The history of the NFL is littered with “can’t miss” prospects who ended up being busts.
Then, there are the can’t miss prospects who look like busts then inexplicably salvage their careers.
Arguably, the best redemption stories can be found with the quarterback position.
The de facto leader of a team who was drafted to be the savior can set a team back years if they end up not panning out.
There has been an example of this occurrence very recently.
Washington’s Alex Smith was the number one draft pick by San Francisco in 2005.
By 2011, he looked like a bust.
However, the hiring of coach Jim Harbaugh helped Smith resurrect his career.
After a life-threatening injury sustained in 2018, Smith has come back again to play for Washington in 2020.
Another resurrection story happened in 1978.
That year, Jim Plunkett was signed by the Oakland Raiders.
Oakland was the third stop for Plunkett in a career that was “bust” worthy.
Drafted number one overall out of Stanford in 1971 by the Patriots, Plunkett was supposed to be the quarterback that led New England out of mediocrity.
That didn’t happen and by ‘78, Plunkett looked washed up.
What happened next is long considered one of the best comeback stories in league history.
Plunkett has become an example of how some pro players take longer than others to develop (and why teams should heed caution before discarding players too early).
This is the story of the life and remarkable career of Jim Plunkett.
16 days away from the 60th #Raiders season … 🏴☠️🏈
Jim Plunkett represented #16 in a Super Winning Way! pic.twitter.com/cBkOwMqo34
— AFL GODFATHER (@NFLMAVERICK) August 24, 2019
Growing up in California
James William Plunkett was born on December 5, 1947 in San Jose, California.
His upbringing was difficult as both his parents, William and Carmen, were blind.
William Plunkett ran a newsstand in San Jose, but struggled to care for his wife and three kids.
As Plunkett got older, he would find odd jobs to help the family.
In high school, he would work in the nearby orchards during the summers.
Before his junior year, Plunkett transferred to James Lick High School in east San Jose.
He joined the football team and played both quarterback and defensive end.
Plunkett first showed a proclivity for the pigskin when he was 14.
After entering a throwing contest to see who could throw a football the farthest, Plunkett won when his throw traveled over 60 yards.
As he progressed in his scholastic career, Plunkett played other sports such as baseball, basketball, wrestling, and track.
While at Lick High School, Plunkett won a California High School Individual Wrestling Championship.
He also led the Comets to an unbeaten season as a senior.
His performance led to Plunkett playing in a state all-star game and that in turn led to interest from numerous colleges.
Wanting to stay closer to home to help look after his parents, Plunkett decided to attend Stanford University.
Health Scare Nearly Ends Plunkett’s College Career
About a month before he was to begin his studies at Stanford, a physical exam from a doctor detected a thyroid tumor.
Initially, the tumor was thought to be malignant.
Such a diagnosis would have ended Plunkett’s college career before it began.
Thankfully, the tumor was benign.
After surgery, Plunkett began to get back into playing shape.
His routine became throwing between 500-1,000 passes every day.
However, Plunkett was behind some of the other quarterbacks on the freshman roster.
When he didn’t play well for Stanford’s freshman team, coach John Ralston thought about switching Plunkett to defensive end.
Plunkett refused to move positions and stayed at quarterback.
By the time he was a sophomore, Plunkett had become the starting quarterback.
During the 1968 season, Plunkett threw for a Pac 8 record 2,156 yards and 14 touchdowns.
This included a 277 yard, four-touchdown day in his first collegiate start.
In 1969, Plunkett was even better.
Passing for conference records in yards (2,673), touchdowns (20), and total offense (2,786), Plunkett became one of the rising stars in college football.
Washington State coach Jim Sweeney called Plunkett, “The best college football player I’ve ever seen.”
His teammates witnessed Plunkett’s evolution from shy kid to future pro in the huddle during games.
“You got the look from Jim,” recalled receiver Randy Vataha years later. “The look was not comfortable (if a play was not executed well).”
1970, the Heisman, and the Rose Bowl
Plunkett’s draft stock was high enough after 1969 to enter the NFL Draft.
However, he chose to use his platform as a role model to the Chicano youth he tutored.
One of the lessons he taught the kids was to stay in school.
Plunkett believed that staying another year to graduate would set a good example.
As it turned out, Plunkett’s senior season in 1970 was downright rosy.
That year, Plunkett led Stanford to a 9-3 record and a Rose Bowl berth against mighty Ohio State.
Late in the third quarter of the game, OSU was leading 17-13.
However, Stanford came back to score 14 unanswered points in the final stanza to win 27-17.
“They’d never faced a passing team such as ours,” Plunkett said after the game.
The 1971 Rose Bowl is long considered to be the moment when Stanford football returned to prominence.
