Flutie always stood tall

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Jim McMahon once called Doug Flutie “America’s midget.”

It might have been funny if the two were rival quarterbacks battling for the NFC title, but actually they were teammates on the Chicago Bears at the time.

Doug Flutie tended to do that to a lot people in football – make them say or do stupid things that would hurt the team because, ultimately, nobody had the guts and the smarts to give Flutie the respect he deserved, or the keys to the offense, for very long.

Perhaps McMahon, who would be a football legend along the lines of Don Majkowski or Steve Bono if he hadn’t carried Walter Payton and the greatest defense ever’s water in the Windy City for seven years, felt threatened by the 5-foot-9 and 3/4 Flutie.

Just a couple of years off winning the Heisman Trophy, Flutie was still very popular when he left the dying USFL to join the NFL and become the Bears’ backup QB.

Now, for a supposedly tough guy, McMahon got hurt an awful lot, and he was hurt again near the end of the 1986 season when Flutie stepped in for him, started the last game of the regular season and got the nod for the playoffs while McMahon recovered. The Bears got trounced by the Redskins, Flutie played poorly (two interceptions), and that was that for him with Chicago. Mike Ditka released Flutie, McMahon threw three picks in another playoff loss to the Skins the following year, and neither quarterback was done making their coaches nervous for a long, long time.

The diminutive one went to New England next, and as if players didn’t resent him enough for his popularity or the big money he made in the USFL, Flutie crossed the picket line and became a replacement player during the 1987 strike. When the strike ended, he had an easier time winning over his teammates than head coach Raymond Berry.

Berry, like virtually all NFL coaches of the time, saw quarterbacks who liked to improvise on the run as the Antichrist. He was afraid to give Flutie more than a cursory look under center, for fear that New England’s favorite son might actually scrap the script, win games and prove that control freak coaches weren’t the backbone of winning teams.

Flutie started the 1988 season as Tony Eason’s backup, then entered the fourth quarter of an Oct. 2 game against Indianapolis. He completed 12 of 16 passes and won the game on a 13-yard TD run with 23 seconds left, and Berry’s worst nightmare came true. He had no choice but to start him the next week and the quarterback delivered, going 7-3 and leading the Pats to the precipice of the playoffs.

But Berry’s paranoia ultimately won out. With the Patriots needing a win over Denver to clinch a playoff spot in the last game of the season, Berry pulled the rug out from under him and named Eason, who hadn’t played in nearly three months, the starter.

The Patriots lost, of course, and Berry buried Dougie deeper in the doghouse the next season, behind not just Eason but a calcifying Steve Grogan and Marc Wilson, who made Eason look like Bob Griese.

Flutie figured out he wasn’t going to get a fair shake and went to the CFL, where he earned fame and fortune, at least as much fame and fortune as one can earn in Canada. Calling his own plays, he won three Grey Cups and six league MVP awards in eight seasons.

Every year, rumors floated about this team or that team luring Flutie back to the States. But it wasn’t until Buffalo promised him the starting job in 1998 that he returned. He made the Pro Bowl his first year, then head coach Wade Phillips did a mind-meld with Raymond Berry and decided to start Rob Johnson, who made Tony Eason and Marc Wilson look like Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall, in Week 17 and the following playoff game against Tennessee. Yes, the Bills lost.

Flutie and Johnson battled on and off the field for the next year. The Bills decided to cast their lot with Johnson and shipped Flutie west to an awful San Diego team, where he kept the seat warm until Drew Brees was ready to take over.

It seemed like no matter where Flutie went in the NFL, he was just holding down the fort until somebody taller came along. It’s pointless to feel sorry for a guy who was able to do what he loved doing for 20 years and was paid handsomely for it, but it’s also hard not to wonder what might have been.

What if he were three inches taller? What if he was coming out of college today, when teams are far more eager to turn their offense over to athletic freelancers like Michael Vick and Vince Young? What if he hadn’t gone to Canada and bided his time in New England, which was only a year or two away from firing Berry and starting the likes of Tommy Hodson and Hugh Millen at quarterback?

We’ll never know, I guess. It’s evident though, that from his Hail Mary pass against the Miami Hurricanes to his drop kick for an extra point against the Miami Dolphins, Doug Flutie got more out of his ability and was infinitely more entertaining than 99.9 percent of the quarterbacks of the last three decades.

Not bad for a midget.

Randy Whitehouse is a staff writer. He can be reached by e-mail at rwhitehouse@sunjournal.com

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