Benching, roster shake-up rankles Flutie

On The NFL

February 27, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Doug Flutie is still bitter about his playoff benching last month.

The Buffalo Bills quarterback sounded off during a Canadian TV interview last week, saying: "I honestly believe that if I would have been playing, we could have, would have, won. It was hard to understand and difficult to deal with."

Nobody knows whether the Bills would have beaten the Tennessee Titans with Flutie. After all, Rob Johnson, his replacement, gave his team the lead with 16 seconds left before the trick kickoff return won it for the Titans, 22-16.

Flutie even blasted the team for releasing the last three players from their first Super Bowl team, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed.

"I shake my head. I really do. It's no longer about who the best player is for the job in terms of personnel. It's not about putting the best product on the field," he said.

Actually, it's about money now. The Bills couldn't afford to pay big money to three aging veterans who didn't want to take pay cuts. Especially since they're paying big money to Johnson ($5.5 million) and Flutie ($4.4 million).

That's why Flutie is accepting being Johnson's backup. "I don't feel like going anywhere else," he said. Flutie knows he couldn't duplicate his salary on another team.

Not that it was easy for the Bills to release the three veterans.

"We're going to miss them, no question about it. Emotionally, it's still very tough for me," said general manager John Butler, who made the moves.

Butler has done a remarkable job of turning the Bills over while keeping them a contender. They have no players left from their first Super Bowl team after the 1990 season, and only six left from their last one after the 1993 season.

Yet the Bills had only two losing seasons in the 1990s while becoming the sixth team to win 100 games in a decade.

Butler did it with a few key free-agent signings (Billy Brooks, Bryce Paup, Chris Spielman, Sam Gash and Ted Washington) in the decade and with outstanding drafting. He drafted 18 of last year's 22 starters.

Butler, though, has gotten little recognition for his feat. He's never been named Executive of the Year since taking over in 1993 after Bill Polian left. The honor usually goes to executives who take teams from something like 3-13 to the playoffs. Keeping a team a contender without collapsing is a tougher job but gets taken for granted.

Butler probably should be named general manager of the decade, but he takes little of the credit.

"It's a credit to our organization and to Mr. Wilson [owner Ralph Wilson] for allowing us in the era of free agency to spend all the money above the cap [on signing bonuses]. We've got an excellent organization, and I still believe that wins," he said.

But Butler knows there comes a time when he can't keep too many high-priced veterans. "You wake up one day with an old team and no reinforcements," he said.

Butler finds most of his reinforcements in the draft. "As long as they let us draft, we'll be a viable team," he said. Flutie forgets the Bills also gave him a chance when no other NFL team was interested.

Now Butler faces the task of overcoming the loss of Smith, Thomas and Reed.

"I always want to be in the position where [opposing teams] look at the schedule and see Buffalo and they know they're in for a football game," he said.

Money games

It's not exactly a secret that many NFL contracts should be written in disappearing ink. That's because they often disappear after a year.

For example, nobody expects Leon Searcy to see the seven-year, $51 million contract he signed with Jacksonville last week that supposedly made him the highest-paid offensive lineman ever. He's supposed to make $7 million in 2002, increasing $1 million a year to $11 million in 2006.

Those were just numbers written down when the Jaguars changed $2 million in base salary to a bonus to lower his cap figure.

Teams do this all the time, which is why so many big deals in the NFL are paper contracts. The only unusual thing is that the Jaguars admitted it.

"If you look at those numbers, he'll never play for them," said Michael Huyghue, the Jaguars' vice president for football operations. "This buys us time to get him a new deal."

The key is the $6 million roster bonus he's due next March. That's like a deadline. The Jaguars are unlikely to pay him that, so they have to reach an agreement on a new deal or cut him.

That's why some veterans could be cut next week because these March 1 agreements aren't unusual. The players like them because it gives them more time on the free-agent market if they're cut than if the teams waited until June 1 to get salary cap relief.

Testing

The top college prospects are in Indianapolis this weekend for the annual scouting combine, but the players are learning to beat the system. The agents prep them on taking the Wonderlic mini-IQ test and even on how to handle the interviews.

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