It’s been 14 years since he last played professional football, but Doug Flutie is suddenly relevant again. In the run-up to the draft, there was a big feature in the Washington Post, along with a 15-minute chat on The Rich Eisen Show. When I first reached out to ask about an interview, Flutie’s agent told me she had five requests for him, all on essentially the same topic: how height is no longer a disqualifying factor for NFL quarterbacks, and how Doug Flutie was and is the prototype for not-tall quarterbacks. He just came along way too soon.
The modern NFL would have been ideal for Flutie, who famously stands 5 feet, 9¾ inches tall. Drew Brees (6 feet) and Russell Wilson (5-foot-11) both have Super Bowl rings, and both have thrived in the NFL for years. Baker Mayfield (6-foot-1) was last year’s No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and he had a sparkling debut season. And then Kyler Murray (5-foot-10) became the top pick this spring. The wide-open passing game—shotgun formations, heavy use of play-action, spread offenses, zone-reads, run-pass options—is now a fact of life at the game’s highest level. “Today,” the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Beaton and Michael Salfino wrote on the eve of the 2019 draft, “the trench warfare that defined the NFL for generations has given way to a battle increasingly fought on the field’s perimeter.” Pro football has long had its share of mad scientists who sought to open the game up in this way, but until fairly recently, these experiments never caught on for long. Such efforts were largely sloughed off as gimmickry, or as some kind of fad—football without brawn or power. A generation ago, Flutie showed the world that height need not matter for NFL quarterbacks. The world just wasn’t ready to believe it.
“I’ve said for years that it really wasn’t that big of a deal,” Flutie, now 56, told me. “I think that people have figured out ways to even make the size factor less important.”
It was a lesson Flutie only discovered by washing out of the NFL.
Flutie faced doubts about his size going back to his high school days in Natick, Massachusetts. But he quickly became a phenomenon at Boston College—the only major program to offer him a scholarship—after climbing from ninth on the depth chart to become the Eagles’ starter midway through his freshman season. His junior year, he finished third in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy. As a senior, he would win it.
By frequently venturing from the pocket to make plays, Flutie was able to conjure a kind of sorcery. His lack of size, which often prevented him from seeing past the towering linemen in front of him, was thus transformed into something he could use to his advantage. There was no better manifestation of this than the play most often associated with Flutie Magic: his Hail Mary throw to Gerard Phelan to beat Miami in November 1984:
Flutie Magic was a real phenomenon. Contemporary accounts describe his exploits at BC with the sort of wonder that now applies to Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, the reigning NFL MVP. “Two-handed push passes, lefty tosses, completions that materialized out of nowhere—the fans couldn’t get enough of him,” Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman wrote of Flutie in 1988. When it came time to turn pro, all that fame made Flutie attractive to someone with a knack for leveraging outsized celebrity for some wholly unrelated purpose: Donald Trump. Then as now, Trump was a con man with a gift for self-aggrandizement. But in 1985, Trump was just a Page Six fixture who also happened to own the New Jersey Generals of the fledgling USFL, a springtime professional league that had a brief run of competing with the NFL for players.
According to Jeff Pearlman’s book, Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL, Trump’s true aim was to wrangle his way into an NFL ownership stake. Part of his plan involved signing Flutie to what was then the richest contract in football history: six years, $8.3 million. But Flutie’s deal included an unwritten flourish that was unmistakably Trumpian: Trump thought he could strong-arm the league’s other franchises into sharing the tab on Flutie. He wrote a letter to the USFL’s commissioner requesting just that, and he even used his go-to alias, John Barron, to spin the New York Times on what was described as verbal agreement with the USFL’s other owners. “Everybody asked Trump to go out and sign Flutie ... for the good of the league,” Barron, quoted as Trump’s spokesman, told the Times. In the end, as Pearlman wrote last fall in a Times op-ed, “Doug Flutie was the wall before the wall. The USFL’s other owners were Mexico. They paid nary a dime.”
Flutie’s season with the Generals was pretty meh—47.7 percent completions, 13 TDs, 14 interceptions, 67.8 passer rating, a first-round playoff loss. The USFL folded that year, in no small part thanks to Trump.
The Rams selected Flutie in the 11th round of the 1985 NFL draft—after the Generals had already signed him—though they reportedly had no intention of playing him. The Rams traded Flutie’s rights to the Bears in October 1986. He was thrust into a starting role by the end of the season, due to injuries to Jim McMahon and Mike Tomczak. The Bears finished 14-2 and were poised to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Flutie started their divisional-round playoff game against Washington, but he was dreadful: 11-for-31 for 134 yards, a pair of interceptions, a 33.5 passer rating. The Bears lost by two touchdowns. McMahon sneeringly referred to him as “America’s midget.”
