Snake Eyes The Broncos rolled the dice on Jake Plummer, and the embattled quarterback is proving to be a good bet

October 05, 2003

They hit the streets with great anticipation, eager to see what
this new city had to offer. For Jake Plummer and his fiancee,
Sonia Flores, life couldn't have been sweeter--the quarterback
had signed a seven-year, $40 million contract with the Denver
Broncos a day earlier and now, on this afternoon in early March,
they were roaming the suburbs of the Mile High City on a
house-hunting mission. ¶ Excited fans swarmed Plummer when he
stopped by a sporting goods store and later when he pulled his
oversized pickup into, of all places, a car dealership bearing
John Elway's name. They stuck blue-and-orange hats in his face
and urged him to sign footballs. Flores was so accustomed to the
apathetic fans who barely supported Plummer's previous team, the
Arizona Cardinals, that she couldn't believe the hysteria his
arrival in Denver had inspired. "Jake," she said, sounding
somewhat unsettled. "It's really crazy here, isn't it?"

If Flores thought that day was wild, imagine the excitement that
Plummer will generate if he leads the Broncos to a victory over
the Chiefs in Kansas City this Sunday in a battle of AFC West
unbeatens (box, opposite). Based on his play in the past three
games, he certainly appears capable of doing just that. A
mistake-prone quarterback who in six seasons with the Cardinals
had an abysmal 69.0 passer rating, Plummer has developed into one
of the NFL's most efficient signal-callers.

On Sunday he led Denver to a 20-16 victory over the Detroit
Lions, extending his streak of passes without an interception to
70. With running back Clinton Portis sidelined by a bruised
sternum, Plummer hoisted the offense onto his narrow shoulders.
He made smart decisions and delivered crisp passes to eight
receivers. He had a career-high 16 straight completions against
Detroit's injury-riddled secondary and rushed for a team-high 40
yards, 27 of them on designed runs. And with the Broncos clinging
to a one-point lead, he completed three passes on a late
fourth-quarter drive to help set up Jason Elam's 41-yard field
goal. "The most impressive thing about him is his poise," said
Lions safety Brian Walker after Plummer completed 25 of 34 passes
for 277 yards and two touchdowns. "He wasn't rattled, and he
didn't have happy feet. I looked into his eyes a couple of times,
and he was just taking things in stride."

In Arizona, Plummer felt he had to do everything because he
didn't have a lot of talent around him. That's not a problem with
the Broncos, who are averaging 29.5 points a game. Coach Mike
Shanahan is an offensive mastermind, and Plummer has veteran
receivers and the game-breaking Portis at his disposal. "I've
learned I don't have to be perfect here," says Plummer. "If I
limit my errors and play within this system, I'll do fine."

Plummer ranks fourth in the league with a 98.1 passer rating, and
during his three-game run he has completed 70.6% of his passes
and thrown for seven touchdowns. Yet many question whether he can
continue to play at such a high level. His career has been marked
by inconsistency and a tendency to make bad decisions, but
Shanahan is confident that he can correct those flaws.

Denver likes to pound away with Portis, then run play-action
passes with Plummer, whose quick feet and improvisational skills
give him a distinct advantage when he's on the move. That's a
dimension his predecessor Brian Griese couldn't provide. In fact,
Plummer's mobility is what Shanahan loves most, so the coach has
advised his quarterback to make safe throws and to scramble if he
doesn't like his first two reads on a pass play.

"Denver is definitely using him the right way," says a scout for
one AFC team. "They've simplified things by running a lot of
bootlegs, which give him only two receivers to choose from. See,
Jake makes some awful decisions. That's why I don't trust the
guy. He's a great kid, but he's going to lose a big game for them
because he's reckless. He's always been a cowboy playing

That's a concern that apparently was shared by the Broncos. Only
the first two years of Plummer's contract are guaranteed, for a
total of $8.2 million. But the quarterback is glad to have a
fresh start. Though he opened with a bang in Arizona--when
Plummer came out of Arizona State in 1997, Bill Walsh compared
him with Joe Montana, and Plummer made believers of a lot of
people by leading the Cardinals to the playoffs in his second
season--he finished with 90 touchdowns, 114 interceptions and a
31-53 record as a starter. Remarkably, his confidence never
wavered. "I know I can play in this league," he says. "It was
tough getting through the last couple of years in Arizona because
I was taking all the blame. But I also had great people there who
believed in me. And I got another huge boost when Mike Shanahan
called me. If I wasn't believing in myself enough, that opened my

