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Inside The NFL

Doug Flutie, ahead of his time in '89, finally fits an NFL mold

You'd think Doug Flutie would be on top of the world. Ten years
after being run out of the NFL by teams who thought he was, at
5'10", too short to play quarterback, Flutie's on the verge of
taking the Bills to the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Yet he still can't shake the heartbreak of his earlier rejection.

Understand that Flutie loves the Bills. He's grateful that the
organization gave him an opportunity in 1998, when nobody else
in the NFL would, and after that eye-opening season had enough
faith in him to offer a four-year, $22-million contract
extension, which included a $6 million signing bonus. But
Flutie, who starred for eight seasons in the Canadian Football
League, can't stop harking back to his earlier trip through the
NFL, when he appeared in 21 games over four seasons for the
Bears and the Patriots.

"When I left for Canada after the '89 season, I had no
discipline. I couldn't stay in the pocket. I was a poor
quarterback," Flutie says with a smirk. "Today, I'm exciting.
I'm instinctive. I make plays. I'm a winner. What a bunch of
b.s. You want to know what the difference is now? It's more
acceptable to be me. Steve Young, Mark Brunell, Brett
Favre--they made teams see how successful a mobile, instinctive
quarterback could be. In the NFL, first you have to prove you
can do it their way, then you can regain your identity."

Flash back to '89. The NFL's model quarterback was 6'4", 215
pounds, a tough guy who didn't stray from the pocket. The
top-rated passers that year--Boomer Esiason, Jim Everett, Warren
Moon, Mark Rypien, Jim Kelly, Bobby Hebert, Bernie Kosar and
Phil Simms--almost all fit that mold; only Joe Montana and Don
Majkowski were mobile types. Flutie ran only 69 times in those
four seasons. As his NFL career was ending in New England, he
felt a noose tightening around his neck.

He remembers calling an audible, changing a play from a run to a
pass and hooking up for a touchdown with wideout Irving Fryar.
"I got reamed out for changing the play, even though we scored,"
Flutie says. "I was trying so hard to read defenses and stay
with the play and stay in the pocket. I was trying to please the
coaches. At the end they had no faith in me to throw. Once we
had a third-and-five, and a quarterback draw was called. The
defense lined up eight across to stop us, so I called time. I
went to the sideline and told the coaches the play would never
work. They told me to run it anyway. I did, and I came up just
short of the first down. When I went to Canada, the freedom I
got from coaches made football fun again."

Bobby Grier, the Patriots' vice president of player personnel,
was the team's running backs coach in '89. He admits the
coaching staff had little faith in Flutie's arm. "But Doug back
then was the player he is now," Grier says. "What's happened is
the game has changed. The defensive fronts, the [ascension of]
quickness over size, puts a premium on the quarterback's
escapability. He probably had to go to Canada just to wait for
the game to change."

Flutie won two Grey Cups and six MVP awards in Canada. Just as
important, the experience north of the border made Flutie
unflappable. "When you're in Saskatchewan, like I was in 1992,
and you have to score three touchdowns to win in the final 2 1/2
minutes and you do it, nothing here scares you," he says. "God
knows how many two-minute drills I ran there with the game on
the line and the crowd screaming. Those years helped make me
what I am."

Last season he was 11th in the NFL in quarterback rating, and
though he has slipped to 24th this year, he is the league's
eighth most productive quarterback when you combine passing and
rushing yards. More important, among quarterbacks Flutie is
third in winning percentage since the start of the 1998 season
(chart, left).

He hasn't put up the numbers he did a year ago because defenses
are using a spy more effectively and sticking with downfield
receivers longer. But even though he's completing only 55% of
his passes, his feet make him as dangerous a
quarterback--running and passing--as the game has.

As for the future, the 37-year-old Flutie knows that if he
doesn't play better down the stretch, he'll face a training-camp
battle next summer from high-priced backup Rob Johnson. Flutie
could see himself finishing his career in the CFL. "If I could
ever play with my brother Darren [a receiver for the Hamilton
Tiger-Cats], I'd love to," he says. "It's not very practical
because of the money, but I'd love to do it. Who knows?"