The Bears still had McMahon and Tomczak in ’87, and they drafted Jim Harbaugh in the first round. Then the strike happened, and after Mike Hohensee quarterbacked the Bears’ scabs to a pair of victories, Flutie was the odd man out. He was traded to the Patriots after the second week of scab games, and he started New England’s scabs’ win against the Oilers that Sunday, in what was really a lockout game after the strike had effectively ended. The Pats already had Steve Grogan, Tom Ramsey, and Tony Eason in their quarterback room. Flutie told me he had no regrets about playing that week. He hadn’t been playing, and he wanted to play.
“I was at a players’ meeting [that week] out in Chicago, and the strike was ending,” Flutie said. “There were so many guys that had already crossed. I allowed the trade to happen, and it was a way for me to get to New England, and I didn’t think I was going to have to play a game.”
Flutie didn’t see the field again that season after the regular players returned. He won six of his nine starts in 1988, having assumed the starting job after going 10-for-10 on a pair of late TD drives to beat the Colts, capping the comeback win with a 13-yard bootleg run for a touchdown that thrilled the home crowd.
“Anything I did through those years was just magnified,” Flutie said in an on-camera interview for Doug Flutie: A Football Life. “If it was something negative, it was magnified because I was too short to play—‘See, I told you so,’ blah, blah, blah. If it was something good, ‘He’s amazing, it’s Flutie Magic.’ Yeah, I ran a naked bootleg, had a shot at the corner, I ran it in. What was magic about that?”
Flutie wasn’t consistent, however. During a late-season stretch, the Pats were held to 14 or fewer points four times in five games. That they won all four didn’t matter—head coach Raymond Berry benched Flutie for the must-win finale at the Broncos. The Pats lost and missed the playoffs.
Flutie would make just three starts and appear in five games the following year, posting a passer rating of just 46.6. The Pats finished 5-11. Berry was fired. Flutie was released.
Berry was an old-school hard-ass who had no interest in designing an offense around Flutie’s strengths, or in allowing Flutie to improvise much.
“Oh, my God,” Flutie told me. “I got yelled at for checking into a maximum protection and throwing a corner route for a touchdown on the 5-yard line because we had a rookie running back in there and he might have screwed up the protection. If it wasn’t talked about and etched in stone during the week, you didn’t go to it. You’d better have a reason for what you just did when you get to the sideline.
“We had a preseason game, and I had some young tailbacks in there, and they had a weak-safety blitz coming off the edge. So I just checked out of the run, and checked to a toss sweep away from [the blitz]. We picked up, like, seven yards on the run, and we got a facemask call on top of it, and I got lit up in meetings because we hadn’t practiced it. It’s more of a control thing.”
This sort of risk aversion from control-freak coaches tends to be the standard operating procedure around most of the NFL, even today. So Flutie went to Canada.
Flutie spent eight seasons in the Canadian Football League, where won three Grey Cups and was a six-time MVP. In 2006, the Canadian sports television network TSN assembled a panel of 60 players, coaches, executives, and media; the group named Flutie the greatest player in CFL history. It was in the CFL that Flutie discovered how best to marry his skillset to a style of play that was largely not yet welcome in the NFL.
“The problem for me [in the NFL] was we were under center all of the time,” Flutie said. “The coaches viewed me as an athletic QB that probably couldn’t win from the pocket. Those teams that I played for, we didn’t throw the ball very much.”
The shotgun formation was used in the NFL as far back as the 1940s by Washington’s Sammy Baugh—a variation of the double wing spread offense Baugh had used under coach Dutch Meyer in the ’30s at TCU, according to S.C. Gwynne’s history of the evolution of the forward pass, The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football. Red Hickey and Sid Gillman introduced what we now know to be the shotgun with the 49ers and Chargers as far back as the early ’60s, according to this excerpt of Doug Farrar’s The Genius of Desperation: The Schematic Innovations That Made the Modern NFL. The 1960s Chiefs and the Joe Namath–era Jets used the shotgun, as did the ’70s Cowboys with Roger Staubach. “The spread gives me more freedom, more maneuverability,” Staubach said, per Farrar. “Your ability to see the defense is better, and all your receivers are in position to put quicker pressure on the defense, too.”
