(Photo courtesy of Oakland Raiders)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
Jim Plunkett is a Hall-of-Fame enigma and a subject of heated, and sometimes overheated, debate. Does he belong in Canton, or is he a permanent resident of the Hall of Very Good?
This is a question often debated in pro football circles because Plunkett is the only quarterback eligible for the Hall to have started and won multiple Super Bowls without being enshrined. He is also historically significant as he was the first minority quarterback to win a Super Bowl championship and the only Latino named Super Bowl MVP or selected as the NFL draft’s overall first pick.
Frankly, you cannot write a full history of the game without mentioning Jim Plunkett.
Plunkett’s career high points are as high as you can get. He was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1971, leading a moribund New England Patriots’ team to a 6-8 record and upsets of the AFC East leading Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Colts in the final three weeks of the regular season.
That bright start, however, was dimmed by injury, a leaky offensive line that had him sacked an average of 37 times a year his first three seasons (36, 39 and 37 sacks) and the arrival of former Oklahoma coach Chuck Fairbanks in 1973. With Fairbanks came his belief in the wishbone-option offense, a quarterback-running attack ill-suited to Plunkett’s skills and already beaten up body.
“I was there for five years,’’ Plunkett told the Talk of Fame Network. “Chuck Fairbanks came in and put in the option…I’m not the most talented running quarterback in the league. I really didn’t want to stay there and run the option as well as drop back and get beat up so I asked to be traded. I wanted to get to San Francisco. I did. I wanted it to work out in the worst way. It did not.’’
In 1974, Plunkett’s final full year as a starter in New England, he led the Patriots to a 7-7 record, their first .500 record in eight years. But he lost the job the following season to Steve Grogan, whom Fairbanks drafted as much for his running ability as his passing skill, and Plunkett was sent to the 49ers for three first-round draft picks, a second and backup quarterback Tom Owen.
Plunkett went 7-7 that first season, starting off 6-1 and leading the Niners to their only winning season in an eight-year span that stretched from 1973-1981. In his second year disaster struck again when the Niners hired Joe Thomas as general manager, and he began to unravel the team he’d inherited. He fired head coach Monte Clark and, with that, undid Plunkett, who lasted only one more season before being released.
The Niners would go 7-23 under Thomas and fire two more head coaches.
At that point, Plunkett was widely considered a bust, one of the biggest in NFL history. But he would find resurrection across the Bay Bridge in Oakland when Al Davis brought him in to back up Ken Stabler the following summer.
Plunkett sat for nearly 2-½ seasons, not taking a single snap his first year in Oakland and throwing only 15 passes in 1979, his second. When Davis traded for Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini and made him the starter in 1980, a downhearted Plunkett asked to be traded. Fortunately for him and the Raiders, Davis declined.
Five weeks into the 1980 season, Pastorini fractured his leg and Plunkett was fitted for the cleated-version of Cinderella’s glass slipper. After throwing five interceptions in his first appearance, he caught fire. The Raiders went 9-2 and became the first wild-card playoff team to win the Super Bowl with Plunkett repeatedly bombing Oakland’s opponents into submission. That included the Eagles in Super Bowl XV, when he passed for 261 yards and three touchdowns to become Super Bowl MVP and Comeback Player of the Year.
Three years later, Plunkett would do it again, leading the now Los Angeles Raiders to victory over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII. Of the five quarterbacks who started and won two Super Bowls and are Hall-of-Fame eligible, four have been inducted. Only Plunkett remains on the outside of Canton’s doors.
What seems to have stymied his candidacy is that while Plunkett has the jewelry of a Hall-of-Fame quarterback he lacks the numbers. Although he passed for 25,082 yards in an era where running the ball remained paramount, he also threw more interceptions (198) than touchdowns (164), and his completion percentage was only 52.5.
The latter figures were not unusual at the time because the passing game was played differently than it is today, but when coupled with the fact he was never selected to the Pro Bowl, was never a League MVP and was not named to an all-decade team, his candidacy became a subject for debate.
How much weight should be given to career numbers when the first seven of his 15 years in the NFL were spent trapped behind some of the most porous lines of his era and on two of the NFL’s most troubled franchises? While Plunkett was 34-53 as a starter in New England and San Francisco, in Oakland he went 38-19 and 8-2 in the playoffs.
Which numbers best represent the kind of quarterback he was?
That is the great debate, one likely to go on for years. If you’re a stats guy, he is not your kind of Hall-of-Fame quarterback. But if you’re a jewelry guy or someone who believes trailblazers have their place in the Hall, Jim Plunkett is your man.