Woes of an Expansion Team

It was true at the beginning of the expansion Browns' inaugural
season, and it remains true as the end of it approaches: You
don't win games in the NFL without playmakers at the key

There are eight vital positions on an NFL team: quarterback,
running back, left tackle and two wideouts on offense;
all-around end, pass-rushing specialist and shutdown cornerback
on defense. With all of owner Al Lerner's millions Cleveland
filled only two of those spots this season--and in both cases
the players were rookies: quarterback Tim Couch and wide
receiver Kevin Johnson.

The Browns thought they had filled the left tackle hole when
they signed free agent Lomas Brown, but he'll be 37 in March and
is too rickety to be counted on. They thought they had picked up
good cover corners in free agents Corey Fuller and Ryan McNeil,
but opponents have completed a league-high 63% of their throws
against Cleveland. What's more, the pass rush is anemic (only 25
sacks in 15 games), and the team ranks last in the NFL in
rushing (67.3 yards a game).

"On Dec. 27th a new season will start in our organization, a
season of great expectations," Browns president Carmen Policy
said on Sunday before a 24-14 loss to the Jaguars dropped his
team to 2-13. "We will begin to judge ourselves not just on
progress made, which was the yardstick of our first year, but
also by wins and losses."

Look for Cleveland to concentrate on three players in free
agency (assuming they haven't already re-signed with their
current team or been slapped with a franchise-player
designation): Cardinals defensive end Simeon Rice, who might be
difficult for Arizona to squeeze under its salary cap; Jaguars
running back James Stewart, who has run for 889 yards this
season while subbing for an injured Fred Taylor; and Patriots
wideout Shawn Jefferson, a favorite of coach Chris Palmer's when
he was an assistant in New England.

Cleveland's draft strategy will hinge on what the team
accomplishes in free agency. Even if they land Rice, the
Browns--who will probably have the first or second pick--would
be wise to heed the advice on a banner that hung behind the
north end zone at Sunday's game: COURTNEY BROWN OR TRADE DOWN.
Brown, of Penn State, is one of the best all-around defensive
ends to come out of college football in the '90s, and a
Rice-Brown pairing would make the defense respectable and help
cover the deficiencies in the secondary.

One player who gives Cleveland hope is Couch. "He's shown more
mobility than we thought," Palmer says, "and his toughness far
surpasses anything we'd expected. His vision of the field and
mastery of the game are excellent." His 56% completion rate is
good, considering that he has been sacked 56 times, the last of
which resulted in a sprained left ankle on Sunday. He's not as
savvy and polished as the Colts' Peyton Manning is, but Couch
has shown that he has the tools to be one of the NFL's best

But these are still desperate days in Cleveland. When Policy and
club vice president Dwight Clark boarded Lerner's private jet
after a disheartening loss in San Diego on Dec. 5, they were
looking for a shoulder to cry on. "You have to understand,"
Lerner told them. "This is the first year. What did you expect?
The time to judge this year is not this year. It's the end of
next year."

Good News, Denver

The NFL hands a holiday bonus to some of its worst teams. It's
called the fifth-place schedule. Two teams that are in position
to cash in next year are the Broncos and the Jets, last season's
AFC Championship Game participants who, through Sunday, were in
last place in their divisions.

Denver may gain more for finishing in the cellar. Next season
AFC West teams will play interconference games against the so-so
NFC West, while the AFC East matches up against the loaded NFC
Central. The Broncos are looking at home games against the
Browns, Falcons, 49ers and Jets; they'll face the Rams and the
Saints on the road and will almost certainly visit Cincinnati.

Even during a 5-9 season, the Broncos haven't been your
garden-variety loser. They've dropped five games by a field goal
or less. They're ranked seventh in the league in defense, 12th
in offense. The outlook is even brighter when you consider that
Terrell Davis, who underwent reconstructive surgery after
injuring his right knee on Oct. 3, was running hard in
mid-December, a month earlier than anyone thought possible. "By
April's minicamp I should be ready to go full speed," says Davis.