But the shotgun did not catch on—especially as the Packers kept winning titles in the ’60s with their power sweep, and as Bill Walsh’s horizontal West Coast offense became the copycat scheme for teams to adopt in the ’80s. “By opening up the field you introduced risk,” Gwynne wrote. “Above all, risk. Unnecessary risk.” Farrar has the numbers on how long it took for the shotgun’s acceptance in the NFL to take root:
According to Football Outsiders’ charting data, NFL teams ran shotgun just 7.1 percent of their offensive formations in 1989, which is as far back as their data goes. In 2000 it wasn’t much different—just 12.8 percent. The insertion of spread-option quarterbacks and corresponding spread-option schemes made the difference. Use of the shotgun bumped up from 13.3 percent in 2004 to 15.9 percent in 2005 to 19.4 percent in 2006. These were the three years that the Atlanta Falcons led the NFL in rushing with the option-variable backfield of Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn, and T.J. Duckett.
Per Farrar, the 2007 Patriots, who tore through the regular season undefeated with a then-record 589 points, were the first team to use the shotgun on more than 50 percent of their snaps. Teams’ shotgun percentage rose every year from 2007 (27.2 percent) to 2016 (64.4 percent). It dipped to 58.5 percent in 2017 before climbing back to 62.8 percent last season. “The shotgun started as a gimmick,” Farrar wrote, “and turned into the way things were.” Which was too bad for Doug Flutie, who had played out of the shotgun on just 33.6 percent of his NFL snaps.
Flutie told me he felt he always had the mental part of the game down—checks, audibles, pass protections, hot reads, blitz pickups. But it wasn’t until he got to Canada, where it was common to work from the shotgun, or with an empty backfield, where draws, traps, and counters were encouraged, that Flutie truly began to thrive as a pro.
“All that zone-read stuff that became a big deal, or the RPO stuff—we were doing that 25 years ago up there,” he said.
Part of this was dictated by fundamental differences in the Canadian game. CFL fields are longer (110 yards between goal lines, 20-yard end zones) and wider than American fields (65 yards versus 53½ yards), and possessions have just three downs, which long ago placed greater emphasis on passing. But Flutie especially patterned his game on the improvisational work of then-CFL QB Damon Allen, the younger brother of Marcus Allen and to this day pro football’s all-time combined passing and rushing leader. Flutie was blown away by the way Damon Allen used the run-game out of the shotgun, in addition to his use of run-pass option, particularly Allen’s ability to fake or bootleg depending on what the defensive end did. So Flutie started copying him.
“But then I put a route out out there at the same time, because if the defensive back came off, I could just dump it to you,” Flutie said. “It wasn’t written in a playbook, it wasn’t rocket science or anything—it was just kind of reacting to what the defense was doing.”
Flutie got another shot at the NFL in 1998—at age 35, nine years after he had last played—when the Bills signed him to a veteran minimum contract. But three weeks later, the Bills traded for Rob Johnson, and just before training camp, Johnson signed a contract extension with a max value of $25 million. Johnson was clearly there to start. Flutie would be looking up at an NFL opportunity yet again.
But after Johnson got hurt during the opener at the Chargers, Flutie stepped in and promptly did a bunch of Flutie things:
Johnson returned the following week. But by Week 6, Flutie replaced him again after another injury—and promptly beat the Colts by leading the Bills to 17 fourth-quarter points.
A week later, Flutie led the Bills to an upset win against the undefeated Jaguars, and soon he took over as the full-time starter. He led the Bills to the playoffs, where they were beaten by the Dolphins in the wild-card round. He wound up making the Pro Bowl and was named the NFL’s comeback player of the year. He got a new contract. Flutie Magic had flowered again, this time in Western New York.
In 1999, the starting job was Flutie’s, and he led the Bills to a 10-5 record and another playoff appearance. NFL QBs worked out of the shotgun just 11.8 percent of the time that year; Flutie did it on 40.2 percent of his snaps. Flutie was a catalyst, but he was hardly world-beating: 3,171 passing yards, 55.2 percent completions, 19 TDs, 16 interceptions, a 75.1 passer rating. Mike Tanier, in his book A Good Walkthrough Spoiled, pointed out that the Bills still had a number of solid veterans on the roster from earlier in the decade, when they kept making Super Bowls. Yes, Flutie was succeeding late in his career, at an advanced age, and he had a wild, convoluted backstory. But maybe he got more adulation than he deserved. “Flutie was a sportswriter’s wish fulfillment fantasy made flesh: a scrawny 5-foot-10, 30-something white guy,” Tanier wrote. “Flutie was such a spunky underdog that he received undue credit for every little accomplishment.” And there was still one final, searing indignity for Flutie to endure.
Head coach Wade Phillips had rested Flutie for the Bills’ meaningless regular-season finale against the Colts, and after Johnson played well in his stead, owner Ralph Wilson decided Johnson should start the team’s playoff game at the Titans. Wilson called GM John Butler the next day and told him to make the switch.