— Dedan Brozino 🌹🇺🇸🌹 (@DedanBrozino) December 21, 2018
Plunkett’s stats during the 1970 season (2,715 yards passing, which broke his own record, 18 passing touchdowns and three more rushing scores) helped propel him to the top of the Heisman race.
He ended up winning the award that season over the likes of Notre Dame’s Joe Theismann and Archie Manning from Ole Miss.
“When I found out I’d finished second to Jim,” said Theismann in 1984, “I was genuinely crushed.”
Plunkett had a different take on the award.
“I wanted the Heisman, but my whole life wasn’t centered on it.”
Plunkett was the first Latino to win the award.
— Sports Photos (@sportsphotos) November 24, 2015
In addition to the Heisman, Plunkett won the Maxwell Award for the nation’s best player as well as being named the nation’s best player by United Press International, The Sporting News, and Sport magazine.
The American Football Coaches Association named Plunkett their Offensive Player of the Year.
Plunkett also became only the second two-time recipient of the W.J. Voit Memorial Trophy which was awarded each year (until 1978) to the outstanding college football player on the Pacific Coast.
Plunkett’s collegiate career included NCAA records in passing yards (7,544), touchdown passes (52), most pass attempts (962), most pass completions (530), most plays of total offense (1,174), and most yards of total offense (7,887).
His stats as well as his awards helped Plunkett become one of the biggest prospects heading into the 1971 NFL Draft.
1970: Jim Plunkett, Stanford Plunkett played 15 seasons in the NFL, but the eight years spent with the Raiders at the end of his career defined it. Plunkett won two Super Bowls with the Raiders, including the Super Bowl XV MVP pic.twitter.com/8bKSNwfsEr
— WSHE (@WSHE) December 9, 2018
New England Selects Plunkett
In 1970, the Patriots had their fourth straight losing season.
The franchise hit a new low when they only won two games that year and finished last in the AFC East.
Head coach John Mazur wanted a prototypical drop-back quarterback to bring his team out of the mire.
Plunkett had a ringing endorsement from UCLA coach Tommy Prothro.
Before the draft, Prothro called Plunkett, “the best pro quarterback prospect I’ve ever seen.”
Mazur and the Pats didn’t overthink their first pick of the draft and selected Plunkett, passing on Manning and Santa Clara’s Dan Pastorini.
The selection gave Plunkett the distinction of being the first player of Hispanic heritage to be drafted with the first overall pick.
Did you know…
— Smith Elementary (@Smith_Elem) October 12, 2020
After reporting to New England, Plunkett immediately made an impact.
He was an obvious upgrade from the two-headed quarterback of Joe Kapp and Mike Taliaferro in 1970.
Using his ability to throw the deep bomb, Plunkett finished the year with 2,158 passing yards and 19 touchdowns (along with 16 interceptions).
His play helped improve New England’s record to 6-8.
After the season, Plunkett was awarded the AFC Rookie of the Year by The Sporting News.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) July 25, 2017
1972 & 1973
Based on what happened in 1971, the Pats were expecting big things in 1972.
Instead, Plunkett experienced a sophomore slump of epic proportions.
In ‘72, his touchdowns decreased to eight and his interceptions increased to 25.
Even worse, New England dropped to 3-11 and last place in the AFC East.
“In 1972 my confidence ran into a stone wall,” Plunkett said years later. “I’d never been in a losing situation before.”
It was more of the same in 1973 when a leaky offensive line did little to give Plunkett time in the pocket.
Forced throws and inconsistency led to a 51.3 completion percentage, 2,550 passing yards, 13 touchdown throws, and 17 picks.
Under new head coach Chuck Fairbanks, the Patriots improved slightly to 5-9 and third in their division.
1974 & 1975
In 1974, New England reached the .500 mark with a 7-7 record.
Their win total was based mostly on good defensive play as Plunkett continued to struggle.
That season, he finished with a 49.1 completion percentage, 19 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
At that point in his career, Plunkett had been sacked 97 times between 1972-1974.
1975 was Plunkett’s first season as a pro where he did not play and start in every game.
Due to knee and shoulder surgeries, he only started five games that year.
The result was a career-low 571 passing yards along with three touchdown passes and seven picks.
Before the ‘75 season, the Pats drafted Kansas State quarterback Steve Grogan in the fifth round of the draft.
— Pats Historian (@PatsHistorian) September 7, 2017
With Plunkett nursing injuries and on the sideline, New England played Grogan for most of the season.
Sensing that his time as a Patriot was ending, Plunkett requested a trade during the offseason.
New England granted his request and traded him to the 49ers.
In five years with the Patriots, Plunkett was 23-38, completed 48.5% of his passes, threw 62 touchdowns and a gaudy 87 interceptions.
Plunkett as a 49er in 1976 & 1977
It looked like the trade would be a fresh start for Plunkett.
His move to the Bay Area would bring him closer to home and proximity to friends and family.
