Flutie's elusive return to NFL; Football: Since signing with the Buffalo Bills in 1998, quarterback Doug Flutie has baffled his opponents and the league establishment. And he's doing it all with a smile.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Doug Flutie was considering giving up a guaranteed contract in Canada to sign with the Buffalo Bills last year, his wife advised him against doing it.

"She was telling me all along that, 'They're not going to give you that opportunity. They didn't give it to you last time around and they won't give it to you now,' " Flutie said.

Shortly after Flutie signed with the Bills, they traded a first-round choice for Rob Johnson and gave him a $25 million contract even though he had started one NFL game.

"She was saying, 'I told you so,' " Flutie said. "And basically, she was right. I wasn't getting that opportunity to compete for the starting job, but, the bottom line was I proved my worth to the team and became the No. 2 guy, then Rob got banged up and I got my opportunity."

He has made the most of that opportunity. Flutie, who turned 37 on Saturday, has been the feel-good story of the past two years.

He led Buffalo to a playoff berth last season and was voted to the Pro Bowl. He led the team to a 4-1 start this year before suffering losses to Oakland and Seattle.

Despite the back-to-back defeats, Flutie hasn't lost the thing that makes him tick -- the fun he gets from playing the game.

"The NFL has a real knack for taking the fun out of the game," he said.

He said the big-money contracts make the players more vulnerable to criticism.

"They have to deal with being criticized. You walk down the street in public and someone says some nasty remark because of the money you make. It's not my fault they're willing to pay me the money," he said. "It's a depressing business on this end of it. I've learned to get past it, but it bothered me when I first was in the NFL."

He said he talks to his teammates all the time about having fun.

"When I'm having fun and I'm playing with a smile and loose and relaxed and just letting it fly, I'm usually playing well," he said.

He hopes to have fun Sunday when the Bills play the Ravens, because this is a homecoming of sorts for Flutie.

He was born in Manchester, Md., and lived in the area for several years before his parents moved to Florida. He still vacations in Ocean City and Bethany Beach, Del.

He grew up following the Orioles and Colts and said his fondest memory as a kid was getting a ball that the Yankees' Thurman Munson hit into the Memorial Stadium bleachers during batting practice.

He said it was cool to play at Memorial Stadium against the Stallions in a Canadian Football League game and he's looking forward to playing again in Baltimore.

"Probably get a bunch of guys together and get some steamed crabs. It's like major flashbacks to when I was a little kid," he said.

Flutie said he isn't bitter about the years he spent in the CFL after the NFL spurned him.

"A handful of people in the media got under my skin years ago and I'd love to shake a finger at and say, 'I told you.' In general, I'm having fun and enjoying myself and trying to get to a Super Bowl if I can," he said.

Even his short stature (he's listed at 5 feet 10), once viewed as his Achilles' heel, is now looked at in a positive light.

"He's got a different style of football," said Oakland defensive tackle Darrell Russell. "He can't see over his offensive line. That, to begin with, is to his advantage because he's used to playing like that. It's something that a lot of defensive linemen aren't used to. He actually disappears. When you're rushing, you can't see him, and before you know it, he's outside, jumping and throwing some passes. It's weird."

Flutie said, "I hear some secondary guys saying that they can't read my eyes as well or they can't anticipate some things because they're having trouble finding me. If I'm running I can get behind an offensive lineman and kind of hide there before making a cut. I guess there's some pluses to it."

Zach Thomas of the Dolphins, who were beaten by the Bills in a Monday night game this season, echoed the same sentiments.

"Sometimes he gets back there and gets lost behind the defensive line," he said. "You look back at the receiver and then try to find him and he's gone. That's when he can really hurt you."

Pittsburgh's Levon Kirkland said after a frustrating day of chasing Flutie, "You have to play him like he's Barry Sanders."

Seattle pass rusher Mike Sinclair chased Flutie 42 times last week before he finally nailed him and caused a fumble.

"I think when you watch film of Buffalo, you watch Flutie and you think it must be those other teams that can't catch him, but when he comes to my place, it's going to be another story," he said. "I don't think you can tackle him in a phone booth. The refs should check his uniform. He must have had super suds on his jersey or something."

Flutie's success, combined with the fast start of former Arena League quarterback Kurt Warner, has become a lesson to NFL scouts that they can't judge quarterbacks just by their obvious credentials.

"It throws a wrench in the big system of the NFL," Flutie said. "It's always irked me that they took the attitude that they have all the answers. No one has all the answers. No one knows everything.

"All these experts who have their stopwatches out, go to the meat markets and their combines and this and that. They've got to line them up in their underwear and look at their bodies. That's got nothing to do with playing football. Hey, all you've got to do is look at the film and decide if he can play or not," he said.

Flutie has proved that he can play football. If the Bills have a problem now, they may rely on him too much. They seem to be too quick to abandon the run. They average 44 passes when they lose and 27 when they win.

Ravens coach Brian Billick understands the challenge of trying to stop Flutie from pulling off his magic tricks.

"The biggest thing is the emotional challenge. Don't get down, don't get frustrated because he does something that you look up and go, 'How did he do that? Where did that come from?' Because he's going to do those things," Billick said.

"What you hope is that you can put enough pressure on him or he has to throw one of those passes when our guy is there instead of one of his. That's what has happened to them the past couple of games and we've got to try to continue that."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Buffalo Bills

Site: PSINet Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio:Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Tickets: Sold out

Line: Bills by 3 1/2

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