With the NFL’s 100th season underway, many football fans are reminiscing about their favorite memories from all NFL teams. But, throughout the history of this league, there have also been controversies, bad management decisions, and acts of cheating. In this series, we will take a look at some of the many questions fans think about their favorite team. The first team to be questioned is… the BUFFALO BILLS!
The Bills are 5-2 through the first seven games this season and Josh Allen’s dual threat ability is reminding a lot of Buffalo natives of a young Jim Kelly. But, over 20 years ago, the Bills franchise made a controversial move at the quarterback position that still remains unsolved.
At the end of the 1997 NFL season, the Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame head coach, Marv Levy, announced his retirement after a 6-10 season with Todd Collins and Alex Van Pelt as his quarterbacks. With Jim Kelly gone and Buffalo’s dominance in the AFC East starting to weaken, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was named the Bills new head coach in the 1998 offseason.
At the same time, general manager John Butler started to look for a new quarterback and signed CFL All-Star quarterback Doug Flutie as well as backup quarterback Rob Johnson from the Jaguars in the offseason. Flutie had played in the NFL for four years and had only been a starting quarterback for one season (made nine starts for the Patriots in 1988), but reshaped his career as one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the Canadian Football League. Johnson also had a solid pedigree as a star quarterback at USC, but only made one start in his three years in Jacksonville behind Mark Brunell despite completing 20 of 24 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns in the Jaguars 1997 season opener.
But, as the Bills reported for training camp in 1998, Johnson was given a five-year, $25 million contract while Flutie was only paid a minimum contract. But, as the 1998 season began, Johnson struggled with injuries and made only six starts while Flutie earned a Pro Bowl selection as well as Comeback Player of the Year honors with 20 passing touchdowns in 10 starts. Despite a 24-17 loss in the AFC Wild Card Game against the Dolphins, Flutie was given a four-year, $22 million contract before the 1999 season began as Buffalo’s management had given $46 million to both of their quarterbacks.
However, Flutie kept the starting quarterback job and made 15 starts in 1999 with 19 passing touchdowns while leading the Bills to a 10-5 record. But, in the last game of the season, Wade Phillips decided to rest Flutie against the Indianapolis Colts and gave Johnson the start. With the Colts and Bills playoff positions in the AFC playoffs locked, Johnson led the Bills to a 31-6 victory over Indianapolis with two passing touchdowns, no interceptions, and completed 24 of 32 passes.
As the Bills traveled to Tennessee to take on the Titans, Wade Phillips and Buffalo’s management made a change to their starting lineup as Rob Johnson was given the start in the AFC Wild Card. After starting 26 games in two years, Doug Flutie watched on the sideline as Johnson was sacked six times and completed only 10 of 22 passes in a crushing 22-16 loss in the game known as the “Music City Miracle” that Bills fans are still haunted by to this day.
Al’s Top 5 Takes: There have been many rumors about how this quarterback controversy was handled, but here are my top five takes on the biggest controversy in Buffalo Bills history.
Lack of situational experience. Prior to the Johnson vs. Flutie controversy, the Buffalo Bills had not experienced a quarterback dilemma in the history of their franchise. In the early 1960’s, head coach Lou Saban chose Jack Kemp over Daryle Lamonica, but both quarterbacks split time during Buffalo’s AFL Championship run from 1964-1966 on a run-oriented and defensive team.
Eight years later, the Bills would draft Joe Ferguson in the third round of the 1973 NFL Draft and Ferguson led Buffalo to three playoff appearances in his 12 years with the Bills. After a tough 1985 season with Vince Ferragamo and Bruce Mathison splitting time on a 2-14 team, the Bills signed their former 1st round pick in 1983, Jim Kelly, and Kelly led Buffalo’s franchise to eight playoff appearances, five AFC Championship games, and four straight Super Bowls in his 11 years with the Bills.
Johnson’s injuries vs. Flutie’s stability. In 1998, Rob Johnson missed 10 games due to various injuries and Doug Flutie led the Bills to a 7-3 record in Johnson’s absence. But, Johnson also struggled to avoid getting hit as he was sacked 29 times in his six starts in 1998 while Flutie’s mobility helped the Bills offensive line to allow only 12 sacks in his 10 starts and 26 sacks in his 15 starts in 1999.
USC vs. CFL quarterback track record. Despite being selected in the 4th round by the Jaguars in 1995, Rob Johnson had a prolific career as the starting quarterback at USC, but still struggled to produce the school’s first successful NFL quarterback. Since Jim Hardy (USC’s 1st drafted quarterback) was drafted 8th overall in 1945, the Trojans had 11 quarterbacks selected in the NFL Draft prior to Johnson and only three made at least one Pro Bowl (Jim Hardy in 1950, Bill Nelsen in 1969, Pat Haden in 1977).
After leaving the Patriots for the Canadian Football League in 1990, Doug Flutie became one of the best players in the history of the CFL and joined Warren Moon, Joe Theismann as well as Joe Kapp as the only quarterbacks to earn a Pro Bowl selection in the National Football League after playing in the CFL.
Wade Phillips’ coaching record. Before becoming the 11th head coach of the Buffalo Bills, Wade Phillips had only been a head coach for two years with the Denver Broncos with future Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway leading his offense in 1993 and 1994 (Phillips was also an interim head coach in 1985 for the Saints).
With his coaching pedigree focused on defense as a coordinator for four different NFL teams (Oilers, Saints, Eagles, Broncos), Phillips also did not have a lot of experience in big offensive decisions during his time in Denver before coming to Buffalo.
Money situation. This take points to the decision by general manager John Butler to give Rob Johnson and Doug Flutie maximum contracts without considering a trade/waiver to another NFL team for one of his quarterbacks.
Johnson’s injury history should have been a warning sign to Butler and Flutie’s performances during the 1998 as well as the 1999 NFL seasons created a fan frenzy in Buffalo that the Bills management destroyed after they lost to the Titans in the 1999 AFC Wild Card game.
COMING UP NEXT… THE MIAMI DOLPHINS!