Do Jeff Garcia a favor. Do not compare him to Doug Flutie.
The way Garcia sees it, he is just doing his job, which is playing quarterback for the Calgary Stampeders, the team with the best record in the Canadian Football League. He is just taking snaps, reading defenses, trying to make good decisions and letting the passes fly.
Never mind that he has become the leader of the CFL's most prolific offense by replacing Flutie, the league's marquee player, after a torn tendon in his throwing elbow ended Flutie's season two months ago.
If only real life worked that way. That Garcia, a shy, 25-year-old former star at San Jose State, has gone from Calgary backup to Calgary savior, is astonishing enough. But the way he has sustained his magic -- with, well, Flutie-like numbers -- prompts the inevitable comparisons.
"I don't want to replace Doug. I'm just substituting," Garcia said. "I don't think anyone can step into Doug's shoes."
Which is precisely what Garcia has done. Sure, he has yet to acquire the savvy and seasoning and field sense that have propelled Flutie to four consecutive, Most Outstanding Player awards.
But Garcia, having grown up in Northern California around football -- his father, Bob, coached for 24 years at Gavilan College in the family's hometown of Gilroy -- knows the game, and has been smart enough to adapt to the CFL over two seasons. Having a strong arm and quick feet to go with his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame have not hurt, either.
"The hardest thing that Jeff has had to do is live up to the Doug Flutie mystique," Calgary coach Wally Buono said. "Jeff studies the game. He had a year to learn about CFL defenses. He came into this year's camp a little bigger, faster and stronger, and he had a real mental grasp of the game. These kinds of guys don't come along very often."
How many backups step into the spotlight and lead their teams to a 7-1 record as a starter?
Garcia has done it with style. In those eight starts, he has completed 66.2 percent of his passes, thrown for 2,703 yards and 22 touchdowns, while being intercepted only eight times in 287 attempts. For the season, he has a 112.9 quarterback rating, tops in the CFL.
This, from a guy who, as a rookie No. 3 quarterback in 1994, threw four passes for Calgary.
"I sure didn't think I'd be taking over the reins, but I knew I'd be prepared," Garcia said. "It's been an exciting experience. It makes it easier for me, being surrounded by the types of guys we have on this team. I'd been watching Doug, learning from him, listening to him for a year and a half. Right now, it's my situation and my opportunity."
The door started to open for Garcia in August, when Flutie complained of soreness in his throwing arm. Then, on Aug. 18 at home against Birmingham, Flutie pulled himself out of the game with what he thought was tendinitis. The Stampeders were trailing at the time.
Garcia promptly threw a touchdown pass to give Calgary a lead it eventually surrendered, before suffering its first loss. Buono named Garcia the starter in the next week's rematch in Birmingham.
"There was a lot of anxiety that week," Garcia said. "The legs got a little weak."
Garcia buried the butterflies the way he disposed of Birmingham's defense that day, throwing for 445 yards and two touchdowns in Calgary's 37-14 victory. The next week, he threw for six touchdowns and 546 yards in a 51-26 victory over archrival Edmonton.
The headlines in Calgary's newspapers blared, "Doug Who?"
"As soon as we lost Doug, we wondered how our season was going to go," slotback David Sapunjis said. "Initially, there were a few questions about how Jeff was going to move the offense. I think he's surprised every player, coach and fan of the Stampeders."
Things have gotten tougher. Opponents have taken away big plays with good zone defenses. He has made rookie mistakes, forcing passes into coverage, locking in on one receiver too often, trying to gain too many yards at once.
But Garcia also has shown the ability to adjust and maintain composure in close games. He has brought the Stampeders from behind in the second half of their past three victories. Against Toronto three weeks ago, he exploited holes in the defense by rushing for 115 yards in a 27-19 victory. Last week, he engineered a 30-point second half, as Calgary erased a 20-11 deficit at British Columbia to post a 41-27 win.
"I thought he'd make a few more mistakes, but he's really been polished. He doesn't hurt himself," said Flutie, who compares notes with Garcia constantly.
"His first start probably impressed me the most, because he had so much poise stepping into the position. Every game is a learning experience for him. Things came easy in the early
games. Over the last few weeks, he's earned more respect by keeping his head up and making plays when the chips were down."
There are rumblings that Flutie is healing so quickly that he might return for the playoffs next month. Whether Flutie makes it back, any doubts about Garcia's ability have long been dispelled.
"This season is not successful unless we win the Grey Cup," Sapunjis said. "We can win the Grey Cup with Jeff."
Time: 8 p.m., TNT
Line: Steelers by 7 1/2
Outlook: Cincinnati, which hasn't beaten Pittsburgh since the Chuck Noll era, is talking like the Steelers are highly beatable tonight -- and in Pittsburgh, no less. Strong talk from a Bengals team that has lost eight straight against the Steelers and hasn't won an AFC Central road game in 3 1/2 seasons under coach David Shula. The Steelers have turned the ball over 19 times -- more often than any AFC team not named the Jets. Without the injured Rod Woodson, they have been unable to generate the cornerback blitzes that were so successful as they led the NFL with 55 sacks last season. Despite its sub-.500 record, Cincinnati has supplanted Pittsburgh as the NFL sacks leader with 22, including six by John Copeland. The difference in the two defenses has been the Steelers' inability to stop long scoring drives or to keep opponents from jumping ahead early, despite the defense's ranking of seventh-best in the NFL.
Vito Stellino's pick: Steelers 21, Bengals 17 -- These are two Not Ready for Prime Time Teams. The Steelers lost their last game to Jacksonville and the Bengals lost their last one to Tampa Bay.