Doug Flutie led a Buffalo Bills resurgence in the late 1990s, but the decision to bench him in favor of Rob Johnson before the start of the 1999 playoffs remains one of the most controversial calls in the team’s history.
The Bills would lose that game, setting the team on a 17-year playoff drought and sparking endless debate over whether Flutie could have led them to victory instead. This week, Flutie appeared on Shout! The Buffalo Football Podcast and spoke out about the incident, revealing who was really behind the decision to send him to the bench.
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Bills Bench Flutie
After leading the team to an 10-5 record and a wild-card berth in 1999, Flutie appeared to be poised to lead a playoff push for a team many saw as a Super Bowl contender. With the Bills locked into their playoff position going into the final week, Flutie was benched and Rob Johnson came in to lead the Bills to a blowout win over the Indianapolis Colts, throwing for 287 yards and two touchdowns.
Flutie said that he already had a feeling that the team would be going with Johnson for the playoffs after he had been benched for the final week, and the day after the win over Indianapolis he was called into head coach Wade Phillips’ office to get the bad news. Flutie said he knew right away that the decision came from above the head coach, with owner Ralph Wilson really the one making the call.
“Wade had the conversation with me, and I knew how Wade felt about me as a quarterback and how he felt about the team, and I knew it wasn’t his decision,” Flutie said on the podcast. “They were spending this money on Rob and he’s the guy they want to be the franchise guy. I’m an old guy just hanging on.”
Phillips then publicly announced that Johnson would be the starter against the Tennessee Titans, even though Flutie had started 15 games that season. Johnson struggled in the game, completing just 10 of 22 passes for 131 yards and no touchdowns, but he did lead the Bills on a late scoring drive that appeared to put them in position to win. The Titans then made history, pulling off the “Music City Miracle” in the form of a kickoff lateral returned for a touchdown. The Bills lost, and the decision to bench Flutie was one of the most controversial in the team’s history.
Decision Remains Controversial
More than 20 years later, the decision to bench Flutie and start Johnson in the playoff game still draws a strong reaction from many Bills fans and some passing of the blame by Phillips. Asof SB Nation’s Buffalo Rumblings noted in a 2019 revisiting of the drama, Phillips wrote in a memoir that Wilson meddled in the decision, but said he agreed with the reason behind it.
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.
But many fans still place the blame on Phillips, andnoted that he had a chance to put in Flutie after halftime following a putrid first-half performance from Johnson in the playoff loss. In the end, Lavoie wrote, Bills fans were justified in their anger over the call.
Bills legend Doug Flutie talks who made the call to go Rob Johnson vs Titans, NFL draft QBs, Josh Allen, & more https://t.co/uNAu2O8iBk
— Buffalo Bills News (@billsupdates) April 22, 2021
But Flutie said he understood the call, and believed it would take the combined talents of both he and Johnson for the Bills to reach their potential that offseason.
“We were a very good football team and I thought for sure it would take both of us to go where we were trying to get, but we were going to get there,” Flutie said. “I thought we would make a strong playoff run and have a chance at the Super Bowl, but it would take both of us to do it. If not for the Music City Miracle, maybe I’m starting the next week or playing the next week.”
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