Coach Mike Shanahan says Brian Griese will be his starting
quarterback entering 2000, and he may try to coax Jeff Hostetler
out of retirement to be one of his backups. Shanahan is
cautiously optimistic about the schedule. "Sometimes," he says,
"that can really help you out."


The Super Bowl may soon be heading toward a permanent February
date. Here's why: The networks don't like starting the season on
the ratings-poor Labor Day weekend and want to continue with a
16-game, 17-week regular season (retaining that additional week
of revenue); the owners want to keep the open date between the
conference championship games and the Super Bowl. Owners will
discuss their options in March at the league's annual meeting.
In May they're expected to pick a site (probably Houston) for
the 2004 Super Bowl, which will probably be the first title game
played in February....

So much for talk of Bears players dissing rookie quarterback
Cade McNown. "I'm starting to love this guy," center Olin Kreutz
told tackle James (Big Cat) Williams in the midst of Chicago's
28-10 win over the Lions on Sunday. McNown completed 27 of 36
passes for 301 yards and four touchdowns....

After a disastrous season that led to his benching at
quarterback and shift to wide receiver, the Steelers' Kordell
Stewart should sound humble right about now. Inexplicably, he
sounds just the opposite when he talks about next year. "The
question is, which [position] is it that I want to play. Me. No
one else. Me. And it's quarterback," Stewart says. "I don't want
this situation to have to come about again. Plain and simple. I
don't plan on going back in at wide receiver at all. No way,
shape, size or form."...

Don Shula was 37-25 in his last 62 regular-season games as coach
of the Dolphins. By virtue of Miami's 12-9 win over the Chargers
on Sunday, Jimmy Johnson is 36-26.

The End Zone

Steelers tackle Shar Pourdanesh, who had to block Chiefs
linebacker Derrick Thomas last Saturday, compared the sackmaster
to a stalk of asparagus. "He's tall and skinny," Pourdanesh
said. "You have to be gentle with him. You can't just go out
there and try to kill him. You have to kind of pick at him a
little bit, then bite his head off." Thomas had four tackles and
a sack in a 35-19 Kansas City win.

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Though his passer rating is down, Flutie has almost doubled his rushing total of last year.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Karim Abdul-Jabbar (27) and the Browns have gained an NFL-low 67.3 yards a game on the ground.

Flutie's No Fluke

In a 31-21 win over Arizona on Sunday, Doug Flutie made his 24th
regular-season start since returning to the NFL. At week's end
his .667 winning percentage ranked third among quarterbacks
since the beginning of the 1998 season (minimum 20 starts).


1. Mark Brunell, Jaguars .852 (23-4) 220.4 34 17
2. Randall Cunningham, Vikings .750 (15-5) 266.4 41 19
3. Doug Flutie, Bills .667 (16-8) 247.8 35 26
4. Chris Chandler, Falcons .652 (15-8) 215.7 36 22
5. Brett Favre, Packers .621 (18-11) 267.9 50 41

*Passing and rushing yards

the buzz

1. Despicable Act "This is society," Browns coach Chris Palmer
sighed after Cleveland tackle Orlando Brown knocked down referee
Jeff Triplette for inadvertently hitting him in the eye with his
BB-weighted penalty flag on Sunday. "I said recently, 'Someday a
coach is going to get shot. I hope it's not me.'"

2. Millennium Man Privately, the 49ers now acknowledge that
concussion-ravaged Steve Young will probably find a doctor who
will clear him to play next season. One high-ranking member of
the organization goes so far as to say that Young will probably
take San Francisco's first snap on opening day 2000.

3. Coach in Waiting If you don't think Jets defensive mastermind
Bill Belichick will be on the short list of teams shopping for a
coach in the off-season, just look at how AFC East quarterbacks
have fared of late against his unit. The Colts' Peyton Manning
had his two lowest-rated games of 1999 against the Jets. The
Bills' Doug Flutie says New York's defense is the toughest he
faces. The Patriots' Drew Bledsoe is 1-4 in his last five games
against the Jets. The Dolphins' Dan Marino has a 51.9 rating in
his last three games against New York. So what if Belichick
needs a Dale Carnegie course. He's the smartest assistant in the
league. Period.