Jim Plunkett came all the way back tonight, from the apparent end of an unspectacular career to selection as the most valuable player of Super Bowl XV and the hero of what owner Al Davis called "the Oakland Raiders' finest hour."
Plunkett, who sat out the 1978 season and didn't start until the sixth week of this year's schedule, was magnificent. He picked apart the Philadelphia Eagle secondary for three touchdowns and 261 yards, making it shockingly simple for the Raiders to roll to a 27-10 victory for the 1980 NFL title.
This was the same Oakland team that was supposed to barely finish at .500 this season. And this was the same Plunkett who was supposed to back up starter Don Pastornini in a revamped Raider offense.
But with Plunkett replacing an injured Pastorini, the Raiders, who derived inspiration from their underdog role, wound up winning 13 of their last 15 games. They peaked perfectly, combining a pass-dominated, big-play offense with a defense that forced four turnovers to win Oakland's second Super Bowl.
The victory also set up a scene the NFL front office had dreaded: Commissioner Pete Rozelle presenting the championship trophy to Davis, who has defied the league by trying to move his club to Los Angeles and long has been an adversary of Rozelle. But the ceremony scene in the Oakland locker room came off without a hitch, although the two never shook hands.
After pointing out that the Raiders were the first wild card team to win the Super Bowl (since the AFL-NFL merger), Rozelle told Davis: "This is a tremendous accomplishment to the organization and a great credit to you for putting the team together."
Responded Davis: "This was our finest hour, the finest hour in the history of the Oakland Raiders. This one is the sweetest."
"It's a funny bunch," Davis said. "They just played. They're just the most unique group. It didn't matter where Philadelphia was on the field. They attacked all day, both sides."
It also was the sweetest hour for Plunkett, the former Stanford all-American whom Davis had salvaged from the waiver list after he had been released by San Francisco. He had played horribly at times this season, although Oakland kept winning, but tonight he was almost perfect: 13 of 21, no interceptions, just one sack, hardly a forced pass.
"I started the day so pumped up that I was exhausted even before the end of pregame warmups," Plunkett said, "but now I'm going through a tremendous state of euphoria. This is by far the greatest game of my pro career. I've played better, but I've never played in anything bigger."
Plunkett had plenty of help.Linebacker Rod Martin, a supporting player all season, leaped into the spotlight by picking off a Super Bowl-record three interceptions, including one on the game's first possession to help put Oakland ahead for good.
And Plunkett's receivers, Cliff Branch and Bob Chandler, found constant openings in Philadelphia's zone, breaking free for crucial catches all game. Branch finished with five catches for 67 yards and a record-tying two scores. Chandler caught four for 77 yards.
There also was the Oakland defensive front, which dodged and twirled around Philadelphia's talented offensive line to keep constant pressure on Philadelphia quarterback Ron Jaworski, who came into the game with the stingiest interception ratio in the league.
Philadelphia couldn't get into the end zone until the fourth quarter. By then, it was far too late for Coach Dick Vermeil's club, which had entered the game a three-point favorite.
But Oakland shut off the Eagle running game, holding halfback Wilbert Montgomery, the hero of the triumph over the Cowboys, to just 44 yards on 16 carries. Stripped of a ground threat, Jaworski was forced to pass much, much more than he wanted, a Super Bowl-record 38 times. He completed 18 for 291 yards, but too many were intercepted and too many were dropped by receivers to enable his team to rally.
When these teams played in November at Philadelphia, Plunkett was sacked eight times and threw only 10 passes -- and the Eagles won 10-7. This time, Coach Tom Flores decided "we weren't going to fool anyone. We were going with the big play, we were going after them."
"We just didn't have the intensity that we needed," said Philadelphia linebacker Bill Bergey about a defense that had allowed the least points in the league. "And Plunkett was doing everything right."
From the start, it was obvious this was going to be Plunkett's night, just as it was obvious Philadelphia was suffering from Super Bowl debut jitters.
On Philadelphia's third play, Martin stepped in front of a pass intended for tight end John Spagnola and returned it 17 yards to the Eagle 30. After Mark van Eeghen bulled for a first down, Plunkett spotted Branch isolated on Linebacker Jerry Robinson. He turned that mismatch into a 14-yard completion to the five.
Three plays later, Branch drove to the back of the end zone, turned ahead of cornerback Herman Edwards and sprinted back toward Plunkett, who momentarily thought about running after dropping into the pocket. But Branch was too wide open to miss, so Plunkett drilled the ball into his stomach for a touchdown.
Chris Bahr, who also had two field goals, added the first of three extra points for a 7-0 lead with 8:56 left in the quarter.
But the play that symbolized both Plunkett's season, while all but putting Philadelphia away, came later in the same period.
The Eagles had just had a touchdown pass to Rodney Parker nullified on an offside penalty, forcing a punt to the Oakland 14. On third down from the 20, Plunkett was forced out of the pocket and scrambled to his left. On the run, he spotted halfback Kenny King open just behind Edwards, who was starting to respond to the quarterback on the loose.
When Edwards moved up a step, Plunkett unloaded in stride. King also took it in stride at the Oakland 39 with nothing but open field ahead of him. He won a footrace with the Eagles secondary, finishing off the stunning 80-yard play that gave the Raiders a 14-0 advantage with nine seconds to go in the quarter.
Philadelphia still tried to rally. The Eagles got a 30-yard field goal from Tony Franklin after a drive stalled on the 13. But after another march couldn't get beyond the Raider 11 at the end of the half, another Franklin attempt, from the 28, was blocked by linebacker Ted Hendricks.
"We needed to play well right away at the start of the second half," Vermeil said. Instead, Oakland took the kickoff and went 76 yards in five plays, including Plunkett completions of 13 yards to King and 32 to Chandler that preceded Branch's touchdown reception of 29 yards.
That one should never have happened. Plunkett unloaded one of his poorest passes of the game. It was headed more in the direction of rookie cornerback Roynell Young than Branch. But Young waited at the goal line for the ball instead of coming back for it, and Branch cut in front of him, pulling in the throw and spinning into the end zone for a 21-3 margin with 12:24 remaining in the period.
After that it was academic. Martin's second interception led to a 46-yard Bahr field goal that stretched Oakland's lead to 24-3. And after Jaworski passed to tight end Keith Krepfle for a eight-yard score with 13:59 to play, Bahr added a 35-yard field goal five minutes later that set off an emotional celebration along the Oakland bench.
No other team in Super Bowl history had to win four times as the Raiders did to capture the league title. And no other team had to cope with the distraction of seeing its owner battle the rest of the league off the field all season. That's what made the victory so sweet for Davis' club.
"Let me tell you this," Coach Tom Fores said to his players afterwards as the players laughed and hugged and sang. "We deserve to be world champions. Baby, I'm proud of you."