Plunkett's Super Comeback

“Jim Plunkett’s performance in this Super Bowl ball was the stuff fairy tales are made of. Ten years of disappointment were behind him, for at last, this Cinderella was healthy, poised and surrounded by men whose abilities equaled his own.” - NFL Films, “The Cinderella Super Bowl”

Stanford football’s current golden age has reached deep ball-completing, party in the backfield-throwing heights. Al Davis must be smiling somewhere. The Cardinal at its best resembles the vintage Oakland Raiders, so it’s fitting the greatest Super Bowl performance by a Stanford alum occurred during one of the Silver and Black’s all-time moments.

Yes, John Elway reversed his postseason legacy with a pair of Lombardi Trophies. But even St. John falls short of when Jim Plunkett and the Raiders pummeled favored Philadelphia by a 27-10 score in Super Bowl XV.

Plunkett became the NFL’s ultimate redemption story – as in someone the tarnished league could use now – when he threw for 251 yards and three touchdowns. But he claimed the effort, which won him Super Bowl MVP honors, was not the stuff of Hollywood scripts.

“No, I don’t think I’m a storybook story,” Plunkett said afterwards. “I always felt that I was good enough to play in the pros. I just had some hard times. I’m the happiest man in the world that has happened to me.”

The greatest living Stanford athlete is only a few degrees of separation removed from the Belichick-Brady Patriots dynasty of today. He was the No. 1 Draft pick by the Patriots the year they dropped Boston from their name and moved to Foxboro.

Plunkett lasted five dreadful seasons in New England, where he succeeded Joe Kapp as the starter. How bad was he in New England? He threw 80 interceptions in his first four seasons. Behind Steve Grogan, the Patriots became a playoff team in 1976 immediately after he departed.

By 1980, which he began as a backup to Dan Pastorini in Oakland, Plunkett had never before thrown more touchdowns than interceptions in his nine previous NFL seasons. He had never even completed at least 52 percent of his passes.

“It’s true that at least twice I was so down in the dumps that I felt I would have to give up football and try something else,” he said back then.

The chance finally arrived when Pastorini broke his leg early in the 1980 season. Imagine how it must have felt for Plunkett, so beaten up throughout stays in New England and San Francisco, to play behind an authentic offensive line.

Plunkett took full advantage of not only playing with actual protection, but a collection of all-time greats. Four veterans of Oakland’s Super Bowl XI triumph guarded him: center Dave Dalby, left guard Gene Upshaw and tackles Art Shell and Henry Lawrence.

There’s a lot to appreciate from this game, especially the NFL Films treatment it received. There are nearly too many legends and legendary moments to count.

John Facenda’s narration acknowledges Plunkett’s redemptive qualities. It’s easy to see why producers wired Dick Vermeil -- the former Stanford assistant who chaperoned Plunkett on his first day of school on The Farm as a freshman -- for sound. Bill King’s radio description fits perfectly alongside the Philadelphia head coach’s painful and endearing outbursts.

“This was our finest hour, the finest hour in the history of the Oakland Raiders,” Al Davis said after winning his second Lombardi Trophy, as Bryant Gumbel smiled and Pete Rozelle gnashed his teeth. Indeed, these were the Raiders at their peak. Plunkett’s mastery made Oakland 8-1 in its last nine postseason games.

The actual Oakland Raiders have played in only seven postseason games since. Generations of unforced errors have reduced the franchise equal parts lame cover band and bad sequel. But while it’s easy to forget Oakland’s past glories, may we always remember Plunkett’s Cinderella story.

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