They hit the streets with great anticipation, eager to see what this new city had to offer. For Jake Plummer and his fianc�e, Sonia Flores, life couldn't have been sweeter—the quarterback had signed a seven-year, $40 million contract with the Denver Broncos a day earlier and now, on this afternoon in early March, they were roaming the suburbs of the Mile High City on a house-hunting mission. � Excited fans swarmed Plummer when he stopped by a sporting goods store and later when he pulled his oversized pickup into, of all places, a car dealership bearing John Elway's name. They stuck blue-and-orange hats in his face and urged him to sign footballs. Flores was so accustomed to the apathetic fans who barely supported Plummer's previous team, the Arizona Cardinals, that she couldn't believe the hysteria his arrival in Denver had inspired. "Jake," she said, sounding somewhat unsettled. "It's really crazy here, isn't it?"
If Flores thought that day was wild, imagine the excitement that Plummer will generate if he leads the Broncos to a victory over the Chiefs in Kansas City this Sunday in a battle of AFC West unbeatens (box, opposite). Based on his play in the past three games, he certainly appears capable of doing just that. A mistake-prone quarterback who in six seasons with the Cardinals had an abysmal 69.0 passer rating, Plummer has developed into one of the NFL's most efficient signal-callers.
On Sunday he led Denver to a 20-16 victory over the Detroit Lions, extending his streak of passes without an interception to 70. With running back Clinton Portis sidelined by a bruised sternum, Plummer hoisted the offense onto his narrow shoulders. He made smart decisions and delivered crisp passes to eight receivers. He had a career-high 16 straight completions against Detroit's injury-riddled secondary and rushed for a team-high 40 yards, 27 of them on designed runs. And with the Broncos clinging to a one-point lead, he completed three passes on a late fourth-quarter drive to help set up Jason Elam's 41-yard field goal. "The most impressive thing about him is his poise," said Lions safety Brian Walker after Plummer completed 25 of 34 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns. "He wasn't rattled, and he didn't have happy feet. I looked into his eyes a couple of times, and he was just taking things in stride."
In Arizona, Plummer felt he had to do everything because he didn't have a lot of talent around him. That's not a problem with the Broncos, who are averaging 29.5 points a game. Coach Mike Shanahan is an offensive mastermind, and Plummer has veteran receivers and the game-breaking Portis at his disposal. "I've learned I don't have to be perfect here," says Plummer. "If I limit my errors and play within this system, I'll do fine."
Plummer ranks fourth in the league with a 98.1 passer rating, and during his three-game run he has completed 70.6% of his passes and thrown for seven touchdowns. Yet many question whether he can continue to play at such a high level. His career has been marked by inconsistency and a tendency to make bad decisions, but Shanahan is confident that he can correct those flaws.
Denver likes to pound away with Portis, then run play-action passes with Plummer, whose quick feet and improvisational skills give him a distinct advantage when he's on the move. That's a dimension his predecessor Brian Griese couldn't provide. In fact, Plummer's mobility is what Shanahan loves most, so the coach has advised his quarterback to make safe throws and to scramble if he doesn't like his first two reads on a pass play.
" Denver is definitely using him the right way," says a scout for one AFC team. "They've simplified things by running a lot of bootlegs, which give him only two receivers to choose from. See, Jake makes some awful decisions. That's why I don't trust the guy. He's a great kid, but he's going to lose a big game for them because he's reckless. He's always been a cowboy playing quarterback."
That's a concern that apparently was shared by the Broncos. Only the first two years of Plummer's contract are guaranteed, for a total of $8.2 million. But the quarterback is glad to have a fresh start. Though he opened with a bang in Arizona—when Plummer came out of Arizona State in 1997, Bill Walsh compared him with Joe Montana, and Plummer made believers of a lot of people by leading the Cardinals to the playoffs in his second season—he finished with 90 touchdowns, 114 interceptions and a 31-53 record as a starter. Remarkably, his confidence never wavered. "I know I can play in this league," he says. "It was tough getting through the last couple of years in Arizona because I was taking all the blame. But I also had great people there who believed in me. And I got another huge boost when Mike Shanahan called me. If I wasn't believing in myself enough, that opened my eyes."
Shanahan, who reviewed every one of Plummer's throws over the past two seasons, wasn't concerned about the interceptions because many occurred while he was trying to dig the Cardinals out of a hole. Shanahan cared more about Plummer's intangibles: his leadership, his instincts and, above all, his competitive fire.
Upon signing with the Broncos, Plummer demonstrated his drive to succeed. He arrived as early as 6 a.m. at the team's training facility to lift weights and study the playbook with offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and quarterbacks coach Pat McPherson. He started bowling with a dozen or so teammates on Tuesday nights, talking a little trash and making a friendly wager or two. "He showed that he didn't think he was above any of us," says linebacker Keith Burns. Denver's offensive linemen were also impressed when Plummer treated them to a $2,000 steak dinner shortly after his arrival. "Jake is what I thought he was as a player, and he's better than I thought he was as a person," says Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. "He's a really well-grounded guy. And he's a great guy to be around. He's unusual for somebody who has played in the league for six years—it's like he just popped out of college. He doesn't have any pretense."