Brad Oremland is a longtime commenter and a fellow football historian. Brad is also a senior NFL writer at Sports Central. He’s contributed today’s guest post, and we thank him for that. This one is certainly thought-provoking.
I recently ranked Doug Flutie 31st among the greatest quarterbacks of all time, ahead of accomplished players like Kurt Warner, Boomer Esiason, and Ben Roethlisberger. Perhaps predictably, the unconventional ranking for Flutie generated questions, comments, and plain disagreement. I hope this follow-up will clear some of the confusion and help readers understand my reasoning.
I was attempting to rank the greatest quarterbacks ever — not just the best NFL quarterbacks — and this was not a stat-based evaluation. Statistics play a large role in the assessment of players, but they do not form an exclusive basis for it. When I rated Flutie ahead of Warner and company, I wasn’t suggesting that he had a better NFL career than those players, just that he was a better quarterback.
Here’s a breakdown of Flutie’s career:
* New Jersey Generals, 1985 (USFL)
* Chicago Bears, 1986-87
* New England Patriots, 1987-89
* BC Lions, 1990-91 (CFL)
* Calgary Stampeders, 1992-95 (CFL)
* Toronto Argonauts, 1996-97 (CFL)
* Buffalo Bills, 1998-2000
* San Diego Chargers, 2001-04
* New England Patriots, 2005
My evaluation of Flutie begins with the belief that he was a good player during his three seasons with the Buffalo Bills. In 1998, Flutie made the Pro Bowl, and deserved it. He had great passing stats (20 TD, 11 INT, 7.2 NY/A) and very good rushing stats (248 yds, 5.2 avg, TD).1 He was even better by the eye test, a fixture on the highlight shows, and no one was more composed under pressure. The Bills went 8-3 with Flutie at the controls, compared to 2-3 with Rob Johnson under center. Altogether, from 1997-2001, the Bills were 22-9 with Flutie (.710), compared to 16-33 (.327) without him.
In fact, from 1998-2000, Flutie had the best winning percentage of any starting quarterback in the NFL (tied with Vinny Testaverde), and Buffalo’s winning percentage without Flutie was by far the worst of any team from 1997-01 (SD, .413). Flutie turned the worst team in the league into the best team in the league. Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders called replacing Flutie with Rob Johnson “the worst coaching move of all time.”2
Flutie was a big-play passer, distinguished by his high average yardage and low sack rate, and he remained one of the best running quarterbacks in football, leading all NFL QBs in rushing in 1999, by over 100 yards. Flutie is often underrated when people forget that passing statistics are insufficient to evaluate the position; he was an electric runner throughout his career, and it’s an essential element of his legacy. If you want to adjust his stats for context — Buffalo winters, undistinguished teammates and coaching staff, tough strength of schedule3 — that would only add to Flutie’s case.
Flutie’s stats with the Bills are good, he passed the eye test, he was voted to the Pro Bowl, and his positive effect on the team was undeniable. Flutie was a good quarterback in Buffalo, years representing his age 36-38 seasons. Let’s go backwards from there.
Normal aging patterns imply that Flutie was probably a substantially better player during his years in Canada. An athlete who was great at age 36 was usually outstanding at age 31. Over 99% of players have their best seasons before they turn 36. Recognizing what Flutie did in his late 30s, one would assume he was even better in his early 30s.
In Flutie’s case, the record would not dissuade you from believing that. He passed for 6,619 yards in 1991, the professional record in any league. He set the CFL single-season TD record. He rushed for 600 yards and 8 TDs a year. He was named CFL Most Outstanding Player a record six times. He won three Grey Cup MVPs. In 2006, he was selected as the greatest player in CFL history. If you assumed — based on his play with the Bills and an understanding of aging patterns — that Flutie was a great player in the early ’90s, his accomplishments in the CFL would support that assumption.
Flutie didn’t perform like someone who belonged in the CFL: he dominated the league, more so than anyone else in its 60-year history. If you took a great NFL quarterback and put him in the CFL, you would expect him to do exactly what Flutie did, maybe even not quite as exceptionally. If Troy Aikman or Jim Kelly had played in the CFL in the early ’90s, would they have been more successful than Flutie? We’ll never know, but I don’t see how it’s possible. What more could Flutie have done in the CFL to show that he was a great player? Pass for 7,000 yards and rush for 1,000? Win a game by himself after all his teammates got ejected? Flutie wasn’t just a great player in the CFL, he was an anomaly, he was Neo from The Matrix.
What about the other side: is there anything to suggest that Flutie wasn’t a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback during his prime in Canada? Not really. The only argument against Flutie is that he wasn’t in the NFL — an argument which, by itself, is meaningless. The idea that it is impossible for someone to be a good football player unless he’s on an NFL roster is obviously false. It’s just a lot harder to prove when he’s not facing the best competition in the world.
So I don’t think I’ve proven that Flutie was a great QB during his CFL years, but I do think any attempt to assess his play during those years strongly suggests that Flutie was one of the best quarterbacks in the world. John Madden is quoted as saying, “Inch for inch, Flutie in his prime was the best QB of his generation.”
Flutie skeptics often point to his very limited success as a young player with the Bears and Patriots. I have no interest in pretending that Flutie was a great pro QB in the 1980s. I believe that, like many quarterbacks, Flutie developed into a better player in his late 20s and early 30s. But I also believe that Flutie’s detractors frequently mischaracterize his play in the early parts of his pro career.
