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20 years later, Doug Flutie-Rob Johnson quarterback controversy still stings Buffalo Bills fans

Wade Phillips will never live this down.

In 1999, the Buffalo Bills were putting the finishing touches on an 11-5 season with a wild-card berth. Doug Flutie, the former CFL star who had started 15 games for the Bills during that 1999 season, was one of several starters to sit out the final game of the season, with the result having no bearing on Buffalo’s playoff standing. In came Rob Johnson, who was relegated to backup status during the season despite his hefty contract. With arguably the best game of his Bills career, Johnson completed 75% of his passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns, without suffering a sack.

This is when things took a turn. Following the win, coach Wade Phillips inexplicably named Johnson the starting quarterback for the Wild Card game (despite Flutie’s 15 starts that season). Johnson’s playoff debut became the infamous “Music City Miracle,” when Frank Wycheck passed the ball on a controversial forward lateral to spring open a kickoff-return touchdown in the closing seconds of the game. The Tennessee Titans would win, 22-16, and the Bills wouldn’t return to the playoffs for nearly two full decades. The long shadow of controversy behind that quarterback decision still looms, twenty years later.

The background for Flutie and Johnson

For those who weren’t around to see it, or who need a refresher, let’s walk through the history of this pair of passers.

Doug Flutie was a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for Boston College, famous for his Hail Mary pass to defeat the Miami Hurricanes in the 1984 season. Standing 5’10” and 181 lbs, though, Flutie didn’t measure up to NFL standards. He was an 11th-round pick by the Los Angeles Rams, but spent his rookie year playing in the USFL. That league folded after his first season, so he wound up as a backup with the Chicago Bears, then the New England Patriots. In 1990, Flutie signed with the Canadian Football League, and became one of the greatest, most-decorated players in its history. He won three Grey Cups (and was the MVP of each one), and was the league’s Most Outstanding Player six times. He then signed with the Buffalo Bills, at 36 years old, for the team’s 1998 season.

Rob Johnson came to the NFL from the USC Trojans. where he won the Cotton Bowl Classic. Standing 6’4” and 215 lbs, he was a fourth-round pick by the then-expansion franchise Jacksonville Jaguars in the 1995 NFL Draft. Johnson spent two years as a backup, first to Steve Beuerlein, then to Mark Brunell. In 1997, Johnson had his first and only start with the Jaguars, an outstanding day by all measures. He completed 20-of-24 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns. He took three sacks, but also rushed four times for 36 yards and a touchdown. He suffered a high-ankle sprain during that game, and missed three weeks due to the injury, but also never needed to see the field again (except during mop-up time). In 1998, the Bills traded Jacksonville a first- and fourth-round pick for Johnson, whom they signed to a five-year, $25 million contract.

The 1998 season

Todd Collins, drafted in the second round of the 1995 NFL Draft, had not worked out. In the 1997 season, he had a 5-8 record as a starter, throwing 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. In came Flutie and Johnson as potential replacements.

Wade Phillips was the new head coach, replacing the retired Marv Levy. After signing Johnson, Phillips praised him to the press, saying “This guy has a great future in the league. We started forward with a new era. This isn’t the Marv Levy-Jim Kelly era. Hopefully, this is the Wade Phillips-Rob Johnson era.”

The Phillips-Johnson era didn’t start well. Johnson started the season with a 1-3 record, suffered 23 sacks, and ended up with an injury that would sideline him for the next month. Flutie won each of the next four games, throwing eight touchdowns to two interceptions and only taking two sacks. At this point, Phillips named Flutie the starter, saying that his performance coupled with Johnson’s absence made the decision easy.

Flutie ultimately took the team from 1-3 to 9-6, and with a playoff spot locked up, Johnson started and won the season finale. The Bills played the Miami Dolphins in the Wild Card round, which they lost 24-17. Flutie was named Comeback Player of the Year and selected to the Pro Bowl.

The 1999 season

In the wake of the previous year, Phillips maintained Flutie as the starter for the 1999 season. His performance wasn’t as magical as the previous year; his touchdowns dipped, his yards per attempt took a hit, he took more sacks, and there was no Pro Bowl selection. Nonetheless, the defense was one of the best in the league, and the team entered the final game with a 10-5 record. As he had in the previous year, Phillips benched some starters and handed Johnson the keys to the offense.

