- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2003

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It’s like that classic scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy opens the door from her bleak, black-and-white existence and enters the beautiful, colorful Land of Oz. After six years in the NFL wasteland that is Arizona, Jake Plummer has landed in Denver as triggerman for one of the league’s best offenses and glamour franchises.

“I do feel kind of lucky,” Plummer said after a recent practice at the Broncos’ facility. “There are probably some jealous quarterbacks in the league, guys who wished they had been free agents like I was when this job was open. It’s a dream come true for a quarterback.

“After playing for two coaches with defensive backgrounds, it’s great to have a coach [Mike Shanahan] whose offense is what he takes pride in. And we were constantly rebuilding in Arizona. They haven’t been rebuilding here for a long time. You hope you get one shot to get to the big one, and now I know I’m going to get a good shot.”

The Broncos’ arsenal is well-stocked. Reliable receivers Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey and record-setting tight end Shannon Sharpe are veterans of Denver’s Super Bowl champions after the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Halfback Clinton Portis and wideout Ashley Lelie are fantastic second-year athletes. No wonder that before his first practice, Plummer said he was excited.

“Jake’s like a kid in a candy store,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. “He has brought a lot of energy to our team. When Jake visited as a free agent, Mike and I told him how badly we wanted him and that if he signed, that we needed him here on the first day of the offseason conditioning program to become the leader of this team. On the first day of conditioning, Jake stood at that door, introduced himself to every player on our team and went to work. He didn’t miss a day.”

But as with any golden opportunity, there are downsides to Plummer’s decision to leave the lowly Cardinals for a seven-year, $40million contract with the Broncos at age 28.

Although he was a former Arizona State wonder boy whose flair for the dramatic pushed the Cardinals to their only playoff victory in half a century in 1998, expectations in Arizona were still very low. Relatively few folks in the Valley of the Sun care about the Cardinals, and most of those see a .500 season as a triumph.

It’s a whole different deal in Denver, where the Broncos — who went to six Super Bowls from 1977 through 1998 — are almost a secular religion. Brian Griese, Denver’s quarterback the past four years, might have been forgiven his frigid demeanor and assorted injuries if his won-lost record hadn’t been a pedestrian 27-24 and if he had won a few playoff games.

“Brian was a good quarterback, but Jake loves the game so much more,” offensive tackle Matt Lepsis said. “Brian was kind of a perfectionist. It seemed like this town kind of wore on him. It didn’t look like it was fun for him anymore.”

A major reason why Griese was unhappy was the legacy of his superstar predecessor John Elway, whose face and/or name is still on billboards and car dealerships all over town. Even Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said Plummer faces an easier task in not being Elway’s direct replacement and taking over more than four years after Denver’s last playoff victory. Not that Plummer is unaware of or abashed by the inevitable comparisons to No.7.

“I know that everything I do will be compared to John,” Plummer said. “Whatever you do, you’re not John Elway. He left on as high a note as you possibly could, winning back-to-back Super Bowls. But what can you do? I feel sorry for the guy coming into Green Bay next [because] he won’t be Brett Favre. I’m not John Elway. All I can do is play the best I can. There are similarities. I’m a scrapper who’ll do whatever it takes to win. He was the same way. John had a lot of comebacks. So have I. You can measure a guy in the fourth quarter.”

If so, Plummer measures up well to Elway’s 46 comebacks during 16 years. Plummer has won 21 of his 30 victories after Arizona trailed in the fourth quarter. Of course the Cardinals were usually behind, which is why Plummer also has 52 losses. Once it became clear that St. Louis wasn’t going to let Kurt Warner go this winter, Shanahan targeted Plummer.

“I talked to a lot of coaches that Jake had played for and I thought I would be comfortable with him, and I’m even more comfortable having been around him the last five months,” Shanahan said. “He’s a guy’s guy. He likes to have fun. Like John did, Jake likes to play football. He enjoys being on the field. He likes practice. I think he’ll enjoy Sundays here because he enjoys competition. Not everybody enjoys that type of pressure.”

And not everybody is as positive about Plummer, whose 69.1 career quarterback rating is ugly compared to Griese’s 84.1. With 90 touchdowns and 114 interceptions, Plummer has yet to throw 20 touchdown passes in a season but has had four years with 20 picks. Plummer can be brilliant, as witness his 50-yard heave on the run to Lelie for a touchdown in Monday’s preseason loss to Indianapolis.

And Plummer can be foolish, as on a couple of badly overthrown balls for McCaffrey, one of which should have been six points and the other of which was intercepted. Washington Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey was genuinely sad when Arizona and his favorite pigeon were re-aligned out of the NFC East last season.

“You can have crazy plays and make them work, but you can’t have stupid plays,” Plummer said.

Kubiak said that difference can be a fine line.

“We like Jake’s ability to make plays,” Kubiak said. “You don’t want to corral him, but you want to teach him your system, what you want done with the ball. Jake won’t have to carry the whole load with the way we expect to run the ball. But there will be times when we’re down six with a minute to play that we’ll be glad to have Jake back there.”

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