The aura of Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett is a powerful one among Raider Nation. Some believe that he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but does he?
Keep in mind that this piece is not about whether Plunkett does or does not belong in the Hall. Instead, I want to look at whether or not his career accomplishments are truly worthy of Canton, Ohio.
Why are Jim Plunkett’s accomplishments worthy?
Those two Super Bowls…
Plunkett’s victories in Super Bowls XV and XVIII give you an obvious answer on whether he’s worthy. His first Super Bowl in 1980 also had him win the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year. To date, he’s the only quarterback to win multiple Super Bowls (excluding Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady) to not be enshrined in Canton.
The aforementioned 1980 season was one for the ages. In fact, it still ranks as one of the finest examples of a backup quarterback coming off the bench and leading his team to a championship in the same season. As a side note, only Jeff Hostetler in 1990, Kurt Warner in 1999, and Tom Brady in 2001 have accomplished the same feat.
That season, Oakland started 2-2 with starter Dan Pastorini going down with a broken leg in the fifth game. The Raiders lost that game, but it didn’t derail the season. With Plunkett at the helm, the Silver and Black won the next six games and finished the season 11-5.
Jim Plunkett picked things up when Pastorini went down
Despite never playing in a postseason game before, Plunkett guided the team to three straight wins, including two on the road to get to Super Bowl XV. Their opponent was the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that had beaten the Raiders 10-7 in Week 12, mainly by sacking Jim eight times. Plunkett’s MVP performance that day was highlighted by 13 completions on 21 attempts for 261 yards and three touchdown passes. He threw no interceptions.
In the process, he became the first minority quarterback to win a Super Bowl game. To date, he is the only Latino to win the MVP award and he remains just one of four Heisman Trophy winners so honored. In 1983, Plunkett started the season as the starter but was benched for ineffective play following a loss to Seattle in Week 7. Backup Marc Wilson started the next three games but was injured in Week 10 against Kansas City. Plunkett once again rose off the bench and the team not only beat the Chiefs that day but the ‘comeback kid’ also led the Raiders to five wins in his next six starts to finish the year 12-4.
The second Super Bowl run
Plunkett followed two solid performances against Pittsburgh and Seattle during the 1983 postseason with another Super Bowl. Once again, the Silver and Black routed their opponents in the big game. He finished the day with 16 completions on 25 attempts for 172 yards and no interceptions. A lone touchdown toss to Cliff Branch capped off one of the better performances by any quarterback who has won multiple Super Bowls. Plunkett still possesses the second-highest quarterback rating (122.8) behind Joe Montana’s 127.8 in terms of starting at least two Super Bowls. In addition, both men remain the only passers with multiple Super Bowl starts to finish with zero interceptions.
Why are Jim Plunkett’s accomplishments not worthy?
If it were not for the Super Bowl wins, Plunkett’s career would likely be just as forgotten as the careers of Pastorini or Joe Kapp are to us today. Statistically, he finished with 198 interceptions and only 164 touchdown passes. He never finished a year as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player and Jim never received a Pro Bowl nomination. Critics can also point out that Plunkett never made All-Pro (first or second team). Furthermore, with a career completion percentage that just barely exceeds 52%, it’s easy to see that Plunkett does not rank among the top quarterbacks of his era despite the two Super Bowl rings.
Plunkett’s numbers in his final seven seasons with the Raiders aren’t elite. As a starting quarterback, he finished 72-72, with 38 of those wins and 19 of those losses occurring during that run. A quarterback’s win/loss record is not widely viewed as an official statistic against them. Nevertheless, its inclusion here, along with his other numbers, clearly illustrates that he was an inconsistent player.
During his most statistically impressive season (1983), he only threw for 2,395 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. This was in spite of the Raiders fielding one of the better defenses during the early 1980s. They ranked in the top thirteen, in terms of yards surrendered and point surrendered, four times between 1980 and 1985.
Jim Plunkett was outclassed by others
Critics of what I just wrote could say that the NFL was a far different game back in Plunkett’s day. While this is a fair point, even then, he was mediocre. In his best year, he ranked only 12th in touchdown passes and twelve players that year finished ahead of him in passing yardage. If you look at quarterbacks from his era, several players had far better seasons statistically than Plunkett ever recorded. Whether these quarterbacks ring a bell for Raiders fans today is irrelevant. Said quarterbacks include Richard Todd, Brian Sipe, Lynn Dickey, and the two guys that Plunkett beat in the Super Bowl (Joe Theismann and Ron Jaworski).
Archie Manning went 1-15 with the Saints in 1980, but he still managed to throw for more yards (3,716) and for more touchdowns (23) than Plunkett did three years later. Every Raider fan has admiration for Plunkett’s heart and he does deserve that. By the same token, so did Manning, and Jaworski had a big heart too.
Some fans will argue that Plunkett deserves to get in because Joe Namath and George Blanda are in. Although some of their numbers are similar, Namath was the first passer to surpass 4,000 yards in a season and both he and George possess multiple 3,000-yard passing seasons. Moreover, both men possess multiple seasons that they easily surpassed 20 touchdown passes. Plunkett never accomplished any of those feats.
Final thoughts on the Raiders legend
If Plunkett was so great then why did the Raiders constantly try to replace him with Marc Wilson? To be fair, injuries took their toll in 1984, but even when he was healthy enough to return, he never won back the starting job until Wilson was injured. In 1985, Jim started the first three games, going 1-2 as the starter, until a torn rotator cuff ended his year.
An interesting tidbit, the Raiders played musical chairs at quarterback from 1981 to 1986. Owner Al Davis backed Wilson as his starting quarterback. On the other hand, soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach, Tom Flores backed Plunkett. When comparing Wilson to Plunkett, it should be noted that the two have nearly the same career quarterback rating (Plunkett’s is 67.5 and Wilson is only slightly better with a 67.7).
In all likelihood, the Raiders don’t win those two Super Bowls without ’16.’ Likewise, it’s not wrong for any Raiders fan to agree with this logic. It is hard to look critically at a player without bias creeping in. Plunkett’s greatest hits are a collection of him connecting with Raiders legends. Who can forget his touchdown passes to Cliff Branch or rolling out to hit Kenny King for an 80-yard score. These are all legendary and powerful images forever ingrained in Raiders’ lore. Even the milestone of being the first minority quarterback and the only Latino quarterback to win a Super Bowl are world-altering events. However, when you break down his numbers and compare his overall resume to his peers, they just aren’t Canton-worthy.
Fun Fact about Jim Plunkett…
Do you hate Brady too? In 2020, Brady became just the second starting Super Bowl quarterback to win at least one Super Bowl in two different cities. Plunkett is the other signal-caller. He did it with the same team, once when the Raiders called Oakland home, the second time when they were in Los Angeles. Eat your heart out Tom Brady!
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*Top Photo: InMenlo