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Doug Flutie says he's more relaxed, more at ease, than he's ever been in his long, eventful football career.

So he didn't want to dwell on the negatives after practice Thursday.

He said he'd rather not respond to recent personal attacks by the Buffalo media, or by Rob Johnson on a national Web site.

But you never have to dig very deep with Flutie.

Prick him lightly and you'll find the resentments are still there, just beneath the surface.

Mention him losing his starting job before the playoff game in Tennessee two years ago and he'll remind you it happened before, back in New England.

Point out that no one seems to be giving the Chargers' offense much credit -- even though they're third in the NFL in scoring and fourth in total offense, and he's the AFC's fifth-rated passer -- and he can't restrain himself.

"Yeah," Flutie said. "People have a tendency to find excuses for why I'm successful, and they've been doing it for 20 years. Either we've got a great defense, or I've got great people surrounding me. If that's the case, that's the case. Great."

Whatever the case, he is winning again. The Chargers, who finished 1-15 a year ago, are off to a 4-2 start and looking like a playoff contender in the AFC. At the risk of offending Johnson, who finds it ridiculous to keep records for quarterbacks, Flutie is 34-16 as a starter entering Sunday's big grudge match against the Bills.

Yes, the Chargers have a terrific defense, and Flutie has a lot of talent around him. But his teammates say the locker room was transformed by Flutie's arrival, that he brought an atmosphere of belief and credibility through the door.

Love him or hate him -- and most people fall into one category or the other -- you have to admit winning teams have a way of following him around.

There never has been a middle ground with Flutie.

You either see him as an inspirational underdog, a hero for every man, or as an arrogant schemer with a little-man complex.

His followers feel compelled to glorify him.

Others find it necessary to demonize him at every opportunity.

He's a fierce competitor with a chip on his shoulder the size of Massachusetts. When the Bills gave his job to Johnson before the Tennessee game, it was an unforgivable affront.

In retrospect, they should have shipped Flutie out of town right then. It was silly to think he could coexist with Johnson after such humiliation.

If that makes Flutie a bad guy, so be it. News flash: Pro athletes aren't always the nicest people.

But fans are always willing to look the other way when their team is winning. When Jim Kelly was taking his team to Super Bowls, people tolerated his misbehavior in the local bars. Was there ever a more self-serving phony than Bruce Smith?

You loved them when they won, though. And, boy, did you love Flutie when he took our little town by storm in 1998, sparking a meteoric rise in club seats at a time when fans were genuinely concerned about the Bills leaving. Flutie is beloved when he's winning, and Buffalo fans have to be feeling a twinge of nostalgia to see him winning over another community at age 39. Well, didn't he say he could play at least five more years when he came to Buffalo in '98?

"Yeah, and everybody kind of chuckled," Flutie said. "They said, 'Oh, yeah!' Now, here it is four years later and I'm still going. I'm having fun. I'm more relaxed than I've ever been playing football. No question about it."

He gives Norv Turner, the Chargers' veteran offensive coordinator, a lot of credit for that. In doing so, he seemed to be taking a veiled shot at former Bills coordinator Joe Pendry. But then, that's Doug.

"I feel more in control," he said, "more at ease out on the field. When I was in Buffalo I was thinking a lot under center. And it's getting to the point now where it's a lot more instinctive. It's a lot more instinctive here."

Jeff Graham, the Chargers' veteran receiver, says Flutie brought leadership and know-how to the Chargers. He said Flutie also gave them a "presence" they'd lacked.

"It's something we've been missing here for a couple of years at quarterback," Graham said.

San Diego's John Holecek, who played with Flutie for all three years in Buffalo, said Flutie's personality can rub people the wrong way. But he rejected the notion that Flutie was a selfish, divisive influence in the Bills' locker room.

"I see this almost ridiculously competitive person who loves to win and succeed," Holecek said. "It must have worn on Rob. But to me, that's not selfish. It's competitive. It's the way he is. You look at people and take them for what they are. I don't think there's anything evil about the guy. I don't think it's self-glorification.

"There's a chip on his shoulder from being called too short all his life, from being told he can't do this and that," Holecek said. "He got kicked out of Chicago and New England. That's going to create a personality that you have to accept."

Flutie says he felt accepted by the great majority of people in Buffalo. He said he's flattered to know that fans clamored for the Chargers games to be broadcast on radio and TV in Western New York. As for Johnson and his other critics, well, he'll try to answer them on the field Sunday.

"I'm not even going to respond to that stuff," he said. "I'm glad I'm here, and I think there are a lot of people here who are glad I'm here. And I've got a lot of friends on that Bills team and I made a lot of friends in Buffalo. I enjoyed my three years there, and now I'm in a great situation here and looking forward to making a run at the playoffs."

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