- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"People think I went from being a bad quarterback to being a good one," he says now. "I didn't. I've always been a good quarterback. It's just like when O.J. first went to Buffalo. Everybody said he was a failure, but he just didn't have a team that could let him do what he could do best. Or like at L.A. now—they're good enough it doesn't matter who the quarterback is.
"It's the situation that has changed. My career wouldn't have had all these peaks and valleys if I'd been with Oakland for 10 years. You know who I feel for? I feel for Archie Manning. He's a nice guy and a hell of a quarterback, and if he'd been with Pittsburgh all along and Bradshaw had been with the Saints, Archie would be the star and Pittsburgh still would have won those Super Bowls. It's the team you're with that matters."
Plunkett drums his fingers again. Harry is gone and the sun is dipping below the pine and walnut trees out back. Plunkett's girl friend, Gerry LaVelle, with whom he has been living for several years, is busy in another room preparing clothes for a fashion show she's putting on at Stanford the next day. Lively and athletic, Gerry is at ease in a way the brooding, easily rattled Plunkett seldom is. Raised in Cleveland, Gerry met Plunkett in the mid-'70s in Boston while he was still with the Patriots. The two are protective of each other—Plunkett was upset when news of their living arrangement nearly kept Gerry from being accepted into a women's club; it's Gerry's recorded voice that answers Plunkett's phone—but they also play with each other's foibles. During Plunkett's bad days Gerry would sometimes announce his entrance into a room by saying, "Here comes old Crabby."
Still, Plunkett is never comfortable plumbing his depths for others. Though always courteous (he won a congeniality award from Boston press photographers while he was with New England), he grows edgy during interviews, chopping his words, sometimes falling silent because, he says, he can't bear talking about himself anymore.
If he has difficulty with the notion of a comeback, he has no problem contemplating frustration and failure, the imminent collapse of things, guilt. Players have realized this about Plunkett. Says Raider Safety Burgess Owens, "I've always felt all he needed was to be a little cocky." Or as John Ralston, Plunkett's head coach at Stanford, once said, "Jim has taken so many blows from life he just can't get hold of a normal view of the world."
"Am I tired of all this?" Plunkett says, meaning the mythmaking, the Comeback, the media barrage (his picture is on the cover of at least five magazines this month), the dissection of his life. "Yes. No. I'm tired of being called Cinderella. I'm very tired of that. But the press has to write about something, don't they? I'm not upset. They can call it a comeback or anything they want." He nods his head in thought. He has latched on to an obvious perspective.
"You know," he says, "I could have failed in that first game against the Chargers."
Indeed. It was Oct. 12 of last year, and the Raiders were 2-3 and heading nowhere. San Diego was in first place in the AFC West. Dan Pastorini, Oakland's first-string quarterback, had broken a leg the week before, and rookie Quarterback Marc Wilson was too green to send in. That left the Raiders with Plunkett, the shell-shocked vet who hadn't started a game in 2½ years, who in 1978 had been picked off the NFL scrap heap by the Raiders when no other team wanted him. Called gun-shy, paranoid, conservative, damaged and finished at times during the previous five years, Plunkett seemed to be on a permanent R&R program at Oakland, a plan designed by Managing General Partner Al Davis that seemed to have little purpose other than to soothe the player's psychic and bodily wounds before a quiet release into civilian life.
But Plunkett performed masterfully against San Diego, completing 11 of 14 passes. One pass went for a touchdown and Plunkett threw no interceptions as the Raiders won 38-24. With Plunkett in charge Oakland won its next five games and 12 of its next 14, including the AFC championship rematch against San Diego. Plunkett threw deep, he threw short, he ran for critical first downs, he was on a roll.
And then, two weeks after the San Diego win, Plunkett was sitting in the Super Bowl locker room in New Orleans, victorious, the champion of the world, Up from Nowhere, King for a Day, the Most Valuable Player of the game with 13 completions in 21 attempts for 261 yards, no interceptions and three touchdowns (including a Super Bowl record 80-yarder to Kenny King) in the Raiders' 27-10 victory over Philadelphia. All around him were his loudly celebrating teammates: 6'8", 275-pound John Matuszak, who once slugged a man a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than he; Lester Hayes, the human glue jar; Bob Chandler, the frail, golden-tressed White Boy; verbose graybeard Gene Upshaw, according to some a future mayor of Oakland; Al Davis, the genius-villain boss with the Lords of Flatbush hairdo and the L.A. eyes.