More Than Meets The Eye Jake Plummer lacks the size, arm and swagger to be a prototypical NFL quarterback. No problem. Here's why the Cardinals might be looking at the next Joe Montana
(He wasn't even close to being Joe Montana during his years with the Cardinals)
Sports Illustrated-August 17, 1998
By Michael Silver
Burying his eyes under the bill of a weathered baseball cap, Jake Plummer enters a brew pub near the Arizona State campus and tries to blend into the crowd of revelers. The chance of Plummer, a former Sun Devils star who is now the Arizona Cardinals' starting quarterback, escaping celebrity in his adopted home state is about as great as that of the Valley of the Sun freezing over, but a young man can dream, can't he? Lured to a Phoenix-area night spot for the first time in months, Plummer, a 23-year-old passer anointed as the next Joe Montana by the quarterback's own mentor, Bill Walsh, wages a constant battle to stay out of the spotlight and remain one of the guys.
Hang with those close to Plummer, and it's easy to see why he's at least succeeding at the latter. Humility is only an insult away, and Plummer is getting plenty of good-natured jabs from the circle of friends in his midst: girlfriend Sonia Flores, childhood chum Ty Hamilton and teammate Pat Tillman, a former Arizona State linebacker who in April was a seventh-round draft choice of the Cardinals. They start in on Plummer as soon as he takes his seat at their dimly lit table, citing everything from his bad haircut to his awkward dance moves to his penchant for nose-picking, an example of which was broadcast live on network television last December. "In a lot of ways Jake comes off as a geek," Tillman says of the man who nearly brought the Sun Devils a national title in '96. Many star athletes have a posse; Plummer has a band of roasters.
As the youngest member of a competition-crazed clan that includes two brothers and six male cousins, Plummer has spent a lifetime absorbing friendly abuse. "We've always competed in everything you could think of, and growing up, Jake never won anything--ever," says his eldest brother, 30-year-old Brett. "Even now, we try to humble him whenever possible."
Adds Hamilton, "If he ever did start to get a big head, his brothers would kick his ass."
Plummer may be the only quarterback in NFL history to have been tricked into carrying a skunk into his training-camp dorm room. (Cardinals fullback Larry Centers, who had collected the wounded
animal from the middle of a highway and placed it in a plastic bag, handed it to Plummer and told him it was an order of chicken wings.) On road trips during his rookie season, Plummer dutifully toted a pint of Jack Daniel's for one Arizona defensive starter's postgame indulgence. Vulnerability is a given with this Idaho native, who doesn't fit the NFL stereotype: He grew up eating tofu and soybean burgers at the urging of his health-conscious parents (his mom, Marilyn, once described herself as a former hippie, though she now contends she merely "had long, straight hair and wore beads" in the '70s), and he says he enjoys making pottery. He admits that he's scared of the water, a fear that stems from the time, at age four, when he fell off an inner tube during a run down the Boise River rapids and was quickly fished out by his father, Steve. He's also contrary enough to think that his nickname, Jake the Snake, "is a little too obvious. Something unique would be better." Such as? "Jake the Rake, because I'm so skinny."
For the record Plummer stands 6'2", weighs 197 pounds and has an arm that caused most NFL talent evaluators to scoff rather than drool as the '97 draft approached. He lasted until the 12th pick of the second round, when Arizona, in a move viewed as a not-so-subtle attempt to boost its ticket sales, chose the local hero. Were that draft restaged today, Plummer would almost certainly be a top-10 selection, though Walsh, the Hall of Fame coach and esteemed quarterback guru, insists that "a lot of teams would still pass, because they hold fast to the rule that quarterbacks have to be a certain size. They'd be making a mistake, because so many of the great ones don't have overwhelming arms or physical tools. Football has evolved to where the more athletic quarterbacks, who can get away from the pass rush and make things happen on the run, are the ones who will perform successfully over a long period."
Based on his performance as the Cardinals' starter in the final nine games of '97, Plummer, who pulled out a couple of tight victories and threw for an NFL rookie-record 388 yards in a loss to the eventual NFC East champion New York Giants, is now grouped with the Jacksonville Jaguars' Mark Brunell and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Kordell Stewart as representing the latest breed of pro quarterback. But while Brunell and Stewart are accomplished runners who evoke images of the San Francisco 49ers' Steve Young, it is Plummer who has consistently drawn comparisons to Young's predecessor in San Francisco, Montana. No pressure there--other than the fact that Montana won four Super Bowls in as many tries, threw for 11 touchdowns with no interceptions in those victories and is the greatest quarterback of all time. It's one thing to be compared to Montana by former USC and Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson or Arizona State teammates, but it's another thing altogether to be held up as Montana-like by Walsh.
