He had thrown 49 passes in a losing cause. Now it was time for
him to pass the torch. "Great job," Troy Aikman told fellow
quarterback Jake Plummer at midfield of Texas Stadium last
Saturday after the Arizona Cardinals had stunned the Dallas
Cowboys 20-7 in a wild-card playoff. "Take it a long way."
Next stop for the Cardinals' flawed but fun-filled act will be
the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, where the rested Minnesota
Vikings, with their nine Pro Bowl players and 15 regular-season
wins, should overwhelm and overrun them on Sunday. Right? "We
can't worry too much about Randy Moss and Randall Cunningham and
all those guys," a grinning Plummer said of the Vikings' potent
offense. "We're going to play Cardinal football, like we did
That is to say, they are going to trust in Jake while remaining
willfully blind to their own shortcomings. Hey, it worked last
Saturday. Despite the El Cid-like appearance in the starting
lineup of All-Pro cornerback Deion Sanders, who had missed the
last five games with a sprained left big toe, the Cardinals
dominated a club that had defeated them twice during the '98
season and 16 of the last 17 times they had met.
According to an NFL adage, postseason success hinges on a team's
ability to run the ball while also stopping the opponent's
ground game--neither of which Arizona has done with any
consistency. So what happened against the Cowboys? Abetted by a
few funky schemes cooked up early in the week by coach Vince
Tobin and defensive coordinator Dave McGinnis, Arizona's callow,
injury-depleted front seven bottled up Emmitt Smith, who had
gashed them for a total of 240 rushing yards in those two Cowboy
wins this season. In the wild-card matchup Smith ran for 74
yards, including only 23 in the second half.
Arizona back Adrian Murrell, on the other hand, busted loose for
74 yards on one run in the third quarter. Although he ran out of
gas and was pulled down at the three--"He'll catch a lot of heat
for that," promised Plummer--Murrell's dash set up the touchdown
that provided the margin of victory in the Cardinals' first
playoff win in 52 years.
Standing quietly in the visitors' locker room after the game was
a Sebastian Cabot look-alike who claimed to have been on hand
for that last postseason triumph. "December 28, 1947," said team
owner Bill Bidwill, who was a water boy for the '47 Chicago
Cardinals. "I was home from school on Christmas break. We beat
the Eagles 28-21 on a frozen field at Comiskey Park."
Those Cardinals won the NFL championship. These Cardinals won't.
Not this season. But there is ample reason to hope they might
win it all again soon. Arizona has a quick, young defense--the
youngest in the league in '98, averaging three years of NFL
experience per starter--and the most elusive of championship
components, a franchise quarterback.
Two plays on Arizona's second possession last Saturday showcased
Plummer's accuracy, athleticism, daring and toughness. On first
down, after executing the fake on a play-action pass, the
second-year player sprinted to his left while looking downfield.
With a Dallas defender pulling him down, an off-balance Plummer
uncorked a pass that was caught one-handed and on the run by
wide receiver Frank Sanders. The result: a 59-yard gain. Two
plays later offensive coordinator Marc Trestman called for a
shovel pass to Murrell. At the line of scrimmage Plummer read
safety blitz. His orders, in that case, are to audible out of
Plummer gambled, as is his wont, and ran the play anyway. The
blitzing safety was picked up, and Murrell went 12 yards for
Arizona's first touchdown. Shrugging afterward, Plummer said,
"Sometimes you're supposed to check out of a play, but sometimes
you don't, and sometimes that's the biggest play of the game."
As his teammates trickled out of the locker room, Plummer stayed
behind to chat with members of his family. Brett Plummer could
not resist calling attention to his little brother Jake's
gleaming and conspicuously new black dress shoes. "Nice shoes,"
he said. "You're really styling, huh?"
As the rest of the family cracked up, Jake protested feebly,
"What? They were, like, 60 bucks!"
The exchange was a reminder that even though the Cardinals
recently signed Plummer to a four-year, $29.7 million contract
extension that included an NFL-record $15 million signing bonus,
the Snake is well grounded as long as his family is around.
While the deal raised eyebrows around the league--Plummer, after
all, has started only 26 NFL games and thrown three more
interceptions (35) than touchdown passes--it's hard, if not
impossible, to find a Cardinal who begrudges him that windfall.
"They've got a lot riding on Jake," says Arizona tackle Lomas
A native of Boise, Idaho, Plummer first cultivated his
reputation as a money player at Arizona State, where as a senior
he led the Sun Devils to the '97 Rose Bowl. The Cardinals
believe that his immense popularity in the region will help them
get their $1.8 billion stadium project on the ballot this May.
That he could be carrying the fate of a franchise on his slender
shoulders doesn't faze the 6'2", 197-pound Plummer. Like the
quarterback to whom he is most often compared, Joe Montana,
Plummer compartmentalizes pressure. "When it's nut-cuttin'
time," says plainspoken Arizona center Mike Devlin, "it's like
Jake is back in Boise, playing in his backyard." That the Snake
is at his best when the game is on the line is underscored by
this eye-popping statistic: In 27 NFL games (in his first
appearance he came off the bench) he has engineered nine
So completely had Plummer earned the trust of his teammates by
the end of last year that he was elected a team captain before
the '98 season, unheard of for a second-year player. However,
Plummer began this season in a slump. In the off-season
Trestman, who was formerly the 49ers' offensive coordinator, had
installed the West Coast offense, and Plummer was struggling
"There were times I was pretty low," he says. "I wasn't making
big plays, which I was able to do last year even though I didn't
know what was going on. Now I felt I had a grasp of things, but
I couldn't do anything right." His three interceptions against
the Oakland Raiders on Oct. 4 were the decisive plays in
Arizona's 23-20 loss. Four weeks later, after a midseason bye,
"I relaxed, simplified things a little," says Plummer, and he
started clicking. That's when Arizona began the playoff push
that earned the club its nickname: the Cardiac Cardinals. With a
postseason berth hanging in the balance each week, Arizona won
its final three games with last-play field goals.
That was why the Dallas game was so strange. No one on the
Arizona sideline knew quite how to behave in winning so handily.
A lot of credit went to a Cardinals defense that contained Smith
(Arizona used five down linemen much more than in any other game
this season), straitjacketed Dallas's receivers and blitzed and
harassed Aikman into a shockingly poor performance (22 of 49,
three interceptions). At one point Aikman stormed off the field
and shouted, "I can't find anyone open!"
His primary nemesis was perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Aeneas
Williams, who blanketed Aikman's go-to receiver, Michael Irvin.
Twice Aikman forced balls to Irvin; twice Williams picked them
off. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Cowboys in their
hurry-up offense, one could see a changing of the guard. There
was Aikman running the two-minute drill but with nowhere near
the panache with which Plummer now conducts it.
"Nobody," says Williams, "does it like Jake."
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER ON A ROLL Why do the Cards put their faith in Plummer? In only 27 NFL games he has engineered nine fourth-quarter comebacks. [Jake Plummer in game]