As the rest of the family cracked up, Jake protested feebly, "What? They were, like, 60 bucks!"
The exchange was a reminder that even though the Cardinals recently signed Plummer to a four-year, $29.7 million contract extension that included an NFL-record $15 million signing bonus, the Snake is well grounded as long as his family is around. While the deal raised eyebrows around the league—Plummer, after all, has started only 26 NFL games and thrown three more interceptions (35) than touchdown passes—it's hard, if not impossible, to find a Cardinal who begrudges him that windfall. "They've got a lot riding on Jake," says Arizona tackle Lomas Brown.
A native of Boise, Idaho, Plummer first cultivated his reputation as a money player at Arizona State, where as a senior he led the Sun Devils to the '97 Rose Bowl. The Cardinals believe that his immense popularity in the region will help them get their $1.8 billion stadium project on the ballot this May. That he could be carrying the fate of a franchise on his slender shoulders doesn't faze the 6'2", 197-pound Plummer. Like the quarterback to whom he is most often compared, Joe Montana, Plummer compartmentalizes pressure. "When it's nut-cuttin' time," says plainspoken Arizona center Mike Devlin, "it's like Jake is back in Boise, playing in his backyard." That the Snake is at his best when the game is on the fine is underscored by this eye-popping statistic: In 27 NFL games (in his first appearance he came off the bench) he has engineered nine fourth-quarter comebacks.
So completely had Plummer earned the trust of his teammates by the end of last year that he was elected a team captain before the '98 season, unheard of for a second-year player. However, Plummer began this season in a slump. In the off-season Trestman, who was formerly the 49ers' offensive coordinator, had installed the West Coast offense, and Plummer was struggling with it.
"There were times I was pretty low," he says. "I wasn't making big plays, which I was able to do last year even though I didn't know what was going on. Now I felt I had a grasp of things, but I couldn't do anything right." His three interceptions against the Oakland Raiders on Oct. 4 were the decisive plays in Arizona's 23-20 loss. Four weeks later, after a midseason bye, "I relaxed, simplified things a little," says Plummer, and he started clicking. That's when Arizona began the playoff push that earned the club its nickname: the Cardiac Cardinals. With a postseason berth hanging in the balance each week, Arizona won its final three games with last-play field goals.
That was why the Dallas game was so strange. No one on the Arizona sideline knew quite how to behave in winning so handily. A lot of credit went to a Cardinals defense that contained Smith ( Arizona used five down linemen much more than in any other game this season), straitjacketed Dallas's receivers and blitzed and harassed Aikman into a shockingly poor performance (22 of 49, three interceptions). At one point Aikman stormed off the field and shouted, "I can't find anyone open!"
His primary nemesis was perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Aeneas Williams, who blanketed Aikman's go-to receiver, Michael Irvin. Twice Aikman forced balls to Irvin; twice Williams picked them off. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Cowboys in their hurry-up offense, one could see a changing of the guard. There was Aikman running the two-minute drill but with nowhere near the panache with which Plummer now conducts it.
"Nobody," says Williams, "does it like Jake."