Walsh waited until the third round of the '79 draft to snag Montana. Eighteen years later, while working as a front-office consultant, Walsh grew frustrated as the Niners' decision makers ignored his advice to take Plummer. They instead used their first-round pick (No. 26) on Virginia Tech's Jim Druckenmiller, who had a strong arm but was less suited to the 49ers' system, at least in the eyes of Walsh, the man who created it.
"We're happy with what we did, but if you look at it now, picking Plummer would've been a good move also," San Francisco director of football operations Dwight Clark says. "We thought Jake was very exciting and productive and a lot like Joe with his ability to make something happen out of the pocket. But we felt that Druck had the most ability, the strongest arm, the most poise in the pocket and the best ability to read second and third receivers. It's easy to second-guess now."
Says Walsh, "Barring the unforeseen injury, and provided he someday has a supporting cast and system that can allow him to flourish, I see Jake having a Montana-like career, including the Super Bowls." Walsh sees these traces of Montana in Plummer: an ability to throw beautiful touch passes, a knack for improvisation, quick feet, vision, coolness under fire and uncanny leadership qualities that seem to be most effective when circumstances are the most pressing.
Also like Montana, Plummer has shown that he can set aside his field general's persona and mix well with teammates away from the game. Through practical jokes, self-effacing comments and a general refusal to take himself too seriously, Montana counteracted his commanding game-day presence and put teammates at ease. In comparison Plummer tends to expose more of himself, sometimes literally. Whereas Montana was known to sneak out of meetings in training camp and decorate the trees with his teammates' mountain bikes, Plummer, while at Arizona State, sometimes stepped out of the locker-room shower and did the Chicken Dance--bunching his wet hair atop his head so that it stuck straight up, flapping his arms wildly and making chicken noises, au naturel. "I did it because it made Juan Roque laugh his ass off every time," Plummer says, referring to the 6'8", 320-pound offensive tackle now with the Detroit Lions. Tillman recalls being awakened at 1 a.m. in his dorm room at the Sun Devils' August training site in northern Arizona "by a buck-naked guy with a clown mask making weird noises and pounding on everyone's bed with a big stick. But Jake has a pretty, shall we say, distinctive body type, so everyone knew it was him."
In terms of debunking one's own legend, not even Montana ever produced the kind of signature scene that Plummer did in a game against the New Orleans Saints. While standing on the Superdome sidelines, Plummer was captured by Fox-TV cameras placing his index finger inside his nose. The tight shot lasted several seconds as Jake snaked his finger around one nostril. Back home in Boise, many of Plummer's friends and family members had gathered at a tavern to watch the game and were simultaneously exhilarated and mortified. Says an apologetic Marilyn, "It was every mother's worst nightmare. He has a little bit of an allergy problem, and living in the desert really dries it out. Really, it was more like he was scratching. For his birthday, one of his friends gave him a box of Kleenex with a sign on it that said, 'Only to be used on national television.'"
Plummer is sitting on the floor of a Tempe hotel room, penning his name, along with the snake symbol that has been part of his signature since college, to 2,000 trading cards. For this two-hour endeavor Plummer will receive $10,000. "Can you believe this?" he says. "It's like highway robbery. It takes my brother Eric, who's a roofer, about four months to make that."
The disparity could be a lot worse--and probably will be down the road. Jake's agent, Leigh Steinberg, says Plummer "has turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars in endorsements since joining the Cardinals. We have kept a lid on his marketing because it makes no sense to put him on every billboard at this stage of his career."
But Plummer, who as a senior led the Sun Devils on a stirring season-long run that ended with a last-minute Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State, has little chance of keeping a low profile. Since the Cardinals moved from St. Louis in 1988, they have been without a bona fide hero. With 10 nonwinning seasons, chronically poor attendance and an uninspiring parade of starting quarterbacks--among them Gary Hogeboom, Timm Rosenbach, Tom Tupa and Jay Schroeder--the Cardinals created a vacuum for Plummer to fill.
Thirty minutes after drafting him, the team opened the box office at its Tempe training facility to accommodate a surge of ticket requests. When Plummer made his first start, against the Tennessee Oilers last Oct. 26, there were more than 5,000 walk-up sales. After Arizona went three-and-out on its first possession, Plummer received a standing ovation.
"He's like a god," says second-year wideout Chad Carpenter, one of Plummer's closest friends on the team. "We go to a restaurant and people stand up and clap when he walks by. No wonder he's a hermit."
There is another, more painful reason Plummer rarely ventures out past the dinner hour when he's in the Phoenix area. In April 1997, just days before he was drafted, Plummer was investigated by the police on sexual-assault charges stemming from an incident the previous month at a Tempe dance club. Four women accused Plummer of groping them, and one claimed he kicked her in the leg after she confronted him in the parking lot. Charged with four counts of felony sexual abuse and one count of misdemeanor assault, Plummer, worried about the publicity a trial would bring, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor disorderly conduct in lieu of assault and had the felony charges dropped. He was sentenced to two years' probation and 100 hours of community service; in March, after Plummer completed the community service, a Maricopa County judge placed him on reduced-supervision probation. Plummer also reached a settlement with three of the women.
