Welcome to Throwback Thursday. Each week, we spotlight one of our favorite throwback superstars. We choose these stars using a rigorous scientific process we know in-house as “Whoever Nick Feels Like Writing About This Week Unless A Backup Quarterback Just Won The Super Bowl Again.” This week’s pick: Jim Plunkett.
Last Sunday, Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl MVP against a highly favored opponent. It is old news, by this point, that Foles was a backup quarterback filling in for Carson Wentz, and it is only slightly newer news that he did an exceptional job in that role. Foles played the David to Tom Brady’s Goliath, the Luke to his Vader, the plucky teenage sexpot to his Jason Vorhees. What Foles did was undeniably incredible, coming from obscurity to triumph on the grandest possible stage. Incredible, but not quite unique. Before there was Nick Foles, there was Jim Plunkett.
Much like Foles had a dominant second season (2013) that skyrocketed his stock before his star ultimately fell and he ended up as a backup, Plunkett was a highly touted first round pick—a Heisman winner, even—who put up encouraging numbers in his rookie year for the Patriots. Like Foles, though, his strong early play gave way to inconsistency and ultimately he, also like Foles, strongly considered leaving football after being banished by two separate franchises (New England and San Francisco).
Though he didn’t play a single snap in 1978, Plunkett found a home on the end of the bench for the Oakland Raiders, behind quarterback Dan Pastorini. If there was a team that made sense for a down-and-out underdog nobody else believed in, outside of the mainstream… it was the Raiders. But even there, Plunkett didn’t see much action at first; he threw only fifteen passes in his first two years on the team.
He finally got his chance in 1980, as Pastorini broke his leg in the fifth game of the season. Plunkett finally got his shot… and, at least initially, he blew it, throwing five interceptions after coming in for Pastorini. The Raiders believed in Plunkett, though, and he quickly redeemed himself, reeling off nine wins in the next eleven games and securing a Wild Card slot.
Oakland had rallied not only around Plunkett’s surface-to-air cannon of an arm (he still holds the NFL record for longest pass, a 99-yard touchdown monster than traveled about forty yards before reaching the receiver), but his smart, unflashy team-first approach. For Plunkett, to paraphrase another Raiders great*, it was never about whether he looked good; it was about whether or not the team won.
That may sound like the sort of thing any star would say and not mean, but Plunkett backed it up with his play. He was happy to lean on the run game when they had it going, an uncharacteristically willing and capable blocker for a quarterback, and a consummate team-player who stayed ready even when he was once again bumped to the bench a few years later. Not a ton of Super Bowl MVPs out there who’ll willingly go back to the bench (though here once again, Foles may be the new Plunkett) once they’ve proved themselves at the highest possible level.
Of course, Plunkett didn’t have to sit on the bench for long. Three games into the 1983 season, starter Marc Wilson went down with an injury and Plunkett once again led the Raiders to the playoffs… and once again to the Super Bowl.
Nick Foles should be so lucky.