Calm Before the Storm With Doug Flutie out of the picture, the laid-back Rob Johnson will have to produce big-time in Buffalo--or feel the heat

Aug. 06, 2001
Aug. 06, 2001

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Aug. 6, 2001

Calm Before the Storm With Doug Flutie out of the picture, the laid-back Rob Johnson will have to produce big-time in Buffalo--or feel the heat

The guy lives in a dream world. He is young and fit and fabulously
wealthy, with killer good looks, a Porsche parked on one side of
his garage and a Lexus on the other. His home is perched on a
craggy oceanfront shelf, above the Pacific in Laguna Beach,
Calif., a three-story, 3,000-square-foot orchestration of stone,
weathered gray wood and floor-to-ceiling windows for watching
sunsets, breakers and the endless parade of beautiful women
walking the beach below. Ocean breezes are the AC and lapping
waves the sound system.

This is an article from the Aug. 6, 2001 issue

On one of the last, quiet days of his summer vacation, Buffalo
Bills quarterback Rob Johnson sat at the granite bar in this
house that he bought for $2.5 million 2 1/2 years ago, scarfing
down a lunch of steamed chicken, broccoli and snow peas. Dressed
in long, baggy trunks and a white sleeveless T-shirt that sets
off his deep tan, Johnson, 28, was a portrait of the successful
young single male. The only glitch is that by the standards of
his field, he is not yet successful.

For that reason, he can't be completely comfortable living in
luxury. He bought the place in January 1999, less than a year
after signing a five-year, $25 million contract with the Bills, a
windfall based on potential and little else. Before the '98 draft
Buffalo traded the ninth pick plus a fourth-rounder to the
Jacksonville Jaguars to get him. A fourth-round selection in '95
out of Southern Cal, Johnson had played only six games in three
seasons with the Jaguars. Yet other teams had increasing interest
in him based on his 6'4", 212-pound body, a live arm, good feet
and one game--the '97 season opener, a 28-27 victory over the
Baltimore Ravens in which Johnson completed 20 of 24 passes for
294 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 31 yards and another
touchdown. "I'll admit it," says Johnson. "I had really good

Not entirely. In addition to the money, Johnson got a three-year
quarterback battle with Doug Flutie, a soap opera that divided
the Bills' players and was blamed for every bump in last year's
8-8 finish, a performance that led to the firing of coach Wade
Phillips after the season. On Feb. 19 and 20 new general manager
Tom Donahoe and new coach Gregg Williams, the former defensive
coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, brought Flutie and Johnson
to Buffalo for separate six-hour interviews. On Feb. 28, after
weeks of media speculation that the popular and resourceful
38-year-old Flutie (21-9 as a starter in Buffalo, to Johnson's
8-10) would be retained, the Bills cut Flutie and named Johnson
the starter in the team's new West Coast offense. "First and
foremost," says Donahoe, "we thought he was the better player."

The Bills have played a daring hand, betting that Johnson will
blossom with Flutie gone, a gamble with the franchise's
short-term fortunes and the fans' fickle emotions. "If the Bills
have any kind of a rough start with Rob, there's going to be a
serious flap," says John Holecek, a starting inside linebacker
for the last three-plus years who was cut in July as part of
Williams's switch to a 4-3 scheme. "Buffalo was a Flutie town;
everybody identified with him. He was the small guy, and Buffalo
likes the underdog."

Thus, as training camps kicked into gear last week, no player in
the league was on a hotter seat than Johnson. "That's fine, I'm
ready," he says. "The last three years--with two guys who don't
get along and have different personalities and different styles
playing the same position--it just wasn't any fun."

How ugly was the 2000 season in Buffalo? On Oct. 15, when Johnson
went down with a separated right shoulder in a home game against
the San Diego Chargers, the crowd cheered. Two weeks later, with
Johnson still out, Flutie led the Bills to a 23-20 victory over
the New York Jets, and SI published comments from two anonymous
Buffalo players criticizing Johnson and insinuating that his
quarterback rating was more important to him than winning games.
Johnson, certain that Flutie planted at least one of the quotes
(Flutie declined through a Chargers' spokesman to be interviewed
for this story), confronted Flutie. "I challenged Doug, and he
said something to me about Tony Eason being the same [about his
statistics]," says Johnson of the former New England Patriots
quarterback. "I said, 'I don't give a f--- about you and Tony
Eason. If you've got something to say to me, say it to my face.'"

In fact, neither of the players quoted was Flutie. It's true that
the fans and the media were smitten with Flutie, but many of the
players favored him too. Defensive end Marcellus Wiley, who
played with Buffalo for the last four years and signed with San
Diego in the off-season, says, "Doug is the kind of guy who
people want to fight for. He motivates you, makes you feel
confident the offense is in good hands. Rob is like this science
project from a quarterback laboratory. He looks like a model;
he's got the big arm. He's the guy who can throw a ball through a
tire from 30 yards away. But he needs experience, and he needs
better mental awareness, because in the game that tire is moving

Others, however, supported Johnson. "People took sides, and I was
behind Rob from Day One," says center Jerry Ostroski, a
seven-year veteran who has started 95 games for the Bills. "He's
got a tremendous work ethic, attention to detail. I'm looking
forward to this being Rob's team." As Williams points out, "To a
man, everybody on this team just wanted a decision at the
quarterback position."

