In America, we value the story of the underdog as much as we value a good comeback story. The story of Jim Plunkett is a bit of both. Despite winning the Heisman Trophy, Plunkett struggled mightily in his first decade in the NFL. He nearly retired but was given one last chance with the Oakland Raiders. He never gave up and lived the ultimate dream in the NFL by winning two Super Bowls. This is his story.
Jim Plunkett was born on December 5, 1947 in San Jose, California. The youngest of three children was raised by parents who were blind. Inspired by the seemingly insurmountable circumstances, Plunkett started playing football in junior high and was soon his team’s quarterback. After leading James Lick High School to an undefeated season as a senior, Plunkett accepted a scholarship offer to Stanford University.
He struggled in his freshman year at Stanford. Slowed down by a surgery to remove a benign tumor from his neck, his struggles on the freshman team caught the eye of his coach who suggested a position change to defensive end. Plunkett rejected the proposal and stuck with it at quarterback.
Jim Plunkett won the starting job as a sophomore and finished the year completing 53% of his passes while throwing 14 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. He was even better his junior year, completing 58.6% of his passes while throwing 20 touchdowns against 15 interceptions. He also had a career best 136.2 quarterback rating that year. His senior year was one of legend. He completed 54.4% of his passes and threw 19 touchdowns against 19 interceptions. While leading Stanford to a Rose Bowl upset over mighty Ohio State, Plunkett won the Heisman Trophy. For the rest of his career he would be compared to his status as a Heisman Trophy winner.
The 1971 NFL Draft was known as the Year of the Quarterback. In addition to Plunkett, quarterbacks Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini were also selected in the top three picks. Partially due to his winning the Heisman Trophy, Plunkett was selected first overall by the New England Patriots. The Patriots had been pathetic in recent years and had bottomed out with a 2-12 record in 1970.
In those days it was common to throw a highly drafted quarterback into the fire immediately. Plunkett was no exception and he started every game of the first four years of his career. He started off decently in 1971, throwing 19 touchdowns against 16 interceptions while completing 48.2% of his passes. He led the team to an improved 6-8 record and was named the AFC Rookie of the Year. The following year was a disaster and sent him on a spiral which very nearly cost him his career. He threw just eight touchdowns against a ghastly 25 interceptions while leading the team to just three wins. He wouldn’t throw more touchdowns than interceptions in a season again until 1980.
1974 seemed to be his year of redemption. He led the team to a 7-7 record while throwing 19 touchdown passes and being intercepted 22 times. However, the bottom fell out the following year as he only appeared in five games of an injury marred season. He threw just three touchdown passes and was picked off seven times. The San Francisco 49ers were desperate for a quarterback and traded for him following the 1975 season.
The 49ers could have made the playoffs in 1976 but they had an unreliable kicker who cost them a number of games. Jim Plunkett played decently that first year in San Francisco, throwing 13 touchdown passes against 16 interceptions. He started every game in 1977, the first year under the ownership of the DeBartolo family, leading the team to a disappointing 5-9 record. After the season, the 49er decided to go another direction and released him. Plunkett spent the entire 1978 season out of football.
Redemption in Oakland
Like many quarterbacks who have been selected first overall in the NFL Draft, Jim Plunkett came into the NFL burdened with great expectations. So far, he had failed to live up to those expectations. Meanwhile, the Raiders were reshuffling their quarterback room. They had missed the playoffs the previous year and were looking for a backup to aging starter Ken Stabler. Plunkett saw little action in 1979 and 1980 looked to be the same. The Raiders had traded Stabler for Dan Pastorini in the offseason and Plunkett was still sitting on the bench as the backup.
Pastorini began the year behind a talented yet inconsistent offensive line. He had the unfortunate habit of pump faking the ball on every pass play. The offensive line would hear the ball hit his hand and incorrectly assume that he had thrown the ball. They would then stop protecting the passer and as a result the defense would pound Pastorini.
In the fifth game of the season against the Kansas City Chiefs, Pastorini broke his leg and Plunkett got one last chance to redeem himself. He fell flat on his face, throwing five interceptions in a 31-17 loss.
He didn’t have much time to mope over his poor performance, a great San Diego Chargers team was on the schedule next week. Plunkett settled down and completed 11 out of 14 passes with one touchdown and was not intercepted. Despite his minimal numbers, Plunkett kept the starting job the rest of the year.
He led the team to the playoffs where they faced off against the Chargers in the AFC Championship Game. Plunkett was on fire in the first quarter, throwing two touchdown passes and running for another score, staking the Raiders to a 21-7 lead. He didn’t do much the rest of the game but he didn’t turn the ball over either and the Raiders won 34-27. At long last, Jim Plunkett had led his team to the Super Bowl.
The Raiders met the Philadelphia Eagles in the New Orleans Super Dome for the Super Bowl. While the Eagles were not as offensively dangerous as the Chargers, they were still formidable and were on the hunt for their first Super Bowl win. Plunkett was on fire in the first quarter, throwing two touchdown passes including an 80-yard bomb to running back Kenny King. He threw another touchdown pass in the third quarter, finishing the day completing 13 out of 21 of his passes along with three touchdowns. For his efforts, he earned the Super Bowl MVP, finally achieving the status which had been expected of him since he was drafted a decade earlier. He became the first minority quarterback to lead his team to the Super Bowl and became the only Latino to win the Super Bowl MVP.
Despite his achievements in 1980, the Raiders decided to go with a younger quarterback. Plunkett struggled to supplant Marc Wilson as a starter in 1981 but did lead the Raiders to the playoffs in 1982. Wilson reclaimed the starting job but was hurt and Plunkett took over in 1983. He finished the year completing 60.7% of his passes and throwing 20 touchdowns against 18 interceptions. The Raiders went to the Super Bowl that year, where they upset a heavily favored Washington team 38-9. Plunkett didn’t win the Super Bowl MVP that time, as running back Marcus Allen was spectacular, making one of the greatest runs of all time.
Jim Plunkett’s last year in the NFL was 1986, where he started 10 games and threw 14 touchdown passes. He finished his career with 25,882 passing yards, 164 touchdown passes and 198 interceptions. While his career was arduous and trying, he continued to persevere and earned two Super Bowl rings and a Super Bowl MVP.