If there were ever an NFL star who would have the street cred to tell fans to relax about their team and enjoy the wins, it would be Jason Steven Plummer, aka "Jake the Snake."
A 10-year NFL veteran who led the Broncos for three-and-a-half seasons from 2003-2006, Plummer knows a whole lot about leading a team during both winning and losing seasons, carrying the locker room and dealing with fan love as well as disdain.
So he has a message for Broncos fans going berserk over an undefeated record right now:
"It's just ridiculous that people are not allowing themselves as fans to enjoy what they're witnessing each Sunday. I mean, it's awesome," said Plummer, pointing out not every fan gets to watch a future Hall-of-Famer in action. And when it's all said and done, many Broncos fans will have gotten to do it twice.
Plummer was nice enough to give Mile High Report some of his time entering Week 8's matchup against the Green Bay Packers in an exclusive interview.
"We're 6-0 and people are calling to bench [Manning]?" Snake says with enough air of disgust that his no doubt rising heart rate can be detected even over the phone. "I just can't fathom that."
Plummer is not oblivious to the mistakes and struggles of Peyton Manning and the entire offense, but as a former NFL quarterback, he knows all too well the number of things that have to go right for an offense to succeed - and how easily one thing going wrong can ruin it.
"People just get carried away and are expecting too much. Sure he's thrown interceptions. He's also ended the games with some amazing throws," Plummer said, adding that he thinks Manning is "throwing the ball pretty nice, actually."
But it's a team effort, Plummer likes to remind fans.
"It's not just Peyton Manning. He's the quarterback so he's going to get the blame, but when you drop a dime to [Ronnie] Hillman in the end zone, and DT drops another one ... it's just not all Peyton's fault."
That may sound a little like a quarterback getting defensive about one of his own, but quarterbacks are a bit of a fraternity, a unique breed sticking together because only they can understand what it's like to shoulder so much responsibility for a team's performance.
"Absolutely," Plummer says of this phenomenon. "Anyone who's had his hands under center - no matter what level, even if just high school - grasps what a quarterback goes through. It is a brotherhood."
And as a QB known for being a bit of a rebel - but doing whatever he could to make a play - Plummer understands that Manning is probably the one most disappointed in his performance, but that he also remains unwavering in his pursuit to win.
"I guarantee you Peyton is frustrated. But people have doubted him plenty of times and look how that's worked out for them?" Plummer said, adding that he doesn't see himself so much as "pro-Manning " as he does " pro fan education." "This is a better team, and the offense doesn't have to be as high-powered as it once was. He's got his supporting cast now in this defense, so just enjoy watching it."
Jake the Snake
"Enjoying" the game is a big deal to Plummer. Any fan who remembers his story understands this.
Plummer was a hot prospect coming out of Arizona State, where he showed Elway-esque skills in the 1997 Rose Bowl against Ohio State. Behind 14-10, the Sun Devils scored on an 11-yard, third-down scramble by Plummer with just over a minute left to take the lead. The Buckeyes were too much and scored a touchdown but missed the extra point, giving the Sun Devils a 19-second window to make something happen.
What separates players like Plummer (and Elway and Manning) from so many others can be explained in those 19 seconds. Players like them believe they can win - and they don't stop trying until the clock says 00:00. Those 19 seconds ticked down without a score and Arizona State came up four points shy of taking the national championship. But it hadn't been without a fight. And that was the Jake Plummer way.
Drafted that spring by the Arizona Cardinals, Plummer enjoyed one winning season there in 1998. When he signed with Denver six seasons later, "Jake the Snake" helped lead the Broncos to three playoff-bound seasons, the third one making the wily quarterback a Pro Bowler.
Though Plummer and the Broncos had been knocked out of Super Bowl contention by Manning and the Colts in 2003 and 2004, Denver caught what seemed like a break in 2005 when the Wild Card Steelers upset the Colts and gave the second-seeded Broncos a chance to play the AFC championship game at Mile High.
What happened in that game is one many Broncos fans would like to forget as the Steelers rolled to a 34-17 upset. But it's a game Plummer will likely always remember.
"I thought we were going all the way and winning the Super Bowl that year," Plummer says, thinking back to the game where he threw two interceptions and just one touchdown pass. "That's why you play - to win it all. But it wasn't to be."
Between that sour end to an otherwise superb season, the draft of Jay Cutler the following spring and the growing rift between Plummer and head coach Mike Shanahan, the writing was on the wall for Plummer's final season - the one where he got benched when the team was 7-4.
The last five games of the 2006 season are generally remembered for Cutler's budding performance, but to the more astute Broncos fans, the move to put a promising-but-immature quarterback at the helm served as a metaphor for the next six years in Broncos history - imminent implosion.
Cutler went 2-3 over the last five games, and on the outside it seemed Denver had found its new leader - a playmaker with a big arm. The problem was that Cutler was a "leader" by position only and not yet by earning the respect and trust of his teammates.
Plummer knows he could have played better that last season. He also knows how important team leadership is for the overall goal.
"You need everybody in that locker room behind you," said the Idaho native, recalling Shanahan's decision to bench the guy who had gone 39-15 as a starter for the Broncos. "I could have played better [that year], the whole team could have. But if you change one guy, maybe that gives you a little spark immediately, but..."
But maybe it destroys team cohesion, which destroys a championship culture in a heartbeat.
Ted Sundquist wrote a piece for Bleacher Report last week about bringing Cutler to Denver. Noting that that story "starts with Jake Plummer," the former Broncos GM recalled the decision to go with the young gun over Plummer.
"I was concerned, though, that we'd pushed out the emotional leader of our club," Sundquist wrote. "Cutler had plenty of leadership qualities, but I wasn't sure he could handle his role on this team in the same manner Plummer had."
