Thursday January 20th, 2005

DENVER -- They named the street that circles INVESCO Field in honor of John Elway on Sunday -- the stadium address is now 7 John Elway Drive, get it? -- and presented him with his gaudy Hall of Fame ring in a halftime ceremony. Nice touches both, and of course, well deserved.

But honestly now, did they need any more reminders that Elway isn't playing quarterback these days in the Mile High City? Memorializing the man they call Mr. Bronco is all well and good, but you get the feeling that team owner Pat Bowlen and the football-crazed citizens of Denver would really still prefer to activate him.

And with that, let the Jake Plummer debate begin anew.

The way I see it, if Elway deserves a street named after him, by that standard, Plummer, the current Broncos quarterback, is only up to a manhole cover. At most a sidewalk.

"I'm up to nothing so far,'' said Plummer, a smile on his lips in the Broncos' postgame locker room. "All I know is that I'm 11-4 as a starter here, but that's a short tenure compared to him. I'm not trying to top him. He's probably the No. 1 quarterback of all time. Maybe if I stay here long enough, they'll name the street that my house is on after me.''

Maybe, but I wouldn't go filing the paperwork with the city if I were the Broncos.

We'll give you that maybe it's a little harsh to poke fun at Plummer on the day he managed a pretty fair Elway impersonation, engineering an efficient 23-13 Denver victory over visiting San Diego and lifting the Broncos to 2-1 and into first place in the mild, mild AFC West. But that's what happens in Denver, where the Ghost of Elway is the omnipresent standard for quarterbacks.

"I don't even imagine being mentioned with him some day,'' Plummer said. "I'm just trying to play the way I play, and lead this team now.''

Against the Chargers, Plummer played pretty darn well, all things considered. With Denver's vaunted running game going nowhere -- 37 yards on 21 carries -- Plummer turned in his best game of the year so far, throwing for 294 yards, a pair of touchdowns, and no interceptions. His yardage total was his two-year high as a Bronco, and his 25 completions matched his Denver high.

Plummer made his usual amount of plays outside the pocket, where he has always looked more comfortable, and didn't put his Broncos in a bind and jeopardize victory with any grievous mistakes.

But still, after three weeks of the 2004 season, you've seen a little bit of everything from Plummer: the good, the bad, the ugly. And that's been the case for much his entire eight-year NFL career. Watching him play, you have to fight off an uneasy feeling at times, as if he's so used to flirting with disaster and living to tell about it that he doesn't know any other way to do things.

Plummer is still trying to live down that brain-numbing left-handed interception he threw to Chiefs linebacker Shawn Barber early in the third quarter of the opening-week win against Kansas City. It was his second dreadful pick in a three-minute span, helping the Chiefs turn a 17-7 halftime deficit into a 17-17 tie game.

And last week at Jacksonville, Plummer and the rest of the Broncos statistically dominated the Jags (he was 23 of 39 for 250 yards and no interceptions), but all he could manage was a couple field-goal drives that left Denver on the short end of a 7-6 loss.

Against the Chargers, Plummer was good enough, often enough to get copious amounts of credit for the win. In the first half, when Denver built a 13-3 lead, Plummer was 15-of-20 for 170 yards, with a 16-yard touchdown pass to receiver Rod Smith and a 116.7 QB rating. He still forced a throw or two into coverage, making you hide your eyes, but given that the Broncos' ground game was getting stuffed by San Diego, his ability to feed seven different receivers the ball kept the chains moving.

"Any time you take the running game out of it like that, you're going to ask your quarterback to go out and make some plays,'' said Denver head coach Mike Shanahan. "We did some good things in that first half. We just got shorted a bit in the red zone. But we got the win and that's the bottom line.'' At 2-1 this season, Plummer is a winning quarterback and that can't be overlooked. But his game is still a free-wheelin', risk-taking adventure ride. You get what you get with him, and if you're smart, you'll hang on for dear life, because things will get a little bumpy at times.

It's as if his game has never really progressed since he earned his "Jake the Snake'' persona at Arizona State in the mid-'90s. He loves the daredevil image, and he's still capable of wowing you and making you slap your forehead in disbelief, all in the same drive. But on this day, he got away with a couple of forced passes, and made the plays that he had to make.

"It was one of those games, it was ugly,'' Plummer said of Denver's ninth home win in the past 10 games against San Diego. "We had a feeling it might come down to throwing the ball a little bit. You'd love to win pretty all the time, but sometimes you get a team on the other side that's got pride also, and it's going to be a tough win. It was ugly today, but we got it, and that's all that matters.''

Plummer's finest moment against the Chargers came late in the third quarter, with Denver clinging to a 13-10 lead and facing a fourth-and-9 from the Chargers 33. Shanahan disdained a long Jason Elam field goal try and put the ball in Plummer's hands in the shotgun. Rolling to his right, Plummer spotted receiver Ashley Lelie streaking toward the end zone in man coverage against Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer. Both players jumped for the ball in the right front corner of the end zone, but the 6-foot-3 Lelie came down with it over the 6-foot Jammer, and the Broncos had their much-needed breathing room.

"Jake on the run is awesome,'' said Lelie, who hadn't caught a scoring pass since Week 4 of last year, against Detroit. "I think he's one of the best at doing that. All I know was Jake was outside the pocket and he threw it to me. I just threw my hands up and gave myself a chance to make the play. It was really gutsy, but we needed that. We needed to score more than three points.''

Said Shanahan: "I just felt like if we missed that field goal, the momentum is going the other way. Jake scrambled right and made a big-time throw and a big-time play. It doesn't always happen that way and it doesn't always work out. I'm glad they bailed me out.''

The play was low percentage, but then, so many of Plummer's throws are, aren't they? Low percentage and high reward is the formula that Plummer has made his name on, and something tells me he's not about to change his game at this point.

"That's not what you draw up on fourth down,'' Plummer said. "But it was huge. At that moment we needed a play. I didn't think we were going to have to complete a fourth and whatever it was for a touchdown to give us a [comfortable] lead, but that's what happened and we got the win.''

On Sunday, the victory was reward enough for Plummer. Another 100 or so of those, with a couple Super Bowl titles tossed in, and who knows? Maybe Plummer Pass will some day lead right into Elway Drive. In Denver, they always find ways to remember winners.

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