“I really thought I was going to be the savior,” Plunkett said, “but all I did was put more pressure on myself.”
That internal pressure produced external lows.
In 1976, Plunkett continued the trend of throwing for more picks (16) than touchdowns (13).
He also ended the year with a 51.9 completion percentage and 1,592 passing yards.
After a 6-1 start, San Francisco ended the season 8-6.
In 1977, the Niners dropped to 5-9 and third in the NFC West.
Plunkett threw for 1,693 yards, 14 interceptions and nine touchdowns.
That marked the sixth consecutive season of Plunkett throwing for more INTs than touchdowns.
With a year remaining on his contract, the 49ers parted ways with Plunkett after the season.
Plunkett Moves across the Bay
Now 30 years old and considered a bust, Plunkett was considering retirement after being released by San Francisco.
A few weeks later, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis contacted him about signing as a backup.
Plunkett accepted and signed a three year, $465,000 contract.
For two seasons, 1978 and 1979, Plunkett was the ultimate clipboard holder.
He didn’t see the field at all in ‘78.
In 1979, Plunkett saw action long enough for him to throw 15 passes that included a touchdown and an interception.
Before the 1980 season began, the Raiders traded quarterback Ken Stabler to the Oilers for Pastorini.
Believing he would continue to ride the bench, Plunkett requested to be traded.
Davis denied Plunkett’s request.
Only months later, Plunkett would be happy he stuck around.
Plunkett is Reborn and the Raiders Win the Super Bowl
Five weeks into the 1980 season and Plunkett was still on the bench.
As he was watching Pastorini play in the Week Five game against Kansas City, the Raiders were at 2-2.
Then, destiny happened, at the expense of Pastorini.
Late in the first quarter, Pastorinin was hit hard while attempting to throw a pass.
The hit led to a fractured tibia and cartilage damage to his knee.
In stepped Plunkett to try and pick up the pieces.
Unfortunately, the Raiders had to play catch-up the rest of the day as the Chiefs led 31-3 at the half.
Plunkett heaved 52 passes through the air and completed only 20.
He did complete two touchdown passes, but also had five interceptions.
It was a trial-by-fire for Plunkett as the Raiders slipped to 2-3 following the 31-17 loss.
After the Kansas City game, the Raiders coaching staff pondered letting rookie Marc Wilson start at quarterback.
They eventually went with Plunkett based on the belief that Wilson was too raw to be a starter.
Their decision paid off the following week.
Playing against the San Diego Chargers, Plunkett completed all but three of his passes and also had a touchdown pass and no interceptions.
The Raiders won 38-24 to move to .500.
OTD 1980: QB Jim Plunkett makes his first NFL start in 3 years and his first ever for the #Raiders, guiding Oakland to a 38-24 win over the Chargers.
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) October 12, 2020
As the team began to gel, the Raiders continued to win.
Including the Chargers game, Oakland won nine of 11 games on their way to an 11-5 record.
That led to a Wild Card contest against Pastorinin’s former club, the Oilers.
Houston proved to be no match and the Raiders advanced to the next round with a 27-7 victory.
The following week the team traveled to Cleveland and faced a tough Browns team.
The Kardiac Kids played well and should have come away with a victory.
However, missed field goal attempts and the infamous “Red Right 88” call led to a late interception and a 14-12 Oakland win.
The Raiders faced the Chargers again in the AFC Championship game.
Led by Plunkett, Oakland outscored the Chargers potent offense 34-27.
With the victory, the Raiders advanced to Super Bowl XV to play the Eagles.
During the game, Plunkett looked calm in the face of pressure.
By the end of the first quarter, he had thrown touchdown passes to receivers Cliff Branch and Kenny King.
In the third quarter, Plunkett connected with Branch again for his third touchdown pass of the game.
For the day, Plunkett completed 13 of 21 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns.
Oakland became the first Wild Card team to win a Super Bowl with a 27-10 victory.
Plunkett was named the game’s MVP which made him the first minority to quarterback a Super Bowl victory and receive the MVP award.
— Stanford Football (@StanfordFball) February 1, 2019
Plunkett also received the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
Furthermore, Plunkett (at the time) was only the second athlete to win the Heisman trophy and the Super Bowl MVP.
“After 10 years and struggling with New England and San Francisco,” he said, “that first one meant a lot to me.”
1981 & 1982
The next two seasons were up-and-down for Plunkett and the Raiders.
In 1981, the team finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
Plunkett started only seven games due to injury and tossed four touchdowns against nine picks.
Before the 1982 season the team moved to Los Angeles.
The NFL Players Union went on strike and the season was abbreviated to nine games.
LA rolled through the regular season 8-1 and defeated the Browns in the first round of the playoffs 27-10.
The following week the Raiders season ended after a hard fought 17-14 loss to the Jets.
