The incident tarnished Plummer's reputation—one elementary school withdrew an invitation to have him speak at an assembly—and has provoked a limited amount of public razzing. But he has remained largely popular, partly because of his lack of pretentiousness. Before a game in Baltimore last November, Plummer was heckled by Ravens fans as he and backup Stoney Case threw warmup passes from the end zone. Plummer placed his hand on Case's rear end, and the fans went nuts. "They were yelling, 'Look, he's doing it again,' but it was good-natured," Plummer says. He had the last laugh, leading Arizona on a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive.
It was one of many instances in which Plummer demonstrated his poise, beginning with a stunning debut that made instant believers of his teammates. With starter Kent Graham injured and Case having struggled for three-plus quarters, coach Vince Tobin threw Plummer into an Oct. 19 game in Philadelphia. The Cardinals, who trailed 7-3, were on their two-yard line. "I was like a virgin being sent into a war," Plummer says, showing a flair for the mixed metaphor. He was more like a surgeon, coolly engineering a 98-yard scoring march in which he completed 4 of 6 passes for 89 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown to wideout Kevin Williams. Arizona failed to hold the lead and lost in overtime, but Plummer, expected to sit on the bench for at least one season, had won the starting job.
He had plenty of rocky moments, including a four-interception debacle in his first start and two games in which he was sacked a total of 16 times. However, he also threw for 2,203 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine-plus games, and displayed scrambling ability that evoked images of Fran Tarkenton. The Montana comparisons persisted, thanks to Plummer's late-game poise against the Eagles and the Ravens and to a game-winning touchdown march in the final two minutes of a season-ending 29-26 triumph over the Atlanta Falcons.
"The thing that separates him from other players is his confidence level," says Darren Woodson, the Dallas Cowboys' All-Pro safety. "You can just sense it when he's in there—he takes control of that offense."
When Plummer faced Washington on Dec. 7—a game the Cardinals lost, 38-28—Redskins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan adjusted his game plan to account for the rookie's playmaking ability. "We brought a ton of pressure, partly because he's a young guy, but also because I was really worried that if we sat back and put it on him to make plays, he'd beat us," says Nolan. "The big, fast, athletic guys don't scare me nearly as much as the guys who find a way to win. I hate to compare him to Joe Montana, but I'm going to do it anyway: He's a scrawny guy who doesn't look that imposing, but he's a competitor and he has those intangibles like Joe did. He'll learn the rest."
Like Montana, Plummer has a hard time explaining his calm amid the storm. "It's so high-energy," he says of playing under pressure, "yet everything is narrowed to one goal, and your focus goes toward that. It's a powerful situation. It's like you're driving around a tight corner and you see a diesel coming at you—you either find an escape route or you go over a cliff. I don't hear the crowd. It's like whatever senses don't need to be on just turn off."
There is an understated simplicity to Plummer's leadership that is even more difficult to quantify. It starts with the egalitarian values imparted by his parents, who separated when Jake was eight and later divorced but remain good enough friends that Steve's answering-machine greeting features Marilyn's voice. "He has always been able to relate to people from all walks," Brett says of his younger brother. "He's able to look for the good qualities in people and understand them better than anyone I know, and there's nothing contrived about it."
This is evident at the brew pub as Tillman professes his affinity for radio shock-jock Howard Stern and Plummer takes exception. "He's funny," Plummer says, his voice rising, "but I don't think the statements he makes about black people are very nice. It's racist. And he picks on people with mental handicaps. He makes the choice to do that, but they're not in that situation by choice. For me it doesn't work."
As Tillman argues back, Plummer lifts a glass to his lips with one hand and removes his baseball cap with the other. His glare is intense, his cheeks are flushed pink. For the first time all night, he isn't worried about being noticed.