When Bills quarterback Jim Kelly announced his retirement in
January 1997, one of the first things that went through the mind
of Buffalo director of pro personnel A.J. Smith was, Doug
Flutie's going to be a free agent after this season. I've got to
get to work.
Smith spends about a third of his time during the season
preparing a scouting report each week on Buffalo's upcoming
opponent. On Sundays he sits in the press box and scrutinizes
the Bills' next foe for weaknesses. The rest of Smith's job
revolves around the magnetized boards that line the walls of his
10-by-18-foot office at Rich Stadium. On one wall are posted the
depth charts of every NFL team with the players' names
color-coded (blue for excellent, red for very good, purple for
good, black for run-of-the-mill). On other walls are lists of
prospects from the Canadian Football League, NFL Europe and the
Arena Football League.
Smith's most important meeting of the year occurs a few days
after the end of the Bills' regular season when he visits with
John Butler, the club's general manager, and the coach, which
was Marv Levy when they convened last Dec. 23. Smith goes to the
meeting with a list of players he thinks will be the top 150
free agents on the market, with 15 highlighted as the best of
the bunch. Then, like a carnival barker, he touts three or four
players. Last winter one of his favorites was the 35-year-old
Flutie, the 5'10" Toronto Argonauts quarterback, whom Smith had
scouted twice in person and five times on tape in '97.
When he began pitching Flutie, Smith was ready for the funny
looks he got from Butler and Levy, but he pressed ahead. "I
don't care about age, I don't care about height, I don't care
about how defensive coordinators say they can game-plan him
easily. There's an exception to every rule. Some guys are just
football players, and Doug Flutie's a football player who can
help the Buffalo Bills."
In the weeks that followed, Butler quizzed Smith about Flutie.
"He's been in the shotgun in Canada, and we'll have him under
center," Butler said on one such occasion. "Can he make the
adjustment?" Another time the question was, "Is his arm good
enough?" Smith kept plugging his man, and he also dispelled one
of the biggest concerns about Flutie. When he came out of Boston
College in 1984, Flutie ran a 4.9 40, mediocre for a quarterback.
Smith timed Flutie in 4.7 and presented his evidence that the
quarterback could outrun many of the linebackers who would be
Helping Smith's cause was the fact that Flutie wanted no
guarantees--only a chance to make the Bills and a pittance of a
signing bonus ($50,000). When he closed the deal on Jan. 20,
Flutie turned to Smith and hugged him. "Thank you," said the
quarterback who had last played in the league in '89, with the
Patriots. "I'm back in the NFL."
With a vengeance. In two extended outings in relief of the
injured Rob Johnson, Flutie completed 72.9% of his passes, with
four touchdowns and only one interception. With Johnson hobbled,
Flutie got his first start for Buffalo on Sunday and engineered
a last-minute drive, capped by a bootleg run for the winning
touchdown, in the Bills' 17-16 upset of the Jaguars.
"A lot of teams are afraid to [take a chance]," Smith says. "I'm
lucky to work for one that isn't."
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON [Doug Flutie running with football in game]