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It was, in fact, the Stanford-like conditions on the Raiders last year that enabled Plunkett to accomplish what he did. First of all, there was no pressure on him. None. Pastorini's leg was broken, not bruised, and he wouldn't be back. Marc Wilson barely knew the plays, and Plunkett had been studying them for nearly three years. The fans didn't expect anything from Plunkett. Nor did the writers. Only Plunkett expected something. And he had a thousand outs.
Then there were Plunkett's three receivers: Branch, Chandler, Chester—speed, hands, cunning. They were old and un-heroic-looking, but like Vataha and Moore, they were unflappable and made the big plays. And there was the Oakland offensive system, which, like Stanford's, was perfect for Plunkett's skills: straight drop-back, minimal dumping to backs, emphasis on hitting the receivers on longer routes. By design, Oakland quarterbacks get a long time to throw, up to a second more than the passers on some clubs, which is a direct function of the team's massive and skilled offensive line. For Plunkett, a tall, over-the-top long-ball artist, hiding behind that wall gave him a feeling of confidence he hadn't known before in the pros.
Al Davis deserves credit for salvaging Plunkett, but not, as most people think, for making him a star. "That Al Davis genius stuff is bull——!" says Wayne Hooper. "Plunkett was playing better than Pastorini even during the preseason. [Statistically, that's true. For example, Plunkett threw five touchdown passes to Pastorini's one.] And he was doing well in 1979, too. But if Pastorini hadn't gotten hurt, Jim would still be on the bench."
Coach Tom Flores gets credit for giving Plunkett the quiet, rational assurance he needed once he was playing, but not for giving him any breaks. In San Diego in the second week of last season Plunkett entered for one play with 33 seconds to go and threw a fourth-down, game-tying touchdown pass. He then returned to the bench and watched as Pastorini and the Raiders lost in overtime. There were other games, including some the year before, in which Flores says he "almost" put Plunkett in. "Who knows," says Flores now. "Even if Dan hadn't gotten hurt, we might have made a change pretty soon." But that's easy to say now.
The fact that Flores is of Mexican descent and a former Raider quarterback is also inconsequential. "I never thought of that as drawing us together," says Flores. (And if anyone thinks all Chicano quarterbacks must be quietly sensitive, they need only remember old pro Joe Kapp, a Chicano with a beer-bottle scar across his neck who used to run upfield screaming, looking for linebackers to spear.) In reality, Flores and Davis were slowly breaking Plunkett even as they were "saving" him. In 1979 Plunkett nearly quit football, "disgusted," says Hooper, "for drawing a paycheck without turning a shovelful of dirt," but the attorney talked him out of it.
Another misconception is that Plunkett had great stats in 1980. He didn't. He completed only 51.6% of his passes, threw 16 interceptions (five in one game) and finished the year ranked 17th in the NFL in passing. What he did do was win—because he was on a good team and because of luck (remember Raider Safety Mike Davis' interception of Brian Sipe's pass or the ball that bounced from King's hands to Ray Chester for a touchdown in the AFC title game?) and because of toughness and confidence.
"I could see the confidence growing each day," says Flores, "just in the way he practiced, the way he responded in meetings. A man who's lost his confidence plays conservatively. But Jim was calling audibles, taking command, going deep, looking for the big play. That's what you want." Of course, it was that way at Stanford, too.
Back at the kitchen table in his house, Plunkett observes the reddening sky.
"There's a line I've been using a lot," he says. "It's this: 'Nothing recedes like success.' It's from the play Deathtrap, which I saw in New York. I was on the Today show and told Jane Pauley, and she seemed to like it. A cliché I use frequently is the one about going from the penthouse to the outhouse in a short time."
Negative thoughts. Why do they always come up? To lessen joy and make the ride smoother? Because life is truly a bad trip? As Bob Moore notes, Plunkett is an "incredibly honest" man—prone to interrupt tall tales in midphrase with a simple "That's not true." Does this honesty tell him that good things don't last, that even after last year his starting job with the Raiders isn't secure (which is true)?