Monday, 16 September 2013

Jim Plunkett: Clutch performer

Jim Plunkett overcame adversity to quarterback
the Oakland Raiders two Super Bowl victories. 
As the 1980s dawned, I was enamoured by a gutsy quarterback who came off the scrap heap of football to lead his underdog, wild-card team to the Super Bowl. Only later did I discover how epic his story was, but when I was ten, watching the Super Bowl after the 1980 season, Jim Plunkett was my favourite player.

Lucky break
In this case the lucky break was actually a leg. The Houston Oilers, led by quarterback Dan Pastorini, had gone to the AFC Championship game in 1978-1979 and 1979-1980, only to be turned away by the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders made the playoffs and the AFC Championship Game, a tradition through the 1970s, led by left-handed quarterback Ken "The Snake" Stabler.

However, both teams felt it was time for a change and swapped quarterbacks before the 1980 season, so Stabler headed south to Houston and Pastorini headed west to Oakland. Neither man would experience the same success they had previously in their careers.

Pastorini started for the Raiders the first five weeks of the season until a fateful Sunday afternoon against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Raiders were 2-2 and Pastorini broke his leg, ending his season.

That opened the door for Jim Plunkett. Little did I know how long the journey had been for Plunkett to get to that point in his career.

Penthouse to outhouse…
Plunkett had been an outstanding prospect, and an inspiring story. His mother was blind and his father suffered progressive blindness, so the young Plunkett had to work odd jobs to help out. He discovered football and eventually attended Stanford University where he had an outstanding career. After his junior year he was eligible to enter the NFL draft and the pay cheque that would help his family dearly. However, he chose to stay for his senior year, because he wanted to set a good example for the Chicano youth he had been tutoring. The decision paid off, as he won the 1970 Heisman Trophy and led the Cardinals to their first Rose Bowl since 1952, where they beat the favoured Ohio State Buckeyes. He became the first Latino to win the Heisman, the first of many trails he broke.

He entered the 1971 NFL draft where he was chosen first overall by the New England Patriots, becoming the only player of Hispanic origin ever taken first overall. The future looked bright for Jim Plunkett.

In his rookie year, Plunkett took over late in the season, leading the Patriots to wins over Oakland, Miami, and Baltimore, as New England finished fourth in the AFC East with a 6-8 record. For his efforts he was named the 1971 NFL rookie of the year.

Over the next four years, his production dropped as his touchdowns decreased and his interceptions increased. He was injured a lot and lacked the protection he needed to be effective. By 1975, the Patriots had drafted quarterback Steve Grogan who would be one of the best quarterbacks in the team's history. They also became more run-oriented with the acquisition of Sam Cunningham.

Prior to the 1976 draft, Plunkett was traded to the San Francisco 49ers. He led the 49ers to a 6-1 start before losing five of their last seven games to finish 8-6. The 49ers fell to 5-9 in 1977, and Plunkett was released during the 1978 preseason.

Life looked bleak for Jim Plunkett.

…To Penthouse
Jim Plunkett throws a pass in the 1981 Super Bowl versus Philadelphia.
Jim Plunkett was picked up by the Oakland Raiders and their owner Al Davis, who was never afraid to give someone a second chance.

Davis gave Plunkett the chance to rest his beaten-up body. He threw no passes in 1978, and just 15 in 1979. As the 1980 season opened, it looked like more of the same, as Dan Pastorini had been acquired from Houston and would be the starting quarterback.

Then came that fateful injury in the fifth week of the season. Pastorini broke his leg and Plunkett came off the bench to – throw five interceptions in a 31-17 loss to Kansas City. It looked like the end of the line for Plunkett.

However, the Raiders thought Marc Wilson too inexperienced to start, so they handed the ball back to Plunkett. It was the best decision the Raiders made. In his first start he went 11 for 14 with a touchdown and no interceptions. He went on to guide the Raiders to nine victories in 11 games.