Shanahan, who reviewed every one of Plummer's throws over the
past two seasons, wasn't concerned about the interceptions
because many occurred while he was trying to dig the Cardinals
out of a hole. Shanahan cared more about Plummer's intangibles:
his leadership, his instincts and, above all, his competitive

Upon signing with the Broncos, Plummer demonstrated his drive to
succeed. He arrived as early as 6 a.m. at the team's training
facility to lift weights and study the playbook with offensive
coordinator Gary Kubiak and quarterbacks coach Pat McPherson. He
started bowling with a dozen or so teammates on Tuesday nights,
talking a little trash and making a friendly wager or two. "He
showed that he didn't think he was above any of us," says
linebacker Keith Burns. Denver's offensive linemen were also
impressed when Plummer treated them to a $2,000 steak dinner
shortly after his arrival. "Jake is what I thought he was as a
player, and he's better than I thought he was as a person," says
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. "He's a really well-grounded guy. And
he's a great guy to be around. He's unusual for somebody who has
played in the league for six years--it's like he just popped out
of college. He doesn't have any pretense."

Plummer is also resilient. He learned how unforgiving Broncos
fans can be when they booed him after an interception in a
preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts. Then the Denver
media bashed him after he threw three interceptions in a
season-opening 30-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, but he
responded the following week with three first-half touchdown
passes in a 37-13 victory over the San Diego Chargers. Explaining
his miserable debut, Plummer says, "I wasn't relaxed. I knew my
reads, but I wasn't making the plays. I was trying to not make a
mistake. I was the same way in the first half against San Diego."

Plummer sat out the second half against the Chargers with a
mildly separated right shoulder, but as he prepared for the
team's home opener--a Monday-night showdown on Sept. 22 with the
Oakland Raiders--he says he "decided to relax and go play." Then
he proceeded to dominate the first quarter. He threw two
touchdown passes and ran for a six-yard score as Denver jumped to
a 21-0 lead, and his 40-yard scramble was the longest run by a
quarterback in franchise history. It was the type of game that
Shanahan knew Plummer was capable of. After meeting with his
quarterback following the debacle in Cincinnati, Shanahan was
glad to see that Plummer hadn't lost his confidence, but he also
issued a warning. "I told Jake he's going to be a great
quarterback here, but if he throws an interception and we win,
people will talk about the interception," Shanahan says. "If he
passes for 500 yards and we lose, he's getting the blame. The
only way he can win is by winning a championship."

Plummer understands what he's up against. Griese, who wasn't
waived until June because of salary-cap considerations, warned
his successor of the perils of playing quarterback in Denver.
Plummer also spoke twice with Elway. "He had some rough years
here as well," Plummer recalls, "but I can tell how much of an
impact he still has."

Now it is the 28-year-old Plummer's turn. The Broncos have missed
the playoffs for the past two years and haven't won a postseason
game since Elway led them to the second of their consecutive
Super Bowl triumphs, at the end of the 1998 season. "I don't
think Jake knew exactly what he was doing earlier in his career,"
says Flores. "Even he will admit that he was just going out and
playing. He was Jake the Snake, the guy who could do no wrong.
But that eventually changed, and he had to figure out another way
to be a good player. Now he really knows how to prepare for a
game." Adds Lions coach Steve Mariucci, "He's playing with a
better team now, so he's going to become more efficient, more
productive and win more games."

Plummer, however, is hardly complacent. He sat at his locker on
Sunday with ice on his right shoulder and knee, thinking about
the opportunity to play in meaningful games. There are plenty on
the horizon. After Kansas City, the Broncos face the Pittsburgh
Steelers, the Minnesota Vikings and the Baltimore Ravens. "I can
sense what Brian went through," Plummer says. "They're used to
perfection around here. That's the standard I have to live up to."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK MILE-HIGH EXPECTATIONS Plummer knows that Denver quarterbacks are measured by the number of championships they win. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK DASHING Plummer can beat defenses with his legs, so the Broncos will encourage him to keep scrambling. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER TALENT SHOW Tight end Shannon Sharpe is one of the weapons Plummer now has.

"They're used to perfection around here," says Plummer. "That's
the standard I have to live up to."