He had thrown 49 passes in a losing cause. Now it was time for him to pass the torch. "Great job," Troy Aikman told fellow quarterback Jake Plummer at midfield of Texas Stadium last Saturday after the Arizona Cardinals had stunned the Dallas Cowboys 20-7 in a wild-card playoff. "Take it a long way."
Next stop for the Cardinals' flawed but fun-filled act will be the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, where the rested Minnesota Vikings, with their nine Pro Bowl players and 15 regular-season wins, should overwhelm and overrun them on Sunday. Right? "We can't worry too much about Randy Moss and Randall Cunningham and all those guys," a grinning Plummer said of the Vikings' potent offense. "We're going to play Cardinal football, like we did today."
That is to say, they are going to trust in Jake while remaining willfully blind to their own shortcomings. Hey, it worked last Saturday. Despite the El Cid-like appearance in the starting lineup of All-Pro cornerback Deion Sanders, who had missed the last five games with a sprained left big toe, the Cardinals dominated a club that had defeated them twice during the '98 season and 16 of the last 17 times they had met.
According to an NFL adage, postseason success hinges on a team's ability to run the ball while also stopping the opponent's ground game—neither of which Arizona has done with any consistency. So what happened against the Cowboys? Abetted by a few funky schemes cooked up early in the week by coach Vince Tobin and defensive coordinator Dave McGinnis, Arizona's callow, injury-depleted front seven bottled up Emmitt Smith, who had gashed them for a total of 240 rushing yards in those two Cowboy wins this season. In the wild-card matchup Smith ran for 74 yards, including only 23 in the second half.
Arizona back Adrian Murrell, on the other hand, busted loose for 74 yards on one run in the third quarter. Although he ran out of gas and was pulled down at the three—"He'll catch a lot of heat for that," promised Plummer—Murrell's dash set up the touch-down that provided the margin of victory in the Cardinals' first playoff win in 52 years.
Standing quietly in the visitors' locker room after the game was a Sebastian Cabot look-alike who claimed to have been on hand for that last postseason triumph. "December 28, 1947," said team owner Bill Bid-will, who was a water boy for the '47 Chicago Cardinals. "I was home from school on Christmas break. We beat the Eagles 28-21 on a frozen field at Comiskey Park."
Those Cardinals won the NFL championship. These Cardinals won't. Not this season. But there is ample reason to hope they might win it all again soon. Arizona has a quick, young defense—the youngest in the league in '98, averaging three years of NFL experience per starter—and the most elusive of championship components, a franchise quarterback.
Two plays on Arizona's second possession last Saturday showcased Plummer's accuracy, athleticism, daring and toughness. On first down, after executing the fake on a play-action pass, the second-year player sprinted to his left while looking downfield. With a Dallas defender pulling him down, an off-balance Plummer uncorked a pass that was caught one-handed and on the run by wide receiver Frank Sanders. The result: a 59-yard gain. Two plays later offensive coordinator Marc Trestman called for a shovel pass to Murrell. At the line of scrimmage Plummer read safety blitz. His orders, in that case, are to audible out of the play.
Plummer gambled, as is his wont, and ran the play anyway. The blitzing safety was picked up, and Murrell went 12 yards for Arizona's first touchdown. Shrugging afterward, Plummer said, "Sometimes you're supposed to check out of a play, but sometimes you don't, and sometimes that's the biggest play of the game."
As his teammates trickled I out of the locker room, Plummer stayed behind to chat with members of his family. Brett Plummer could not resist calling attention to his little brother Jake's gleaming and conspicuously new black dress shoes. "Nice shoes," he said. "You're really styling, huh?"