As we mentioned at the top, this was Johnson’s best performance as a Buffalo Bill. The Indianapolis Colts had no intention to rest their starters, fighting for a playoff spot, but he still handily defeated them as the Bills won 31-6.

The Wild Card game

On the one hand, you could say that Johnson put the Bills in position to win the game. In the closing seconds, the team was going to squeak out a 16-15 victory, until that fateful kick return. But let’s be realistic about Johnson’s performance here: it was awful. If you’re a masochist, you can watch the whole game on YouTube here.

On Buffalo’s second drive, Johnson was sacked, fumbled, and the Titans recovered at the Buffalo 29. Stout defense, and a missed 43-yard kick, prevented any damage from that situation.

The scoring started in the second quarter, when Jevon Kearse sacked Johnson in the end zone for a safety. It was one of six times the Titans took down Johnson on the day.

The Bills’ running game, led by Antowain Smith and Sam Gash, did its part. The unit finished with 27 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns. But Johnson’s day was awful. He was 10-of-22 for 131 yards, took six sacks, and fumbled the ball three times.

A full-blown quarterback controversy in 2000

The bitter ending of the 1999 season carried into the new millennium. Flutie suffered a groin injury in training camp, and Johnson was named the starter for the season. He led the team to a 3-3 record, but his propensity for sacks (25 in six games) led to more injuries. He separated his shoulder near the end of the Week 6 win, which Flutie finished.

Flutie then started the next four games. The Bills narrowly missed an upset over the Minnesota Vikings, losing 31-27. The Bills then won their next three games, all started by Flutie: a comeback over the New York Jets, an overtime win against the Patriots, and a 20-3 win over the Bears.

Despite Flutie’s winning streak, Johnson returned as the starter in Week 12. He engineered a win over the Kansas City Chiefs, but began struggling again after that. He kept taking sacks, dealt with minor injuries, was ineffective as a passer, and Flutie kept coming off the bench whenever Johnson played poorly. In the penultimate game of the year, Johnson suffered a season-ending injury, and Flutie played the best game of his Bills career, crushing the Seattle Seahawks 42-23 while throwing for a perfect passer rating.

After the season, Phillips was out and general manager John Butler headed to the San Diego Chargers. In came Tom Donahoe and Gregg Williams. They knew they couldn’t keep both quarterbacks, and they elected to stick with Johnson. Flutie was released, and he followed Butler to San Diego.

Phillips’s bizarre reasoning for the playoff decision

In the aftermath of that game and the years after Phillips was fired, he attributed the decision to owner Ralph Wilson’s meddling. That passed the blame along, if anything making fans more upset about the justification for the quarterback swap.

However, he updated his testimony when he published his memoir, Son of Bum.

Phillips claimed that, before the 1998 season, Wilson meddled in the starting quarterback decision. Complaining that Flutie “ran the ball,” he advocated for Johnson, capping the statement with an “I don’t like him” (in reference to Flutie).

When Flutie took over for Johnson and engineered a winning streak, Wilson changed his tune, saying “I love that Flutie! I love him!”

In the 1999 season, Flutie started the year and Johnson had his big game in the season finale. Phillips again maintained that Wilson weighed in on the decision, telling him to start Johnson in the playoffs. But Phillips tried to justify the decision himself.

It wasn’t a bad idea, considering the Titans were unbeaten at home and won all their games there by big scores. 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.

I wasn’t worried about the players on the team who were in Doug’s corner being angry about the switch. 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.

Let’s be clear: This still makes no sense. Backups are backups for a reason. You don’t ditch the horse that brought you down the trail. Would you rather trust the player who won you ten games in the season, or one game?

This also doesn’t factor in the track record from the 1998 season. Remember: Johnson was 2-3 as a starter in that season. Flutie was 8-3. Johnson was one of the most sack-prone quarterbacks ever to play in the league, something that would clearly contribute to Buffalo’s loss in the Wild Card.

Not to mention, Phillips can’t defend his decision to leave Flutie as the “spark” on the bench, because he never even played! Buffalo’s first-half performance was five punts, a lost fumble, and a safety. At halftime, Johnson was 5/13 passing for 64 yards, and he’d lost 30 yards from five sacks. Phillips’s justification is bunk, and 20 years later, Bills fans still hold a grudge about how Buffalo treated one of its great playmakers.