The Bulls Pen

Abracadabra Alakazam

During Doug Flutie's tenure at Buffalo, there was a lot of heated debate over the merit of what was labeled "the Flutie magic." Does this vertically challenged quarterback really have mystical powers that have enabled him to post a 35-16 record as a starter? Is he a misunderstood savior sent from the heavens to lead Buffalo to the promised land only to have been exiled by the evil Johnsonians? Or is he just an aging quarterback with average skills, instilling false optimism and unfulfilled dreams, applying the same principles that makes Dionne Warwick so inviting to housewives and underdogs around the country, giving them something to hang their hats upon? Is his so called "magic" just tomfoolery and shenanigans, serving as fodder for the little guy to feed upon? Is he just a reminder to us that, to paraphrase Tom Petty, even the losers get lucky sometimes?

Whether or not Flutie is a bona-fide magician is debatable, but one thing is clear: Compared to Flutie, present Bills quarterback Rob Johnson is a regular Houdini. While Flutie's magic tricks lie in his exploits on the field, such as his sidearm passes, and his ability to elude defenders, Johnson is a master at illusion and being able to pull the wool over the eyes of Buffalo, otherwise a knowledgeable sports city.

Why Buffalo is still so enamored with the Southern Californian despite his repeated failures on the field is an enigma. Maybe it's because opposites attract, and he represents everything Buffalo doesn't. In a meat and potatoes city, he is one of those $200 lunches that consist of a couple of octopus tentacles and some exotic fish testicles found only in the Red Sea. In a land of snow and steel, Johnson is glitz and glamour, all style and no substance.

Prior to Buffalo's 13-10 victory over Jacksonville Thursday night, Johnson lost his previous eight starts. If he were a major league pitcher, they would have sent him down to the minors. Johnson had an efficient game Thursday. He made some good reads, using his safety valve, Larry Centers, effectively. But let's be realistic. He led his team to a grand total of 13 points, not good enough to win most games. I realize rookie kicker Jake Arians missed two medium-range first-half field goals, but does that account for Johnson being able to orchestrate only one touchdown drive against an injury-depleted defense? Again, Johnson's performance Thursday is not deserving of criticism. But, listening to local radio talk show hosts Friday, you would think that he had earned himself a spot in Canton on reserve.

To put it in perspective, Johnson's 27-yard hook-up to Eric Moulds Thursday was the fourth touchdown drive that Johnson has engineered this season, in which he has started all five games. In limited action, back-up Alex Van Pelt has led the team to four scores, all of them coming in a relief role against the New York Jets. They both have two touchdown passes.

A common misconception is that Johnson is an injury-prone quarterback who has a lot of talent. In reality, Johnson is an average talent who happens to be injury prone. His supporters constantly mention his cannon arm. In fact, he has not shown any propensity for throwing a good, deep ball and has had more success when he makes his garden variety outlet throws, screens to Larry Centers or Travis Henry that any NFL quarterback could make.

Johnson is best when he plays within himself and takes what is given to him by the defense instead of hanging onto the ball and trying to make plays. That is when he can keep his team in ball games and give them a chance to win, as he did Thursday against the Jaguars. These are decent traits, but more what would be expected from a serviceable backup, not someone to build a franchise around. Anyone who doubts that Van Pelt could have turned in a similar performance to the one Johnson turned in on Thursday is living in a Johnsonian haze.

In one of last year's issues of The Spectrum, a certain sports editor made these two predictions:

While I would like to say there was scientific research put into these predictions, it was used by simple observation. If you look at games in which Johnson struggled, got injured, and Flutie came in to lead the offense, it was as different as a Northeaster is from a California heat wave. Every housewife in America could have told you the Bills made the wrong decision in keeping Johnson; it makes one wonder what so-called football experts like Tom Donahoe and Gregg Williams were thinking. Were they cast under the spells of Johnson's sorcery?

One thing is for sure: Flutie took his bag of tricks westward, while Buffalo is left with Johnson's routine, which is nothing but smoke and mirrors.