Every year about this time, the name Jake Plummer is brought back out of the closet of our football minds. It's always around the Super Bowl that I think about Plummer. Sometimes I will write about him - the 39-15 record he compiled as the starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos - sometimes I don't. Each year that goes by, Plummer last played in 2006, is another year that a possible comeback is, and it was a longshot the day Plummer decided to call it a day.
This year, Sports Illustrated did the writing for me. I am always fascinated by the stories that have come about about Plummer, Mike Shanahan and the Broncos of 2005 and 2006. Stefan Fatsis' book A Few Seconds Of Panic goes into great detail about the time because he was there, around the players, as an author-turned-kicker doing research for the book. In a lot of ways it was the height of Mike Shanahan's pompous attitude. When other teams would say no to such a request - to open their locker room and training camp to such a microscope, Shanahan and the Broncos allowed it.
The SI piece is worth the time it takes to read all 8 pages. While my motivation for this is the article, what comes out will be my memories of Plummer, and what has transpired since then. We all know, so I won't go into great detail of the losses, the switch, and the last 3 years of complete misery.
My first memories of Plummer come from his college days. He led Arizona State to the Rose Bowl against Ohio State in 1997. In fact, had ASU beat the Buckeyes that day there was a good chance that the Sun Devils would have won a share of the National Championship. Think about that for a second - Arizona State has this close to winning a college football National Championship. Much of that was on the arm of Plummer who could do it all - make all the throws, run, avoid defenders, and - most importantly - win. I once heard someone call Plummer the greatest quarterback to ever come out of the PAC-10, and I believe it.
Perhaps even more amazing than taking the Sun Devils to the cusp of a National Championship was making the Arizona Cardinals relevant again. Coming in with all the pressure of a home-town hero - and playing NFL games in the same stadium he won so many games in - Plummer struggled at times as a Pro quarterback, but he once again showed the flair for the dramatic, and he won a playoff game for the Cardinals - in Dallas - beating Hall of Famer Troy Aikman and Emmett Smith in their building.
I remember thinking at the time that Plummer had the talent to be one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. While I believe he loved football, I think there were some things about the game he did not love. Studying, preparation, game-plans, etc. To Plummer, the fun of football was playing on Sunday. It was his greatest attribute, but perhaps his greatest curse as well. I mean, to me, Plummer could easily have been as successful as Donovan McNabb, even moreso.
Plummer came to the Broncos, and won like no one ever had as the starting quarterback. Even now, that 39-15 record is among the best in team history. There were good times and bad - flipping off the crowd during a game, frequent battles with the NFL over uniform infractions. The death of Pat Tillman in 2004 had sent Plummer even further away from the business part of football. Plummer and Tillman were teammates at ASU and with the Cardinals. His death had a huge impact on Plummer. In a lot of ways, Plummer realized football was just a game and thinking anything more was a bit ridiculous. Who can blame him?
The pinnacle came in 2005 when the Broncos went 13-3 and became the first team to beat the Brady/Belichick Patriots in the playoffs. The Broncos were one step away from the Super Bowl. The Pittsburgh Steelers, of course, had other plans. They beat the Broncos, and in doing so killed Mike Shanahan's trust in Plummer. I believe it was killed further by Shanahan's time at the Pro Bowl with Peyton Manning. Shanny saw how Manning approached the game, and I believe at that moment he wanted to replace Plummer, putting the wheels in motion for the Broncos to trade up and select Jay Cutler. That pick alienated Plummer and Shanahan even further.
Something else happened as well. Gary Kubiak, offensive coordinator of the Broncos - and Plummer's buffer from Shanahan - became the head coach of the Houston Texans. Prior to the 2005 season, Kubiak and Plummer had gone over every snap of the 2004 season, breaking down Plummer's game and for the first time getting Plummer to commit to football after the season. The result was perhaps Plummer's finest season - perhaps not statistically, but in terms of wins, and interceptions - Plummer cut his INT total from 20 in 2004 to just 7 in 2005. With Kubiak gone, the relationship between Shanahan and Plummer was a ticking time-bomb.
We all know what happened in 2006. The Broncos drafted Cutler, there was an instant quarterback controversy, the Broncos started the season 7-4, Cutler replaced Plummer, the Broncos went 2-3 down the stretch and missed the playoffs - beginning a streak of playoff-less seasons that now stand at 5 years, the longest the Broncos have seen since the 1970's.
Plummer did have his shot, in the season finale against the San Francisco 49'ers, when Jay Cutler was injured. Plummer, who had already decided to retire, did little to prepare for the game. When he entered, however, he wanted to win it - not for his coach, but for himself. I take you to the SI article:
"I was like, Man, this is a blast," he says. "I didn't study the game plan, I didn't have a clue what was going on."
So how can you blame Plummer for doing what he did next—for going out on the field and trying to win the damn thing? "I just went for broke," Plummer says. "I remember Mike Bell went down for like a 60-yard play. And the first guy to pick him up was me. I was running alongside him. I was so psyched. I was running around, shouting at the other team, 'Jake the F------ Snake is back!'"
Parsons remembers the electricity, the stirrings of another Plummer comeback. "And he was doing it by basically saying f--- you to the coach," says Parsons. "Which is something all players wish they could do but no one has the guts to."
With a chance to extend the Broncos' 3--0 lead, Plummer says, "I rolled out to my left, made a guy miss and was like, Ah, there goes Javon Walker, and I just heaved a Hail Mary." Plummer pauses. "And he trips, and the safety intercepts it."
With that, the magic was bottled. Shanahan put Cutler back in, but not before trying to chastise Plummer, who walked past, ignoring his coach. Quarterbacks coach Pat McPherson then walked over. "Gosh, you just really can't make that throw," he told Plummer. And that's how Plummer's football career ended, some would say fittingly: with a desperation pass picked off.
So ended Jake Plummer's career as a Denver Broncos quarterback - and as a player in the NFL. So began the complete destruction of the Denver Broncos. People can choose when they want the downturn of the Broncos to begin - depending on how they feel about certain players or coaches - but for me, that game was it. Later that night Darrent Williams is killed outside a nightclub in Denver. A few months later Damien Nash collapsed and died after a charity basketball game. The losses piled up. You get the idea.
Through it all, Jake Plummer never returned. He was still able - at 32 years of age, Plummer was in the best shape of his life. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen, traded for Plummer's rights and tried to talk Plummer into coming back. They even offered a $1 million donation to Plummer's Alzheimers Foundation. Still, with $5.3 million in salary on the table, and a $1 million donation pending, Plummer stayed away. You have to admire someone who stuck to his principles, regardless of the money.
So now Plummer resides in northern Idaho, playing competitive hand-ball. I have no doubt that Plummer could wake up tomorrow and play quarterback in the NFL. That's Jake Plummer - just out him on the field and he'll mke something happen. Just don't try to control him, don't try to mold him, don't try and tell him how important football is. Pat Tillman - that's what is important and that is what life and death is all about.
Jake Plummer is and always will be one of my favorite players. There is little doubt the Broncos haven't had a leader in the locker room at quarterback - since John Elway, of course, prior to Plummer's arrival and since his departure. Perhaps Tim Tebow will grow to become that. One thing is for sure - winning has something to do with it.
Head over and read the article. It's great and really gets inside the head of Plummer - the man. I doubt Plummer is surfing the web, or if he reads fan blogs. If, for some reason he does, or someone that knows him does, I just want to send him a long overdue thanks for everything he did for the Denver Broncos - all the wins that we took for granted - and for the community.