In 1998, the Buffalo Bills went 10-6 and made the playoffs in Wade Phillips’ first year as head coach after taking over for the retired Marv Levy. In his new book, Son of Bum, he explains how one of the largest quarterback controversies in NFL history began and how a year later, the quarterback controversy reignited prior to the 1999 Wild Card.
Part of the reason I thought we lost in ’97 [when I was defensive coordinator] was because we didn’t have a quarterback. So one of the first things I said after taking the job was, “We’ve got to get a quarterback.”
First, we signed Doug Flutie, who after an unsuccessful start to his career in the NFL went on to become the greatest player in the history of the Canadian Football League. I didn’t know that much about Doug, other than the fact he was only five-foot-ten and that he had originally come into the NFL after winning the Heisman Trophy and making a miracle Hail Mary pass that allowed Boston College to upset the University of Miami.
We also traded first- and fourth-round draft picks to the Jacksonville Jaguars for Rob Johnson. Rob had been a backup in Jacksonville for three seasons, appearing in only eight games and making only one start. The one start was pretty good. He completed twenty-two of twenty-eight passes for 344 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions. We gave up a lot to get him, but we looked at the film and the guy could spin the ball.
Phillips wasn’t worried about a divide in the locker room during a quarterback duel and claims the media made it a much bigger deal than it actually was at the time.
The quarterbacks were very different in almost every way. On and off the field, they brought different skill sets to the table. Phillips gave his critique of each player:
Rob was talented when it came to throwing the ball – he had arm talent. But he was a perfectionist. Everything had to be perfect – the route, the protection. If everything wasn’t perfect, he would hold the ball, and he got sacked a lot because of that.
If you watched him at practice, he was a better passer than Doug, and under some circumstances a better player. If you watched Rob in seven-on-seven, a pure passing drill with no one rushing the quarterback, he would always look great. But under other circumstances, he wasn’t as good a player as Doug.
He claims team owner Ralph Wilson made the call before Phillips’ first regular season game following the team’s final preseason game in 1998. Complaining that Flutie “ran the ball,” Wilson instructed Phillips to go with Johnson adding an exclamation to the sentiment with an “I don’t like him” in reference to Flutie.
After going 0-3 to start the season with Johnson, Flutie took over during the bye week after an injury to Johnson. Phillips claims that after two consecutive wins from Flutie, Wilson was singing a different tune on the running quarterback.
“I love that Flutie! I love him!” said Wilson, via Phillps.
Flutie went 7-3 in 1998 with Johnson finishing 3-3. Buffalo made the playoffs and Flutie started the Wild Card game, was voted to the Pro Bowl, and was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year. It was enough to earn him the starting job heading into 1999.
That year, Flutie topped his performance from the previous season, going 10-5 and clinching a playoff spot. Phillips sat Flutie in a meaningless final game to get him healthy for the playoffs. After Johnson had his best game as a Bill, Wilson again called telling Phillips to start Johnson over Flutie, despite the diminutive quarterback’s record. Phillips backed the decision, he says.
“It wasn’t a bad idea, considering the Titans were unbeaten at home and won all their games there by big scores,” Phillips writes. “We had just played one of our best games of the whole season, and Rob played tremendously. Plus, if we weren’t playing well, Flutie could come in and give us a spark.”
This makes zero sense, but I guess if you are trying to defend a bad decision 17 years later, what else are you going to say?
“I wasn’t worried about the players on the team who were in Doug’s corner being angry about the switch,” continued Phillips. “If you’re coming off a big win like we were, I don’t think that happens. If it’s after a loss, I think it’s different. Once you lose and there’s a change, then all hell can break loose.”
Again this makes zero sense. They were coming off a big win, but in a meaningless game for Buffalo. The Indianapolis Colts, had already clinched a first round bye in the playoffs as the number two seed.
Phillips even defends the decision to switch quarterbacks before the Wild Card game, saying it would have worked out if not for the so-called Music City Miracle. Buffalo had the go-ahead points with less than 20 seconds on the clock, after all.
We’ll never know what the outcome would have been if Flutie started the game, but it was the last time Buffalo was in the playoffs. You can read more excerpts from the book at The Buffalo News.