Plunkett had a better year in ‘82, throwing for 2,035 yards along with 14 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions.
Unfortunately, 1982 was the eighth season of Plunkett’s career where he threw for more interceptions than touchdowns.
The Raiders and Plunkett Return to the Super Bowl in 1983
In 1983, Plunkett found himself in the midst of a quarterback controversy.
Despite playing fairly well, his inconsistency led the coaching staff to bench him in favor of Wilson.
However, when Wilson was injured during a game, Plunkett was called on again.
On his way to a season that saw him throw for 2,935 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and 18 picks, the Raiders finished 12-4.
During the year, Plunkett tossed a 99 yard touchdown pass against the Redskins in Week Five.
That continues to be a Raider record and is tied for an NFL record.
LA took down the Steelers in the Divisional round 38-10.
Then, they defeated the Seahawks in the AFC Championship game 30-14.
After the victory, it was on to Super Bowl XVIII to face the Redskins.
The Raiders jumped out to a quick 21-3 halftime lead during the game that included a second quarter touchdown throw from Plunkett to Branch.
Plunkett only passed for 172 yards on 16 of 25 passing.
However, running back Marcus Allen and the Raiders defense did the rest and humiliated Washington 38-9.
Plunkett, the former cast-off by two different teams, was now a two-time Super Bowl champion.
As we commemorate #CincodeMayo2020 🇲🇽🏴☠️🏈✍️🏻
Mexico’s underdog victory over France in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. #Raiders HC Tom Flores and QB Jim Plunkett were football underdogs turned Super Bowl XV & XVIII champions. pic.twitter.com/6UxzspAEwu
— AFL GODFATHER (@NFLMAVERICK) May 5, 2020
Winning his second Super Bowl should have been a career boost for Plunkett.
Instead, it began his decline in 1984.
That year Plunkett only started six games and, once again, threw more picks (10) than touchdowns (6) along with 1,473 passing yards.
The Raiders made the playoffs in ‘84, but lost in the Wild Card round to Seattle 13-7.
In 1985, Plunkett played in only three games, threw for 803 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
The following season was a slight improvement, but Plunkett still played off the bench or while struggling with injuries.
He started half of LA’s games and threw for 1,986 yards, 14 touchdowns and nine INTs.
OTD 1986 Jim Plunkett tosses two early TD passes, one to Dokie Williams & a 49 yarder to Jessie Hester. The Defense held the Seahawks to only 211 total yards on offense and gobble up four sacks in a 14-10 victory. #RaiderNation pic.twitter.com/HkN4InOFVY
— Raiders History (@Oaklraiders1976) October 12, 2020
Plunkett missed the entire 1987 season due to rotator cuff surgery.
He attempted a comeback in 1988 but did not make the active roster, leading Plunkett to retire.
“I wanted to be a part of this ballclub this year,” Plunkett said shortly after his release in ‘88, “but it was not to be.”
Upon learning of Plunkett’s decision, Davis gave his former back-up praise for his years of service.
“These are moments of sadness,” said Davis in ‘88, “but it’s years of glory for a great player, a truly great player, and one of the greatest contributors to the success of the Raiders. I’m proud of him, proud to have been associated with him and proud he could be a part of us.”
For his career, Plunkett passed for 25,882 yards, 164 touchdowns and 198 interceptions.
He is the only NFL quarterback to win two Super Bowls with the same team in different cities (Oakland and LA).
Life after Retirement
After retiring from the game, Plunkett stayed active in football.
He did postgame radio interviews for the Raiders along with a weekly television highlights show.
Plunkett also owns a beer distributorship.
In 1990, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Two years later he was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame and then the California Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.
Plunkett remains the subject of much debate regarding his worthiness to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
— Jasen Boyens (@BoyensJC) August 5, 2012
However, the main issue is whether he truly deserves to be in the Hall.
During his career, he had more losing than winning seasons.
He also threw for more interceptions than touchdowns in all of his professional seasons except five.
Plunkett won two Super Bowls, except both seasons he came off the bench.
He was never voted to a Pro Bowl.
In 2017, Plunkett revealed that daily life for him was a constant struggle.
During an interview with the Bay Area Sports Group, Plunkett said his “life sucks.”
He continued that it was, “no fun being in this body right now. Everything hurts.”
In the interview Plunkett disclosed that he takes 13 pills each day for various health maladies.
“There are a couple other drugs I take—I can’t know them all,” Plunkett said. “I’ve got to take them every day to quote-unquote survive.”
Plunkett has had 18 surgical procedures from his playing days through his retirement.
These procedures include surgeries to repair his back and to give him artificial knees and a shoulder.
During his 17 year career, Plunkett was an exemplary professional and model teammate.
He goes down in NFL history as a shining example that even players that are considered ‘busts’ can experience an incredible redemption story.