Phillips explained in his memoir that Wilson didn’t like Flutie, telling him after a 1998 preseason game, “This Flutie, we’ve got to get rid of him. He can’t play!” Phillips recalled the rest of their conversation this way:
“Mr. Wilson, he took us on a ninety-nine-yard drive for a touchdown to win the game,” I said.
“I don’t care, I don’t care. He ran the ball, he was running with it sometimes.”
“But that’s what it takes. That’s the great thing about him. He can make plays whether he’s throwing it or running with it or pitching it out to somebody or anything.”
“Oh, I don’t like him.”
The Bills wound up losing to the Titans in the game now known as the Music City Miracle, with Johnson going 10-for-22 for 131 yards. “In hindsight,” Phillips later would say, “Doug probably would have won the game.” Johnson was named the starter starter to open the 2000 season, though Flutie went 4-1 that year when given a chance. Flutie moved on to the Chargers in 2001, where he struggled before eventually handing the reins to Brees. In 2005, at age 43, he returned to the Patriots, where he capped his career with a dropkick extra point.
“Thanks to his college glory, his Men of a Certain Age storyline, and his inescapable pluck-moxie-grit, we made him a hero,” Tanier wrote. “And, when Phillips benched him, a martyr.”
Flutie admitted to me that when he first joined the Bills, he was “playing tight” in camp, but that he approached offensive coordinator Joe Pendry and asked if he could do more out of the shotgun, as he had done in Canada. Pendry was into it.
“All of a sudden, the field opened back up again,” Flutie said. “When I came back from Canada, I knew what I did well, and what I didn’t do well. And I made a bigger point of telling that to the coaches. I actually had a lot of fun in those years in Buffalo.”
Pendry told me he was aware of what Flutie did so well in the CFL, and so he was open to letting him cut loose.
“It didn’t take long to see what his abilities were, and the instincts that he had,” Pendry said. “Why put him in a position where he couldn’t use those? When he was up under center, you limited him. But when he was back in the shotgun, he could see things—he could see the front, the coverage, all of it. He had great instincts for the rush around him and to find a throwing lane. A couple of steps, and he was already set and ready to throw.
“Doug was not the stereotype quarterback, and that’s what the NFL was at that time. So why should I stereotype him and put him in the same position and not use his God-given abilities and his instincts and leadership and all of it?”
Yet even as the NFL’s passing offenses continued to evolve—Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns throwing flare passes to running backs as far back as the early 1950s, Gillman’s use of option routes and the deep ball in the ’60s, Air Coryell, the West Coast offense, the Run and Shoot, the Bengals’ no-huddle, the Bills’ K-gun, right up to today’s shotgun/spread/play-action-heavy game—the one constant was always a reliance on taller QBs.
Going back to the 1930s, there were the occasional outliers like Davey O’Brien (5-foot-7), Eddie LeBaron (5-foot-9), and Frankie Albert (5-foot-10). But only seven QBs shorter than 6 feet have started an NFL game since the merger—including Flutie and Wilson, according to The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman. Between 2000 and 2018, just five QBs 6 feet or shorter were drafted in the first three rounds, and over that span only 10 smaller than 6 feet have even been measured at the combine. Like Flutie, Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton (6 feet) was wildly successful as a mad scrambler who could make plays from outside the pocket. But between Tarkenton’s first season in 1961 and 2018, just 12 QBs (including Pat White) 6 feet or shorter were picked in the first three rounds. And Mayfield was just the 11th QB taken in the first three rounds between 2000 and 2018 to measure 6-foot-1 or less.
Like Flutie, Murray won the Heisman Trophy. Unlike Flutie, there was never any doubt Murray would get picked in the first round of this year’s NFL draft. Once Murray officially measured in at 5-foot-10⅛ at the combine, it became a fait accompli that he would go No. 1 overall to the Cardinals, who had just hired Kliff Kingsbury as their head coach. Kingsbury is a proponent of the Air Raid offense—an aggressive, pass-heavy, field-spreading scheme developed and popularized by Hal Mumme and Washington State head coach Mike Leach. Murray had thrived in Oklahoma’s Air Raid offense, and the early success of Jared Goff, Mahomes, and Mayfield has made the Air Raid palatable—if not fashionable—in today’s NFL.
“There has to be a place in pro football for Doug Flutie,” SI’s Zimmerman once wrote. “If there isn’t, then something is wrong with the sport.” To get there it only took the lengthy and continued evolution of the passing game, rule changes designed to protect quarterbacks and to encourage scoring, and an analytics boom that has discovered the efficiency of passing the ball, play-action, and using space. The NFL finally adapted to Doug Flutie, some 34 years too late.