- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2000

Robert Hicks of the Buffalo Bills is big even by offensive tackle standards 6-foot-7, 338 pounds. But when he found out Rob Johnson was going to be his team's starting quarterback in the playoffs instead of Doug Flutie, who had been No. 1 all season "you could [have] knock[ed] me over with a feather," he said. "I was really stunned."
Most people have had the same reaction. Even Johnson himself. "I was really surprised," he said. "I'm sure everyone else was surprised, too."
The day after Bills coach Wade Phillips dropped his bombshell, Mark Gaughan wrote in the Buffalo News: "Never at least in the modern NFL era of the past 30 years has a team benched a healthy starting quarterback in favor of a backup to open the playoffs."
Actually, Mark, you're, uh, wrong. The same thing happened in 1987 right here in Washington. On the eve of the playoffs, Joe Gibbs demoted Jay Schroeder to second string and made Doug Williams the starter. Why? For much the same reason Phillips is turning to Johnson: because Williams was dynamite in the season finale, coming off the bench to rally the Redskins to a 27-24 overtime victory at Minnesota.
Gibbs' decision turned out to be the right one. The Redskins went on to win the Super Bowl and Williams was game MVP. But that move wasn't nearly as big a gamble as Phillips'. Doug, after all, had played in five games that year two as a starter and had put up much better numbers than Schroeder. He also had previous playoff experience with Tampa Bay. And he was a big fan favorite.
Johnson, on the other hand, had thrown only two passes all season before lighting up Indianapolis in Buffalo's 31-6 victory Sunday. He also has never taken a snap in a playoff game and wouldn't stand much of a chance in a popularity contest with Flutie. But the Bills' coaches were absolutely mesmerized by his performance against the AFC East champion Colts; he completed 24 of 32 for 287 yards, had two touchdown passes and no interceptions and even ran seven times for 36 yards.
More than anything, Phillips and his staff were impressed with how quickly Johnson got rid of the ball, how decisive he was. Early last season, when he was starting ahead of Flutie, he was much more tentative and was sacked 24 times in the first four games. Finally, he got sacked and didn't get up and Doug came to the rescue, leading Buffalo to the playoffs and earning himself the most improbable of Pro Bowl berths.
Flutie's stats weren't as good this year, but the Bills were 10-5 when Phillips decided to "rest" him and give Johnson some work in the Indy game. Now it looks like Doug has been Wally Pipped. The poor guy may never be heard from again.
"That's why you play through injuries," he told the News. "That's why you keep going. Because you don't want a guy to show what he can do."
You especially don't want a guy to show what he can do when you're 5-foot-10 (maybe), 37 years old and have been told your entire career that you don't have what it takes to play quarterback in the NFL. But Flutie went along with it just as he had the year before, when Johnson played the last regular-season game and threw for 218 yards and three TDs. Only this time he got burned.
Phillips, of course, is hanging his heinie way out there on this one. Johnson was terrific against Indianapolis, sure, but the Colts didn't have much to play for. Barring a miracle that is, a Cincinnati win over Jacksonville they weren't going to get the home-field advantage in the AFC. Also, the Bills' first playoff opponent is Tennessee, one of the top pass-rushing teams in the league. Johnson may be moving better in the pocket these days, but he's not an escape artist like Flutie. And here's something else to consider: Buffalo's right offensive tackle, Hicks, might be limited by a sprained ankle. He's the one who has to block Titans terror Jevon Kearse. Lotsa luck.
Flutie said the coaches feel the offense is "more explosive" with Johnson's big arm in there. The Bills have arguably the best defense in the NFL, a Super Bowl defense, but they scored fewer than 20 points in four of Flutie's last five starts. If they want to go deep into the playoffs, Phillips figures, they're going to have to put more points on the board.
But explosiveness cuts both ways. If Tennessee gets some pressure on Johnson and he doesn't respond well to it the move could blow up in Phillips' face. And if it does, he'll be haunted by it for the rest of his coaching life.
"To me," he explains, "it goes back to last year when Rob was banged up. When Doug came in and played outstanding, you couldn't ignore that. So I made that decision because I thought it was best for the team. This is the same [kind of] decision."
But that decision was made in the middle of the season. This decision is being made five days before the start of the playoffs. A little different circumstances. Johnson is unquestionably the Bills' quarterback of the future. That's why they gave up a No. 1 pick for him and handed him a $25 million contract. But Saturday's game isn't being played in the future, it's being played in the here and now.
Frankly, I think Phillips is nuts, a total loon. (What Doug Williams did in '87 ain't gonna happen again anytime soon.) But it just shows you what a nervous time this is in the NFL. Coaches get fired after one season, a quarterback gets benched with a 10-5 record and you can't blame Dan Snyder for any of it.
Yet.

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