Flutie only attempted 71 regular-season passes with Chicago (a tiny sample in which he was rather good: 86.6 passer rating, 6.75 ANY/A).4 He was quite bad (11-of-31, TD, 2 INT) in the Bears’ playoff loss, though Mike Ditka has always maintained that Flutie was a good quarterback, and the right choice to start that game. Flutie was the Patriots’ most successful quarterback in the late ’80s. His stats are poor out of context, but a lot of that was lack of support: no QB had any real success with that team. Flutie went 8-5 (.615) as New England’s starter, compared to 14-20 (.412) for the other QBs from 1987-89.5 Steve Grogan (7-9), Tony Eason (3-5), Tom Ramsey (2-2), Marc Wilson (1-3), and Bob Bleier (1-1) were all at or below .500; Flutie was the only Pats QB with a winning record.
Again, for emphasis: I am not claiming that Flutie was a great QB, or even a good QB, with the Bears and Patriots. I don’t think it is obvious that he was even an average player during those years. But 350 passes from ages 24-27 would not discredit the rest of his career even if he had played terribly, and I don’t see a basis for concluding that Flutie was terrible in the 1980s.
But the mediocre performances, combined with concerns about Flutie’s lack of height, washed him out of the league. He signed with the Canadian Football League’s BC Lions, and after a disappointing debut in 1990, when the only area in which he excelled was rushing (662 yds, 8.4 avg), Flutie had his first CFL Most Outstanding Player season in 1991. He passed for 6,619 yards and 38 TDs, and rushed for 610 yards and 14 TDs. The Lions couldn’t afford him after that, and Flutie spent four seasons with the Calgary Stampeders. He won three straight MOP Awards and a Grey Cup, before an injury-shortened ’95 in which he posted a career-high passer rating. It turned out the Stampeders couldn’t afford Flutie, either; they’d been behind on his salary from Day One, and to this day have never paid what his contract called for. Flutie moved on to the CFL’s largest market, Toronto. The Argos had gone 4-14 before Flutie arrived, their fourth consecutive losing season. In both of Flutie’s seasons with the team, Toronto went 15-3 and won the Grey Cup, with Flutie earning CFL MOP and Grey Cup MVP honors in both years. Teammate Michael Clemons said of the improvement, “We won 11 more games. If we had to say how many games were attributed to Doug Flutie, he’s not perfect. So 10 of the 11.”
That run of greatness earned Flutie a spot with the Bills, with whom he validated his success in Canada. Just before his 39th birthday, Flutie signed with the Chargers. He served mostly as a backup to Drew Brees, but when Brees was benched late in 2003, Flutie stepped in and played well. In five starts, he passed for 9 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions, with 168 yards and 2 TDs rushing — the highest totals ever for a player over 40. Flutie was one of the best old QBs in history; FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine pointed out that age-regression “implies that if Flutie had been given a real shot in the NFL at his peak, he’d have put up a Manningesque +3 RANY/A.”
My belief that Flutie was a great quarterback is founded primarily on three ideas:
* Flutie played very well for the Bills from age 36-38, and reasonably well for the Chargers in his early 40s.
* Our understanding of aging patterns implies that Flutie was a better player in his late 20s and early 30s than he was at the end of his career.
* Flutie’s unparalleled results in the CFL support the hypothesis that Flutie was at least as good in those years as he was in 1998.
The CFL has never been nearly as strong an overall league as the NFL, but many talented players have passed through Canada, and Flutie is widely acknowledged as the greatest. In 1998, at age 36, Flutie made the Pro Bowl and deserved it. It is my belief that in each of Flutie’s six seasons as the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player, he was at least as good as in ’98. That would give him seven Pro Bowl-caliber seasons, which is a Hall of Fame standard. I don’t find it plausible that Flutie was just as good at age 41 as he had been at age 31, when he was setting CFL records and establishing a legacy as the greatest player in league history. I don’t believe he was a better player in two-thirds of a season at age 36 than he was in full seasons in his athletic prime.
If the only argument against Flutie is that he wasn’t playing in the NFL, that argument is ill-founded. In evaluating Flutie, we must try to put his CFL performance into context, not throw it out entirely. Ignoring a player’s athletic prime, and judging him on his performances at age 25 and 40, can not possibly yield an accurate picture of his career. There’s a lot of guesswork involved in comparing a player like Flutie to his contemporaries in the NFL, but I don’t find any compelling evidence that Flutie was not an exceptional player in the early ’90s, compared to several indications strongly suggesting that Flutie was one of the greatest QBs of his generation.
- Last year, Chase rated Flutie’s ’98 as the 4th-best season of any QB that year, and comfortably among the top 200 QB seasons of all time, despite that he only started 10 games. [↩]
- Schatz goes into more depth in this piece, with gems like “one of the most mismatched quarterback controversies of all time” and “all logical evidence screaming the name ‘Doug Flutie'”. [↩]
- From 1998-2000, the AFC East had the best record in football, 136-104 (.567), even if you exclude the 29-19 Bills (107-85, .557). The NFC Central is next (.542), followed by the AFC West (.496), AFC Central (.478), NFC East (.463), and NFC West (.458). The Simple Rating System at Pro-Football-Reference shows Buffalo’s strength of schedule at least 1 point above league average for each of Flutie’s three seasons. [↩]
- Jim McMahon had a 76.6 rating a 5.36 ANY/A during the same time period. [↩]
- Or 26-40 (.394) from 1986-90 if you prefer a larger sample. [↩]