We conclude our look at the Oakland Raiders' top 5 free agent signings of all time with Jim Plunkett checking in at No. 1 ...
If it truly is all about the rings, then there should be no other choice than Plunkett as the Raiders’ top free agent signing of all time after helping lead the team to two of its three Super Bowl titles, in 1980 and 1983.
And yet, there is also the Lazarus effect, which only adds to the legend, Plunkett resurrecting himself after being out of the game following a pair of painful stops in New England and San Francisco. In fact, Plunkett was out of the game in 1978, when the Raiders signed him to hold a clipboard behind Kenny Stabler.
But when the Raiders traded Stabler to the Houston Oilers for Dan Pastorini in 1980, Plunkett was frustrated that he did not have the opportunity to compete for the starting job. He went to coach Tom Flores and told him he wanted out. But after Flores spoke with Al Davis, the Raiders owner was not about to ship out his only veteran presence behind Pastorini (Oakland had just used a first-round draft pick on Marc Wilson).
Plunkett, the 1970 Heisman Trophy winner out of Stanford and the top pick of the 1971 draft, bided his time. Five games into the season, the Kansas City Chiefs broke Pastorini’s leg and Plunkett took over as the Raiders sat at just 2-3.
“One of the things that’s always stuck with me when I took over in ’80, Mr. Davis told me, ‘It doesn’t matter if you play well; it’s only important of we win the game. We can play well next time,’” Plunkett said.
The Plunkett-led Raiders ran off a six-game winning streak and Oakland claimed a wild-card spot, beating Stabler’s Oilers in the playoffs, the Kardiac Kid Cleveland Browns and the high-powered San Diego Chargers before pasting the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV, 27-10.
Plunkett’s Cinderella season came to fruition as he was named the game’s MVP.
The Raiders were again champs three years later, this time with Los Angeles serving as the team’s home, when they went 12-4 and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks by a combined 68-24 before thumping defending champion Washington, 38-9, in Super Bowl XVIII.
That 1983 season, though, was not without drama for Plunkett, not when he was benched with the Raiders sitting at 5-2 in favor of Wilson in the wake of Wlison getting a reported five-year, $4-million deal to keep him away from Donald Trump and the USFL’s New Jersey Generals.
“You know, having played quarterback, it’s pretty hard to bench your quarterback, your starter, especially a guy that’s won a Super Bowl for you,” Flores told Silver and Black Productions. “But he was beat up pretty good early in the year, and Jim was the kind of quarterback that he was, just such a warrior that he didn’t avoid too much contact, so we did make a change and we put Marc Wilson in.”
Wilson had a good game on national television against the Dallas Cowboys, but the Chiefs again came to Plunkett’s rescue, so to speak, this time breaking Wilson’s shoulder. A recharged Plunkett never looked back, though he did cause a stir by skipping the team’s championship parade in L.A.
Some saw it as his silent protest against being benched that season.
“Who knows, maybe it was, but I don’t want to be petty,” Plunkett told me for my upcoming book, "100 Things Raiders Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die."
“There were a lot of reasons; I was living up north and it was a long year for me. My rent was up. It was time to go home.”
Plunkett laughed, though not too hard lest the pain return. He is still recovering from a left shoulder replacement surgery, one of 16 football-related procedures he’s undergone, including both knees being replaced.
He retired after the 1986 season and has remained close to the Raiders' organization. And in his last years, Davis pumped Plunkett for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I said it then and I believe it now,” Davis said in 2008, “that Jim Plunkett was one of the truly great players of our time. He won two Super Bowls and has never gotten the acclaim he desires or deserves. He was a Heisman Trophy winner, he was a Super Bowl winner, he did as much in pro football as John Elway did, who it took 15 years to win a Super Bowl.”