There has to be a place in Pro football for Doug Flutie. If there isn't, then something is wrong with the sport. In the New England Patriots' last five games, all of which he started, plus a sixth in which he relieved quarterback Tom Ramsey and led the team to victory, the Pats have gone 4-2. Before Flutie took over, they were 1-3.
People keep mentioning that he's only 5'9¾". But let's not forget that Flutie is the alltime collegiate total-yardage leader, winner of the Heisman Trophy and a fantastic-finish specialist. The word "intangibles" might have been invented for him.
I remember talking to an NFL scout in early 1985, after Flutie's senior season at Boston College. The memory of the last-second bomb to Gerald Phelan that beat Miami was still fresh. "Name a quarterback under six feet who ever won a championship," the guy said. "Super Bowl or, before that, NFL or AFL. Name one."
"Name a guy over 6'3" who ever won one," I said.
Well, he couldn't, although he would have one now—6'4" Doug Williams, MVP of the last Super Bowl. It's a fact. Going back to the first T formation quarterback on a title team, Sid Luckman of the Chicago Bears in 1940, until last season, champion signal callers fell between 6' and 6'3".
But that doesn't mean little guys can't play. Eddie Le-Baron, who was only 5'7", was a highly productive quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys in the early '60s. At 5'10", Frankie Albert of the San Francisco 49ers was one of the great stars of the old All-America Football Conference and then of the NFL. He was a super scrambler with a wonderful grasp of the game—a "magician" who made things happen. Such phrases have been applied to Flutie so frequently that he's sick of them.
Ever hear of Davey O'Brien? O.K., so he wasn't really a T quarterback—he was more of a single wing tailback, a run-and-pass guy—but he stood 5'7". All O'Brien did for the Philadelphia Eagles as a rookie in 1939 was to set NFL single-game and season passing records. Then after two years he quit football and joined the FBI.
The point is, these guys could play, and so can Flutie. His whole mentality is geared to figuring out ways to beat you. Here's the mind of Doug Flutie at work: "I've got a bunch of plays I'd like to try someday, plays you've never seen but which could work."
Plays? What plays?
"O.K.," he says. "There are two seconds left, and you're down by a point or two and you're near midfield, out of field goal range. You've got time for one play. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you'll see one of those Big Ben things. That play has little chance of success. What I'd do is throw to a receiver around the 25 or 30, in the middle of the field, and then have him drop-kick a field goal on the run. It's legal. You can drop-kick the ball at any time."
Yeah, but who can do it these days?
"I can," says Flutie. "Rich Camarillo, who used to punt for us, and I used to practice them. He could drop-kick it 60 yards. Find a guy who can do it and put him in as a wide receiver."
Do you wonder why the guy became a legend in the Boston area? Two-handed push passes, lefty tosses, completions that materialized out of nowhere—the fans couldn't get enough of him. And that's part of the problem. The hard-eyed world of pro football does not take kindly to schoolboy legends.
After BC, he joined the USFL New Jersey Generals and, on owner Donald Trump's orders, became an immediate starter. When the league folded, he joined the Bears for the '86 season. Jim McMahon was injured for much of the year, and Flutie got to start the last game of the regular season. He led Chicago over Dallas but was ineffective in a first-round playoff loss to the Washington Redskins. McMahon wasn't kind. "America's midget," he called Flutie.
The Patriots got him in a trade last season as the strike was winding down. He started the final strike game, which some people have never let him forget. "If the strike had just started, I would never have crossed the line—never," he says. "But everyone knew it was ending. A lot of guys had already crossed. The paycheck wasn't the issue. It was a chance to get back into football."
If Tony Eason's arm had been right, Flutie might not have made the Patriots this year. Steve Grogan would have been the backup, and Flutie would have battled Ramsey for the third and last spot. But Eason went on injured reserve in the preseason, and Grogan, who had been hampered by a neck injury, was replaced by Ramsey in Game 5, against the Indianapolis Colts. Flutie came in for an ineffective Ramsey early in the fourth quarter. He engineered two drives to pull out the win, completing four of four passes on the first and six of six on the second. He scored the game-winner on a 13-yard bootleg.
When the Patriots defeated the Bengals, mainly on the strength of a solid running game and six Cincinnati turnovers, the headline in the Boston Herald read FLUTIE FLAUNTS IT FOR PATS. YOU had to go down to paragraph 22 to find the only mention of Flutie. The story line in New England's 30-7 upset of Chicago was Flutie's revenge: He threw four TD passes against his old team. Almost lost was the fact that the Patriots ran 54 times for 185 yards—unheard-of statistics against the Bears' defense.
"It's hard for people to accept that I'm just another guy on the team, trying to do my best to help us win," said Flutie after Sunday's 21-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins, in which he converted seven of 14 passes for 74 yards while the ground game piled up 203 yards. "Even in college I didn't get carried away with all that stuff. We had great players on that team my senior year. Something like 10 guys I played with on offense wound up in the NFL."
Over the past four games the Pats have had only two turnovers. In the six before that they had 23. Rookie halfback John Stephens, of Northwestern State of Louisiana, has been superb. Flutie has been going along with the surge, occasionally embarrassed by the media attention he receives, never claiming to be anything but a guy trying to prove that he belongs with the big boys.
But somewhere down the stretch, when things aren't going right, it will be time for something special, and maybe the old Flutie devilment will reappear. So far he has proved he belongs.
Behind the 5'9¾" Flutie, New England has won four of its last six.
As Doug takes pains to note, his teammates have also had a hand in the Pats' success.