Lost in the Flutie worship (and face it, there's probably not a
worse athlete in America with whom to engage in a public
relations battle than the Hail Mary-throwing, Heisman-winning
father of Flutie Flakes) was that Johnson has played well at
times. After he sat behind Flutie for the first 15 games of the
'99 season and then threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns in a
meaningless regular-season-ending win over the Indianapolis
Colts, Johnson shockingly got the start in a wild-card playoff
game against the Titans. He endured a ferocious beating--"We
pounded him all day," recalls Williams--but drove the Bills to
what appeared to be the game-winning field goal with 16 seconds
left, only to have the Titans pull off the Music City Miracle.
Johnson opened the 2000 season with wins over the Titans and the
Green Bay Packers and in November returned from the shoulder
injury to lead the Bills past the Kansas City Chiefs.

Nobody questions his toughness. In three years he has had four
concussions, two rib injuries, a hip pointer, a severely sprained
ankle and that separated shoulder. Last season, after suffering
the hip pointer against the Chiefs and tearing rib cartilage in a
loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Johnson, fearing Flutie would
replace him, took cortisone shots so he could practice. The next
Sunday the Miami Dolphins sacked him five times in a 33-6 rout.
"We came after him and gave him a licking," says Miami safety
Brock Marion, "but you have to give him credit--he didn't shut it
down. Some guys quit. Rob doesn't."

He had shown enough that before Buffalo decided to keep him over
Flutie, wideouts and former USC teammates Curtis Conway of the
Chargers and Keyshawn Johnson of the Bucs called Johnson and said
they'd love to have him play for their teams. "In Buffalo, he had
Flutie over his shoulder the entire time, and people were just
waiting for Rob to make a mistake," says Keyshawn. "This year,
people are going to be saying, 'Look at this kid,' because he's
got incredible talent. When we talk about quarterbacks, I always
put a star next to Rob's name." Nonetheless, Johnson's
detractors--in his locker room and out--could easily make a list of
his shortcomings.

--Too many sacks. In 2000 Johnson was dragged down 49 times, or
once every 7.2 times he dropped to pass, by far the worst among
the NFL's 39 quarterbacks with at least 190 attempts (chart,
above). "I would have liked Rob to come along better as far as
getting rid of the football," says Phillips, who like several
others acknowledges that the line was responsible for many of
Johnson's sacks. Adds Ostroski, "The idea that he was trying to
hype his quarterback rating is a crock. He was just trying to
make plays." (The scrambling Flutie was sacked once every 24.1
times but is weak-armed compared with Johnson.) Williams and
offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard expect Johnson's sack total
to drop dramatically in the quick-read West Coast attack, and
the staff has been thrilled with Johnson's devotion to study. He
has pored over hours of tape, focusing on Joe Montana from the
'80s and Brett Favre from the '90s.

--Too many injuries. This is clearly related to the sacks, so in
the spring Johnson and Sheppard reviewed many of them on tape.
"Too many times I was straining for an extra yard and getting
whacked," says Johnson. "Plus, I'm a lousy slider. I slide too
close to the defender, and he gets a head shot on me. I've got to
work on those things."

--Too little savvy. The Bills loved Flutie for his
resourcefulness and guile in the heat of battle. Johnson is
bigger, stronger and faster yet often not as effective. "Flutie
found a way to make things fit," says Holecek. "Rob's got all
the talent in the world, but he needs experience to play the way
Flutie did. If you could put Flutie's head on Rob's body, then
it would be all over."

Since Flutie's departure, Johnson has taken it slowly in his new
role as the Man. When Williams asked him to become a more vocal
leader, Johnson declined. "Until I earn it," Johnson says, "I'm
going to keep my mouth shut." To help make Johnson more
comfortable, Williams gathered the team in a semicircle at the
end of a March minicamp and lectured. "Rob Johnson is our
quarterback," he said. "He's got all the talent in the world, and
I want everybody--everybody!--behind him." Then he told the players
to gather around Johnson, who would lead them in a cheer.

"We all know Rob's got talent," says Holecek. "What Williams did
was a transparent way to build Rob's confidence. The fact is, Rob
can act any way he wants as long as he throws for 300 yards a
game. Players just want to win."

This is not news to Johnson. He didn't spend his off-season
surfing and sitting. In addition to studying tape, he worked out
daily with a personal trainer and threw every afternoon with his
father, Bob (a longtime high school coach and a tutor of college
and professional quarterbacks), and a group of high school and
college receivers. Several times a week, he did lung-searing
sprints up the steep hills across the Pacific Coast Highway from
his home.

Five days before the start of training camp, he ate dinner at his
parents' house in Mission Viejo, then pointed his Lexus toward
the ocean in twilight. It is a good life he leads, but not a
complete one. "I know I'm not a success yet," he says. "I know
that success is about winning games and earning the respect of
your teammates, winning Super Bowls."

Off in the distance the sun tumbled toward the water, another
perfect picture, far from the gathering storm.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEY TERRILL Kicking back Nothing against Buffalo, but Johnson feels right at home in his California digs.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO

Hold That Line

Of the 39 quarterbacks who threw at least 190 passes last year,
no one had a worse dropback-per-sack ratio than Rob Johnson (here
getting dumped by the Dolphins).


Rob Johnson (BILLS) 355 49 7.2
Akili Smith (BENGALS) 303 36 8.4
Chris Chandler (FALCONS) 371 40 9.3
Steve Beuerlein (PANTHERS) 595 62 9.6
Mark Brunell (JAGUARS) 566 54 10.5
Kordell Stewart (STEELERS) 319 30 10.6
Trent Dilfer (RAVENS) 249 23 10.8
Charlie Batch (LIONS) 453 41 11.0
Trent Green (RAMS) 264 24 11.0
Ryan Leaf (CHARGERS) 353 31 11.4