Plummer, who admits he was drinking that night, says he learned a hard lesson about the hazards of celebrity. So did his mother. "We don't know what will happen to those girls in their lives, but I'll bet it won't be good things," says Marilyn. "What they did was unscrupulous for women in general and a setback to so many women's rights we have fought really hard to get. It was so ludicrous what they alleged. I know Jake, and he's a very respectful person."
Foster Robberson, an attorney who represented the three women with whom Plummer settled, declined to comment. But the mother of one of the women, who does not wish to be identified, says, "My daughter and the other girls went through hard times with the public criticism from the media. This situation was not about money or getting rich. It dealt with the dignity and self-respect they needed to uphold. The public seems to forget that the girls were innocent victims. They were not looking to be in the spotlight. Basically, the past is behind them. Yet the image of Jake Plummer will always be there. Why is it his agents, lawyers and mother are constantly protecting his image? It sounds like Mrs. Plummer is still working on Jake's image."
The incident tarnished Plummer's reputation--one elementary school withdrew an invitation to have him speak at an assembly--and has provoked a limited amount of public razzing. But he has remained largely popular, partly because of his lack of pretentiousness. Before a game in Baltimore last November, Plummer was heckled by Ravens fans as he and backup Stoney Case threw warmup passes from the end zone. Plummer placed his hand on Case's rear end, and the fans went nuts. "They were yelling, 'Look, he's doing it again,' but it was good-natured," Plummer says. He had the last laugh, leading Arizona on a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive.
It was one of many instances in which Plummer demonstrated his poise, beginning with a stunning debut that made instant believers of his teammates. With starter Kent Graham injured and Case having struggled for three-plus quarters, coach Vince Tobin threw Plummer into an Oct. 19 game in Philadelphia. The Cardinals, who trailed 7-3, were on their two-yard line. "I was like a virgin being sent into a war," Plummer says, showing a flair for the mixed metaphor. He was more like a surgeon, coolly engineering a 98-yard scoring march in which he completed 4 of 6 passes for 89 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown to wideout Kevin Williams. Arizona failed to hold the lead and lost in overtime, but Plummer, expected to sit on the bench for at least one season, had won the starting job.
He had plenty of rocky moments, including a four-interception debacle in his first start and two games in which he was sacked a total of 16 times. However, he also threw for 2,203 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine-plus games, and displayed scrambling ability that evoked images of Fran Tarkenton. The Montana comparisons persisted, thanks to Plummer's late-game poise against the Eagles and the Ravens and to a game-winning touchdown march in the final two minutes of a season-ending 29-26 triumph over the Atlanta Falcons.
"The thing that separates him from other players is his confidence level," says Darren Woodson, the Dallas Cowboys' All-Pro safety. "You can just sense it when he's in there--he takes control of that offense."
When Plummer faced Washington on Dec. 7--a game the Cardinals lost, 38-28--Redskins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan adjusted his game plan to account for the rookie's playmaking ability. "We brought a ton of pressure, partly because he's a young guy, but also because I was really worried that if we sat back and put it on him to make plays, he'd beat us," says Nolan. "The big, fast, athletic guys don't scare me nearly as much as the guys who find a way to win. I hate to compare him to Joe Montana, but I'm going to do it anyway: He's a scrawny guy who doesn't look that imposing, but he's a competitor and he has those intangibles like Joe did. He'll learn the rest."
Like Montana, Plummer has a hard time explaining his calm amid the storm. "It's so high-energy," he says of playing under pressure, "yet everything is narrowed to one goal, and your focus goes toward that. It's a powerful situation. It's like you're driving around a tight corner and you see a diesel coming at you--you either find an escape route or you go over a cliff. I don't hear the crowd. It's like whatever senses don't need to be on just turn off."
There is an understated simplicity to Plummer's leadership that is even more difficult to quantify. It starts with the egalitarian values imparted by his parents, who separated when Jake was eight and later divorced but remain good enough friends that Steve's answering-machine greeting features Marilyn's voice. "He has always been able to relate to people from all walks," Brett says of his younger brother. "He's able to look for the good qualities in people and understand them better than anyone I know, and there's nothing contrived about it."
This is evident at the brew pub as Tillman professes his affinity for radio shock-jock Howard Stern and Plummer takes exception. "He's funny," Plummer says, his voice rising, "but I don't think the statements he makes about black people are very nice. It's racist. And he picks on people with mental handicaps. He makes the choice to do that, but they're not in that situation by choice. For me it doesn't work."
As Tillman argues back, Plummer lifts a glass to his lips with one hand and removes his baseball cap with the other. His glare is intense, his cheeks are flushed pink. For the first time all night, he isn't worried about being noticed.