They have chased him around in practice. They have admired his playmaking from the sidelines.
Today, the Buffalo Bills' defenders experience Doug Flutie from a new perspective: enemy.
"I'm sure there will be a lot of trash-talking on the field before the game," said defensive tackle Shawn Price. "But it's all fun. When the game starts we do our jobs. . . . We have to contain Doug. We have to stick to our assignments. We have to get after him."
"Stop Doug" would be an oversimplification of the Bills' defensive mission today. A more precise synopsis: "Make Doug try to beat us, then stop Doug."
If the Bills can pull that off, they have a great chance to upset the San Diego Chargers in what amounts to the "Bad Blood Bowl."
Seven months of anticipation over this matchup come to a head at 4:15 p.m. in Qualcomm Stadium. Everyone knows the subplots. Ralph Wilson vs. John Butler. Flutie vs. Rob Johnson. Buffalo East vs. Buffalo West.
Never has a 1-4 Bills team faced a more compelling assignment, never mind that most of the country is oblivious to the significance the game has in the minds of Western New York football fans.
The outcome may hinge on whether the Bills' defense can keep the game close. San Diego's offense ranks 10th in the league. Buffalo's defense ranks 23rd overall and 27th against the run.
The blueprint for defending the 4-2 Chargers is no secret: Keep rookie back LaDainian Tomlinson in check; keep Flutie in the pocket by having the defensive ends stay in their rush lanes; make Flutie try to beat the defense with throws to the sideline and deep down the field.
The talented New York Jets' defenses of Bill Parcells executed that plan perfectly when Flutie was with the Bills. So far this year, only Cleveland has succeeded on each of those counts. (The Chargers lost to New England largely because of defensive breakdowns.)
"If you watch film, that's what a lot of people are doing," said Bills defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. "You have to know what a guy's limitations are, and if you're on the other side of the ball you try to make him stretch."
"We all know about Doug's scrambling ability," Bills cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "We want to put pressure up the middle, get people in his face so he can't really see over anybody, and then we have to be disciplined outside."
If the defensive line can keep Flutie in the pocket, the 39-year-old quarterback will make most of his living on quick-out patterns, fade patterns toward the sideline and corner routes (where the receiver fakes a post route and heads deep toward the sideline).
"We know we're going to get a lot of fades," Winfield said. "We've got our backs turned to him and he's throwing the ball anyway. He's good at it. It's our chance to try to make some plays."
If the defense is doing its job against the run and the secondary isn't blowing any assignments -- two big ifs for the Bills -- then it's not easy for Flutie to hit long throws to the sidelines.
If Tomlinson is running well and Flutie avoids third-and-long situations, he is very likely to shred the Bills via the air all over the field.
In wins over Washington and Cincinnati, Flutie needed only 129 and 133 passing yards, respectively, because Tomlinson ran wild. Flutie threw for 348 yards in a rout of Dallas and had 280 in last week's upset of Denver.
"A lot of it is making sure what throws that you allow a quarterback to make and that you're selective in your techniques and pressures and coverage," coach Gregg Williams said. "You have a mixture of zone vs. man, and is it full blitz or is it rush-zone attitudes that you deploy?"
"We may have to do more rushing inside to try to contain him and try to keep him in the pocket," linebacker Keith Newman said. "If we can stop the running game and make him try to beat us throwing 35 or 40 times, maybe we can get to him."
Flutie has been sacked only nine times, the ninth-fewest total in the league, despite the fact the Chargers have a journeyman-studded offensive line.
Flutie also has rushed for only 38 yards (on 24 carries). Johnson has rushed for 150 yards (on 15 carries).
"When he gets on the run, I think he's actually more dangerous than when he's in the pocket because anything can happen then," said defensive end Phil Hansen, whose return to the lineup from an elbow injury should bolster the run defense.
The Bills' linemen have to be aware of Flutie's ability to step up in the pocket and bolt up the middle.
"You have to have contained pressure," Williams said. "A big part of our plan this week is how we attack him in the pass rush."
The Bills have to believe they will stop Tomlinson enough to get into pass-rushing situations.