We all know how this story ended. While it's not nearly the situation surrounding Gary Kubiak's Broncos this season, there are parallels that no doubt make Plummer defensive of Manning - you don't bench the leader.
The Kubiak connection
Kubiak was offensive coordinator during Plummer's first three seasons in Denver, but when he left to coach the Texans in 2006, Plummer lost an ally. It's impossible to say whether that last season would have ended differently for Plummer because he admits he "was done," but it's no mystery how highly the current Broncos coach thinks of his former quarterback.
"He's a hell of a player, a great friend," Kubiak said earlier this week. "I'll tell you what, there wasn't a better teammate I ever saw in my career - how he was to his teammates, how he played and how hard he played. He did a great job for me, I know that. I'm real proud of him."
Knowing that quality about Plummer - and having a quarterback under scrutiny this season - probably helps give Kubiak some perspective right now. Like Plummer, he knows how important it is for the team to trust its leader.
"They believe in him. They know he's the leader of the football team," Kubiak said of Manning. "They're also smart enough to know the things he's done that have a lot to do with why we're 6-0, too. If we don't go down the field in Kansas City, we get beat there. If we don't go down the field at the end of the game against Baltimore, if we don't do the same thing against Minnesota - so our players know that. Like I said, he's the leader of this football team."
Send out a legend on a great season
From the starters to the third-string tackle, Plummer says it's crucial to have the team behind you.
"You want guys that love you, see you struggle, care about you, respect you ... and even pick up their game for you," Plummer says. He knows Manning has that with this Broncos squad. "I'm 100 percent sure that team is playing hard for the guy under center. And if it's the defense, they want to send out a legend on a great season."
Several Broncos players have said as much in recent days - from C.J. Anderson to Demaryius Thomas to Chris Harris Jr. And Manning doesn't take that support for granted, adding that the atmosphere in the Broncos locker room is really good this season.
"I feel honored to play with the guys that I'm playing with. I think that teammates are supposed to support each other," Manning said last week. "We have good guys in there. Guys get along, we do stuff together away from here and laugh a lot in there. I think that helps. It helps you win some football games, in my opinion."
That's why Plummer is often like "are you guys kidding me?" when he hears fans complain.
"You've got a Top 5 QB, the team is 6-0, Broncos are the No. 1 defense...if I could, I'd scream crazy stuff at all of them," Plummer says, admitting he has plenty of times. "I was walking out of the stadium after the Baltimore double overtime loss (in 2013), and I heard a fan yell, 'Manning sucks!' I just turned around and told him ‘you need to watch this again. You are an awful fan.'"
The former quarterback admits that when people figure out who he is, they usually change their tone. But he's not trying to get fans to change their attitude just for his sake. He wants fans to appreciate what they get to experience that not enough NFL fans get to see - winning seasons, great players and a team that's all in it for each other.
"If you're a critic, be a critic," Snake says. "But if you're a fan, be a fan."
Be a fan
These days Plummer is enjoying being a fan himself from the sidelines and in the media booth, which gives him a different perspective on the game too. Right after his 2006 season ended, Plummer called Shanahan and told him he was retiring.
"He said, ‘no you're not,' and I said, ‘yes I am.' And I hung up the phone and that's the last time I talked to him," Plummer recalls.
A month later, Plummer gave a press conference to announce his retirement. He also walked away from a multimillion-dollar contract offer from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But Plummer has no regrets about that decision or grudges against his former coach. In fact, if he sees Shanahan during events this weekend to celebrate owner Pat Bowlen's induction into the Ring of Fame, he knows exactly what he'll do.
"I'm just going to give him a big hug," Plummer says.
Plummer is a guy clearly comfortable with himself, his life now as well as his previous life in the NFL.
After a hiatus from football that involved getting back to his roots via competitive handball (which he calls "the perfect game") - whether with a ProAm team or just his older brothers - Plummer found his way back to football first by coaching a high school team and then watching the Oregon Ducks. Both brought him back to what he liked about the game - guys on the field working together to win.
Plummer currently does a weekly "SnakesTakes" podcast, commentates occasionally for Pac12 football games and thoroughly enjoys cheering on "his" Broncos, always referring to the team as "we."
He still believes Kubiak and Manning can and will be good together in this offense.
"You can't scrap it. They've got an offense in place and they're not going to change," Plummer says. "It's just gellin' and getting the hang of it - the terminology, routes, progressions, ...they'll get better at that."
Plummer insists the Broncos need a potent running game for Kubiak's offense to really work, but he has no doubt it can happen. One of the things he liked best about working under Kubiak's tutelage was that the native Texan would come to him to find out how he as the coach could make it work for Snake's abilities.
"That's just Kubiak not being hard-headed," Plummer says. "When I was playing, Kubiak would come find me and say, ‘hey, what are we doing that you like, that you don't like' and we'd go through and pick out the top five plays for different down situations - first down, second down, red zone, etc."
Whether the offense figures it out in time to really be awesome is yet to be seen, but Plummer knows he'll look forward to watching them try. And he's also pretty stoked to watch that defense do its thing week in and week out.
"They're pretty awesome -11 dudes that just fly around and don't care who gets the credit," he says. "And they all play extremely hard."
But as good as this Broncos D is, Plummer does think he could take them. After all, he says, with his scrambling abilities he'd escape the clutches of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and would only have to challenge the secondary. Which we all know he would do in a heartbeat.
Sure he knows they're the No Fly Zone, but that's the kind of quarterback he was - unafraid of making the bad play by taking a chance on the awesome one.
"I would drive my OC crazy," Plummer laughs, thinking about his daring but often improvisational play. "I'd always say if [a cornerback] is as great as they say, then let's make him be great today."
Sometimes they were; sometimes Plummer was. Then, and now, it was all part of the fun of the game.