York than any Bills player in recent memory.

That chapter in the Bills' history book was closed Wednesday as the team announced it would release Flutie.

Attempts to reach Flutie at his home at Natick, Mass., were unsuccessful.

He had come to Buffalo after eight years in the Canadian Football League. Some considered it an exile from the NFL, where he was unable to recapture the magic that made him a New England icon and the 1984 Heisman Trophy winner at Boston College.

But his return to the NFL would be different, or so he thought.

Three months after signing Flutie, the Bills traded their first-round draft pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a strapping young quarterback with a rifle arm.

Not many people argued with the Bills decision to acquire Rob Johnson, who was named the starter for the 1998 season. Flutie, though unhappy with his situation, vowed to make the best of it.

However, the seeds of a quarterback controversy had been planted. It began to take root in the 1998 season-opener at San Diego. Flutie came off the bench in the third quarter after Johnson suffered a concussion and turned a 10-0 deficit into a 14-13 lead before the Chargers pulled out a 16-14 win.

When Johnson tore rib cartilage on the Bills' first possession in the fourth game of the season at Indianapolis, Flutie came to the rescue and led the team to 31-24 come-from-behind victory. The following week at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Flutie got his first NFL start since Oct. 15, 1989 with New England. All he did was run for the winning touchdown with 13 seconds left -- on a busted play, no less -- as Buffalo beat Jacksonville, 17-16.

Flutie started the rest of the season, going 7-3 and leading the Bills to the playoffs after a one-year absence. He made the Pro Bowl. Flutie Flakes became a staple on many a grocery list.

The Western New York region embraced this 5-foot-9, 175-pound overachiever, whose scrambling and improvisational skills made him one of the NFL's most exciting players.

He came at the right time for the Bills organization, which had raised concerns about its future here. Many people believe Flutie's illuminating presence saved the franchise.

Flutie was not without his detractors. Some blamed him for the '98 playoff loss in Miami, forgetting that he threw for 360 yards in that game.

The naysayers believed Flutie merely caught unsuspecting opponents off guard, but teams would study the films and figure out a way to stop him the next year.

Flutie had his share of big games during the 1999 season. One of his most memorable efforts came at Baltimore when his 17-yard scramble on fourth-and-15 set up his 5-yard TD pass to Jonathan Linton that gave the Bills a 13-10 win.

But Flutie had several sub-par performances. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes five times. During one three-game stretch, which included two losses, his completion percentage was a mediocre .466 and he threw twice as many interceptions (eight) as touchdowns (four). Then-coach Wade Phillips defended Flutie against all criticism. The team was winning, Phillips reasoned, so why make a change?

But Phillips did just that before the regular-season finale against Indianapolis. The feeling was he wanted to get Johnson some work after gathering rust most of the season.

But after watching Johnson light up the Colts in a 31-6 victory, Phillips shocked everyone -- especially Flutie -- by naming Johnson the starter for the wild-card playoff game at Tennessee.

Johnson played well enough to win, and the Bills would have if not for a miracle kickoff return by the Titans in the final seconds.

Flutie fans insist the outcome would never have come to that had their guy been under center.

The quarterback controversy was in full bloom the following offseason when, in an interview with a Canadian television station, Flutie said believed the Bills would have beaten Tennessee had he played.

His comments were not intended to be a shot to Johnson. In fact, Flutie also said Johnson was good enough to win that game. But Johnson didn't take it that way. He used an interview with Penthouse magazine to crack back on Flutie.

"(Flutie's comments) were insulting to me personally, but as a team, you have to feel there are 21 other guys out there making plays," said Johnson, who also told the magazine Flutie wasn't much fun to play with.

Tension between Flutie and Johnson nearly boiled over when Johnson accused his rival of making disparaging anonymous comments about him to Sports Illustrated.

Phillips was often criticized for not taking a stand on the quarterback issue. He even blamed the media for generating the conflict.

After much waffling, Phillips finally announced that Johnson was the starter for 2000. The choice was easier to make with Flutie recovering from a training camp groin injury.

Of course, it wasn't long before Flutie entered the picture again. After Johnson separated his shoulder in a Week Six win against San Diego, Flutie led the Bills over the Chargers and to three more wins in four consecutive starts.

Fans and media thought the magic was back, but Flutie wouldn't allow himself to think about winning the job back.

"Rob's the starter, and I'm the backup. That's the way it is," was his weekly answer to the question.

But support for Flutie grew when the Bills lost three of the next four games Johnson started. Flutie regained the job when Johnson suffered a concussion in the final home game against New England.

Flutie was unable to rally the team to victory, but it set the stage for the greatest performance of his Bills career. Before a national television audience, Flutie completed 20 of 25 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns against Seattle as the Bills rolled up 572 yards -- second most in team history - en route to a 42-23 victory.

That game allowed the Bills to finish with an 8-8 record. That was also the Bills' 21st win in the 30 games Flutie started.

But in the end, it wasn't enough. Flutie is gone, but the memories are sure to linger.

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