The Raiders qualified for the playoffs as a wildcard team and would host the wildcard game. Awaiting them was former Raider Ken Stabler and the Houston Oilers. The Oilers outgained the Raiders in that game, but Oakland scored on big plays, breaking the game open in the fourth quarter en route to a 27-7 win.

That put them in the divisional game in Cleveland against the Browns. That game would forever be known for the "Mistake on the Lake". The Raiders led 7-6 at halftime, with Cleveland's touchdown coming on an interception return for a touchdown. They had the ensuing conversion attempt block by Oakland's Ted Hendricks. In the second half, the Browns had two field goals by Don Cockroft to lead 12-7 before Plunkett engineered an 80-yard drive, capped off by a one-yard touchdown run by Mark van Eeghen, his second of the game, to go up 14-12. The Browns had one last chance to win. Quarterback Brian Sipe drove them down into field goal range, but Cockroft had missed two field goals, had a convert attempt blocked, and a snap on another field goal attempt botched, and the field was icy and cold. Cleveland opted to go for the touchdown, but Sipe was intercepted in the end zone by Mike Davis, preserving the Raiders' 14-12 victory.

The win sent Oakland to the AFC Championship game against the pass-happy San Diego Chargers, who were led by quarterback Dan Fouts and a crew of talented receivers. Plunkett had two touchdown passes and ran for a third in the first quarter alone to give the Raiders a 21-7 lead. They upped it to 28-7 in the second quarter on a van Eeghen touchdown run before Fouts connected with Charlie Joiner in the end zone to make the score 28-14 at the half. The Chargers scored 10 points in the third quarter to cut Oakland's lead to 28-24, before Raider kicker Chris Bahr connected on a field goal to restore the seven-point lead at 31-24. The teams exchanged field goals. The Raider defence was exhausted when the Raiders took over possession with 6:52 remaining, so Plunkett took Oakland on a 15-play drive to run out the clock, including two key third-down scrambles to clinch the 34-27 victory.

The Raiders became the first ever wild card team to advance to the Super Bowl where they would face the Philadelphia Eagles.

Plunkett is hugged by coach Tom Flores after
the Raiders won the 1981 Super Bowl.
The game was held five days after the Iran hostage crisis ended, and the teams wore gold stripes on the back of their helmets to commemorate the occasion. Plunkett got things rolling with a short touchdown pass to Cliff Branch, then an 80-yard pass-and-run touchdown to runningback Kenny King to end the first quarter. The Eagles never recovered, as the Raiders cruised to a 27-10 win. Plunkett finished the game 13 of 21 for 261 yards passing and three touchdowns. He was named the Super Bowl MVP, becoming the first minority to quarterback a team to a Super Bowl victory, the only Latino to be Super Bowl MVP, and the second of four Heisman Trophy winners to be Super Bowl MVP.

Plunkett returned to the back-up role by 1983 but, after an injury to Marc Wilson, Plunkett assumed the starting role again, leading the Raiders to the Super Bowl against the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins. Plunkett had another great game as the Raiders routed Washington 38-9, going 16 for 25 for 172 yards and a touchdown.

He spent the next three seasons injured or as a back-up, retiring after the 1986 season.

He still remains the only eligible quarterback to start and win two Super Bowls and not be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That, based not only on his accomplishments but the trail he blazed for minorities in the NFL, makes it an egregious oversight.

Parting thoughts
Jim Plunkett may have been my first football hero, and that was long before I knew his personal history. I bought an NFL Films video that profiled him, and it described his personal hardships, just making me respect him more. I always recall how gritty he played, often limping around the backfield. There were times he scrambled out of the pocket, either limping for a first down or a touchdown, where he was all guts. There were times, especially in that 1980 season and subsequent playoff run, where he willed his team to win. It was absolutely amazing to grow up watching him. He was the ultimate clutch player, coming through whenever called upon, on the biggest stage pro football has to offer.

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