The Doug Flutie-Rob Johnson debate has done more than divide Buffalo football fans. Veteran kicker Steve Christie says it has split the Bills' locker-room.
"The guys are divided because everyone likes Rob, he's a good guy and is laid back," the Oakville, Ont., native said Wednesday via telephone from Virginia, where he is vacationing. "But Doug gets them going much more when he's on the field.
"He changes things when he's out there, it's a different game with Doug. But he is 38."
The six-foot-five Johnson is regarded as the NFL's prototype quarterback. But the 27-year-old has been injury-prone, failing to finish five of his 11 starts this year alone while missing another five contests with injuries.
The five-foot-10, 175-pound Flutie doesn't have Johnson's size or physical ability but makes up for it with experience and savvy. The former Heisman Trophy winner's scrambling ability allows him to turn a broken play into a long gain, something he did regularly during an illustrious eight-year CFL career.
And Flutie wins. He was 4-1 in place of Johnson this year, boosting his record as an NFL starter to an impressive 21-9.
The Bills' quarterback debate has captured headlines in Canada and the United States since 1998 when, months after signing Flutie as a free agent, Buffalo signed Johnson to a five-year, $25-million US deal after acquiring him from the Jacksonville Jaguars. The controversy has also created endless hours of spirited debate on WGR 55, Buffalo's all-sports talk radio station.
But Christie, 33, who wouldn't take sides in the quarterback issue, said a game Flutie didn't play in -- Buffalo's heart-breaking 22-16 playoff loss to Tennessee last year -- created the first real division among Bills players.
Flutie led Buffalo to a 10-5 record and an AFC playoff berth in 1999 before being benched for the playoff game in Tennessee in favour of Johnson. The Titans won on a last-second kickoff return touchdown set up by a controversial cross-field lateral.
"That really split the guys up," Christie said. "That Tennessee thing was much more than a bloop kick and a runback.
"Half the locker room was on one side and the other was on the other. That's no way to go into the playoffs. You can't point blame one way or the other . . . It's just the players were confused.
"You need to be a solid unit, mentally and physically, going into the playoffs and I don't think we were."
Budgetary restraints forced Buffalo to cut 16 regulars after the '99 season, including veterans Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed. And with the Bills reportedly $10 million US over the salary cap this year, many expect Flutie -- given his age and $5.4-million US salary -- to be released as part of yet another off-season purge.
Christie said the absence of Smith and Thomas really hurt Buffalo this year because the two veterans, pivotal figures in the Bills' four straight Super Bowl appearances, were the team's locker-room conscience. They could get their teammates to concentrate on football and not who was at quarterback.
"So now you're expecting Rob and Doug to be your leaders," Christie said. "But neither one is really, truly, the leader, which a quarterback should be.
"Sam Cowart (Buffalo's all-star linebacker) is a brilliant player but he's a quiet guy who leads by example. We had (offensive lineman) Ruben Brown who is pretty vocal, but other than that we really had nothing."
But player-personnel decisions -- and questions surrounding Christie's future in Buffalo -- will have to wait until after owner Ralph Wilson hires a replacement for general manager John Butler, who was fired last month.
Butler's successor will not only have to manage the Bills' salary cap but also decide the fate of head coach Wade Phillips and his staff while also trying to re-sign Christie, receiver Eric Moulds and defensive lineman Marcellus Wiley, who all become unrestricted free agents this off-season.
Christie wants to remain a Bill but realizes, given the club's salary-cap woes, he might be forced to play his 12th NFL season elsewhere. Losing the six-foot, 190-pound Christie would be a big blow to the Bills.
Christie is the Bills' career scoring leader and after nine years in Buffalo has proven he can master the tricky winds at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Christie made 26 of 35 field-goal tries this season and finished 11th in NFL scoring with 109 points.
Christie says he will be fair in his salary demand to Buffalo but adds the five-year, $7.75-million contract signed earlier this season by Indianapolis's Mike Vanderjagt, which made the Oakville kicker the NFL's highest-paid kicker, is the new league benchmark.
"I've told them I'm not going to run them over by asking for too much," Christie said. "But I know what the market dictates at this point and what I should be getting.
"Buffalo is my home now, it's close to my parents and where I grew up, which is important to me. But if things they don't fall into place, then obviously I'll have to take another offer."
By Dan Ralph