Today Jim Plunkett again justified being selected the Heisman Trophy winner at Stanford in 1970 and made Al Davis look like a genius for reclaiming him from the scrapheap after San Francisco 49ers gave up on him.
Plunkett is now one game -- a Super Bowl -- away from achieving one of the greatest comebacks in sports. At 32, Plunkett had his finest hour as he delivered the Oakland Raiders the American Football Conference championship with a 34-27 victory over the San Diego Chargers, beating them at their own high-scoring game.
The Raiders will play the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl in the Superdome at New Orleans Jan. 25, and the Eagles were put on notice that the Raiders can play it as close as a pair of designer jeans -- as they did in eliminating Cleveland -- or keep the pressure on in a fast-break game such as today's.
Plunkett completed 14 of 18 passes. He passed for two touchdowns, ran for one and made the big play at the finish. The Raiders had third and four at the San Diego 29 and faced giving the Chargers a last chance to win. Plunkett was prevented from throwing but ran five yards for a first down, leaving only 65 seconds to fritter away.
Plunkett had some luck on his first pass of the game, a throw that ended up going 65 yards for a touchdown by tight end Raymond Chester after it bounced off the hands of running back Kenny King. But Plunkett rated a bit of good fortune after a career marred by injuries and disappointments.
"They got going with a lucky play and we couldn't stop them when we had to," said veteran defensive back Willie Buchanon.
"It was an awfully easy seven points to get," said Charger Coach Don Coryell. "You usually have to work harder for seven points. It was a shock, but we had the whole game to come back.It's pretty hard to come back from three touchdowns in the first period, and we just got no turnovers."
If Davis did Plunkett a big favor by giving him another chance after everyone else had given up on him, Plunkett evened things up in a week when Davis was engaged in a verbal war with Gene Klein, owner of the Chargers.
Raider guard Gene Upshaw took note of the flak Davis has been catching and awarded him a game ball.
"Sometimes," Klein said, "the ball bounces your way. Sometimes it doesn't. We will be back. It wouldn't matter if we played the Oakland Raiders or San Diego High. We still lost. You can't complain or cry about it."
Davis avoided direct mention of rival Klein, but did say, "Some teams play better against some teams than against others. This is the greatest victory in the Raiders' history. I said before the game it would be like a Rocky Marciano fight. The one left standing at the finish would be the victor. I am glad it was us."
Dan Fouts of the Chargers had to try to overcome three turnovers, two interceptions and a fumble by running back Mike Thomas that the Raiders turned into a touchdown and a 28-7 lead in the second quarter.
Fouts completed 22 of 45 passes for 336 yards and touchdowns of 48 and eight yards to wide receiver Charlie Joiner. Fouts was sacked twice, but Plunkett had to rise above six sacks that accounted for 37 yards of losses.
"Plunkett was the difference today," Fouts said.
"Plunkett was like a chess player out there," said Cliff Branch, the Raiders' veteran wide receiver. "He used everybody -- backs, receivers -- he was in total control."
There were 796 yards of offense in the 61-point game. And with Oakland controlling the line of scrimmage and Mark van Eeghen rushing for 85 yards and two touchdowns, the Raiders outgained the Chargers on the ground, 138 yards to 83, giving Plunkett ball control so that he did not have to pass as often as Fouts.
After Plunkett's pass to Chester, the Chargers swept 62 yards to tie later in the first quarter, the touchdown coming on Fouts' 48-yard pass to Joiner. The wide receiver outleaped cornerback Dwayne O'Steen and free safety Burgess Owens to catch the ball as they went over the goal line. Fouts had set up that play with a 12-yard pass to Joiner.
The bombing continued with Plunkett throwing 48 yards to Branch to the San Diego 37, starting a 76-yard flight downfield that was completed when Plunkett ran five yards for a touchdown.
The Raiders increased their advantage to 21-7 on Plunkett's 21-yard pass to King, who outran linebacker Ray Preston to get open. The Raiders went 49 yards in all, Plunkett throwing 16 to wide receiver Bob Chandler and nine to Chester before spotting the mismatch between King and Preston.
The Raiders seized on the Chargers' third turnover, a fumble by former Redskin runner Thomas at the San Diego 29, to run their bulge to 28-7. Fullback Van Eeghen got the touchdown on a three-yard burst through a gaping hole on the right side.
"You can't spot a team like Oakland that many points," said Buchanon's secondary teammate, Glen Edwards.
The Chargers cut the deficit to 28-14 near the end of the half on Fouts' eight-yard throw to Joiner to top off a 64-yard drive.
Then, in the third quarter, the Chargers cut it to 28-17 on Rolf Benirschke's 26-yard field goal at the end of a 76-yard push. The Chargers would have gotten a touchdown out of it if John Jefferson had held on to successive passes in the end zone. The big plays in this march were an 11-yard pass to Ron Smith, a pass interference penalty of 19 yards against O'Steen, a 25-yard pass to Joiner and an 11-yarder to Smith, for a first down on the eight.
After Mike Fuller returned a punt 28 yards to the Oakland 41, the Chargers moved into position for Chuck Muncie, who had been taken out of the game in the first quarter with a back injury, to score on a six-yard run around left end. Benirschke's extra point narrowed Oakland's margin to 28-24.
Fouts had crossed up the Raiders with screen passes in that march, with Kellen WINSLOW GAINING yards and Thomas 14 to the 17-yard line.
The Raiders increased their advantage to 31-24 on Bahr's 27-yard field goal with 49 seconds left in the third period. Oakland went 78 yards, largely on passes of 22 yards to King and 18 to Chester, before the drive stalled.
In the fourth quarter, Bahr raised the Raiders' lead to 34-24 on a 33-yard field with 9 minutes 46 seconds remaining. On second and six at the San Diego 20, strong safety Fuller dropped a possible interception with a clear field in front of him.
The Chargers closed the scoring on Benirschke's 27-yard field goal with 6:52 remaining and thereafter the Raiders kept possession when it counted.
Raider Coach Tom Flores said he felt a little bit numb. "It hasn't totally sunk in yet. At halftime I told our quarterbacks we couldn't just sit on our lead. We came back and played the kind of ball you have to to beat the Chargers."
"We'll be back. I guarantee you," Fouts said. "I'm proud of this team, coming back like we did."