Doug Flutie is a shaggy little thing, with all that brown hair falling down his neck onto the collar of his shapeless T-shirt, and a pair of nondescript baggy jeans that fold around his worn-in sneakers. His hair flops around while he rushes from one game to another, anything he can lay his hands on, a bowling ball or a pool stick, as games are the only things that have ever truly held his attention.
There is a little known story about Flutie, according to which he was sitting one night at a dinner table in a restaurant, bored and fooling with a packet of sugar. Idly he flipped it toward the table. It landed in the sugar bowl. That is the way things often happen to Flutie; he throws something down and it lands in the right place, and his latest sleight of hand has been to become the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots, leading them to a 5-2 record in the seven games after they had started 1-3.
So may he never grow up, this scamp everybody has tried to tease and mock out of the NFL, and football in general for that matter, but who is still playing it with the base enjoyment of a youth. The pronunciation of his very name makes your voice rise slightly in a childish trill, and he is officially listed at 5-foot-9 3/4. Yeah, right, maybe in cleats, standing on a hardwood floor. More accurately he is 5-9 and sometimes his passes look more like knuckleballs, but there now appears to be an inarguable place for him in the NFL.
“Hey, we’re winning, and I’m happy, and that’s the bottom line,” he said. “I’m not out to prove anything. I just want to play football, have some fun, earn a living. And go to a Super Bowl.”
Flutie’s wants are not small, and they may seem sometimes beyond his grasp, but judging by his past he usually gets them. In high school in Natick, Mass., he was a safety until injuries made him a quarterback his sophomore year. He got one of the last scholarships Boston College offered his graduation year, and was supposed to be converted to wide receiver, only to quarterback his way to the Heisman Trophy and the all-time NCAA yardage record as a senior in 1984. Sometimes he scooped the ball, he shoveled it while falling, pushed it with two hands, and even left-handed, making every play that seemed impossible. He threw the most startling pass in recent college football memory to Gerard Phelan for the famed touchdown to beat Miami in the very last second.
But for awhile, Flutie’s touch of success seemed to have disappeared.
“A lot has happened since I was in college,” he said. “I mean, it seems like an awfully long time ago.”
He impressed very few as a command performance rookie who was expressly named the starter for the New Jersey Generals of the U.S. Football League. He impressed few, and gave all those who said he was too small to see the field more fodder for their argument.
In 1986 he joined the Chicago Bears, and was largely blamed for their first-round playoff loss to the Washington Redskins. He was at various times called “Bambi” by Coach Mike Ditka and “America’s Midget” by the injured Jim McMahon before he was traded to New England toward the end of last year’s strike. He immediately put off some of his new teammates by crossing the picket line for the final strike game, so desperate was he to play.
Flutie started this pre-season as the fourth-stringer behind Steve Grogan, Tony Eason and Tom Ramsey. But once again, things just started happening right for him. Eason had arm problems, Grogan a neck injury. Ramsey replaced Grogan in the fifth game of the season against Indianapolis, but was ineffective. In the fourth quarter, Flutie entered, and he has remained their starter ever since, winning even when he seems to play badly, as is sometimes the case.
“He seems to be able to come up with it when we need it,” Coach Raymond Berry explained.
Flutie is not the most consistent quarterback around, and in the last two games has actually been numerically dreadful. In a 21-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago, he completed seven of 14 passes for but 74 yards. On Sunday in a 14-13 defeat of the New York Jets, he was six of 20 for 78 yards and two interceptions. But the Patriots will accept that, because his value lies in other areas.
He is not shy about running with the ball; if he sees it, he takes it. His reputation as a lifelong improviser would not seem to suit him for systematic pro play, but he may actually be on the cutting edge of chic. With the growing number of injured quarterbacks, evasiveness may be a valuable quality. Against the Jets, he carried five times for 27 yards, an average of 5.4 yards a carry.
“He makes the big play at the right time, and that’s the sign of a good quarterback,” offensive coordinator Rod Humenuik said. “It’s an inner feeling he has. He’s not just running around, scrambling without something in mind. He darts around and makes positive yardage. He has a great quality of sensing things.”
If there was such a statistic as effectiveness in scoring position, Flutie’s numbers would go way up. When he came in to spell Ramsey as the Patriots were trailing against Indianapolis, he completed 10 of 10 passes over two late drives to touchdowns, the second a personal game-winner on a 13-yard naked bootleg. With him as a starter, they have beaten Cincinnati and Miami, thrashed the Bears by 30-7 as he threw four touchdown passes, and barely overcome the Jets, helped by his 19-yard scoring pass, for their first road victory of the season.
“That’s what counts,” Flutie said. “I don’t really like it that way. I mean, I’d love to be 65 percent for all kinds of yards. I know I can throw the football. It’s just not happening right now. I wish I could put my finger on something, that points to what the difference is between a good pass and a short ball. I don’t know. It drives you crazy a little bit.”
Since he has yet to demonstrate the classic NFL numbers, Flutie is uncomfortable with this image of him as New England’s homegrown miracle child. When NBC wanted him on camera after the Jets game, he declined, embarrassed by his pair of interceptions. “Doug Flutie didn’t have a great game,” he said. “Get somebody on there who did.”
But among the Patriots, no one really minds his erratic moments and knuckleballs as long as things continue to work. His vision, or alleged lack of it, “hasn’t bothered us yet,” according to Humenuik. Maybe receivers such as Irving Fryar are less involved than they used to be, but they are making up for that in other ways.
If Flutie is inconsistent, the rushing game is not. Rookie running back John Stephens has exceeded 100 yards in three of his last four games. Their turnovers have dwindled to almost nothing, with only four in the past five games, and two came from harmless Flutie interceptions against the Jets.
“He’s short and it’s a little hard to see him in the pocket, but he’s a good quarterback, and he wouldn’t be in there if he wasn’t,” Fryar said. “He’s a winner, no question. I’d prefer to be catching nine and 10 passes all the time, sure, but you can’t do that all the time. It’s a matter of more repetitions and him getting more used to the system.”
In the meantime, Flutie is living out the same old perfect story. He gets to spend his days in his hometown, Natick, where he is comfortably beloved and lives across the street from his in-laws and has his favorite lifelong workout gym and breakfast cafe. His parents live across town, and in the offseason he spends most of his time with brother Darren, the San Diego Chargers wideout, playing pickup basketball. Being at home may partly account for his success thus far. “When you’re relaxed off the field, it makes a whole lot easier to go back on the field,” he said.
Moreover, the Patriots have said he is their starter for the duration, even though Eason is now healthy.
“I don’t care what my role is,” Flutie said. “I just want to be a part of this team, and right now I am a part of it. I may get a greater role as the season goes on, and I may have less of a role. I don’t know. I’ll just take what comes. When I look back at the pre-season and figure where I was, I’m happy.”