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NFL PLAYOFFS | CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS

No More Close Shaves

Jake Plummer was a rebel without applause, then in an apparent tribute to the late Pat Tillman, he let his hair down and has guided Denver to the brink of the Super Bowl

January 21, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Jake Plummer tidied his game, shaved his interception total by more than half and helped the Denver Broncos clean up nicely this season.

The same could not be said of the quarterback's appearance.

No longer unbridled but still unkempt, with long hair and a dark full beard, Plummer is a curiosity -- and not only because his uncharacteristically efficient and unspectacular play (in his case, that's a good thing) won over critics.

Impatient and unpredictable in seasons past, he has been steady and sure in his third season under Coach Mike Shanahan as the Broncos won the AFC West division title, ended the New England Patriots' hopes of a Super Bowl three-peat and reached Sunday's AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But what really turns heads is when he pops off his helmet.

"It just reminds me that life is funny," Plummer said before last Saturday's 27-13 victory over the Patriots. "That my beard and long hair could be of significance to someone else, that people in a downtown office building could be standing by the water cooler talking about it right now, that's funny, man."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Pro football -- An article in the Saturday Sports section said Denver Bronco quarterback Jake Plummer was a first-round selection in the 1997 NFL draft. Plummer was chosen in the second round.

It has been speculated that Plummer's flowing mane is a hair-raising tribute to Pat Tillman, a close friend and free-spirited former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinal teammate who famously rejected NFL riches to join the U.S. fight in Afghanistan, where he was killed by "friendly fire" in April 2004.

Alex Garwood, Tillman's brother-in-law and executive director of the charitable foundation named in the late soldier's honor, declined to speculate, but he too is amused by the attention given Plummer's appearance.

Not that it doesn't intrigue him.

"I think it's hysterical," Garwood said this week in a telephone interview. "Like Pat, Jake is a good-looking guy -- great smile, great personality. ... When he's in a room, people want to be around him.

"So, it's pretty funny when somebody like that has shaggy hair and a shaggy beard. He looks like Grizzly Adams."

Early in the 2004 season, Plummer wore a No. 40 decal on his helmet to honor Tillman, running afoul of NFL rules prohibiting personal messages on uniforms. Under threat of weekly fines, he reached a compromise with the league, participating in a public-service announcement honoring Tillman and other war veterans.

League officials were not so forgiving later in the season, when Plummer made an obscene gesture to Bronco fans at Invesco Field after throwing an interception in a December victory over the Miami Dolphins. He was fined $5,000 and predictably savaged by local columnists, who already were down on his flighty play, one describing it as "constantly inconsistent and occasionally brainless."

Addressing what he called "the fickle finger of Jake," Woody Paige of the Denver Post wrote, "By sticking that one finger behind your head, what exactly were you trying to signify, Jake the Flake?

"The number of playoff games you've won in your career? ...

"The number of dim-witted mistakes you made each series against the Dolphins?

"Your IQ?"

Plummer's second season in Denver, which included 27 touchdown passes but a league-high 20 interceptions, ended the same way the first did, with the Broncos losing decisively to the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs.

Afterward, Plummer and Shanahan reviewed videotape of every pass that Plummer had thrown during their two dissatisfying seasons together.

Their conclusions: Less is more. Steady stays the course.

A less spectacular, more measured Plummer emerged this season, resulting in the 31-year-old quarterback experiencing a home playoff game for the first time in his nine-year career. Plummer, who had never before played on a team seeded higher than sixth in the playoffs, had claimed only one playoff victory before last weekend, leading the Cardinals over the Dallas Cowboys seven years ago.

His passing yardage and touchdown passes were down from last season, but his quarterback rating was up and, most important, only seven of his passes were intercepted, matching a career low and 10 below his career average.

He completed 60.2% of his passes, 18 for touchdowns, and in the heart of the Broncos' 13-3 regular season threw 229 consecutive passes without an interception, breaking John Elway's previous club record of 190. That came during a stretch in which the Bronco offense went 28 consecutive quarters without a turnover.

"The un-Snaking of Plummer may be Mike Shanahan's proudest achievement, certainly more so than the Montana-izing of Brian Griese, as once imagined possible by Shanahan," wrote Bernie Lincicome of the Rocky Mountain News, who had once called Plummer "unfixable" and was one of his harshest critics. "What he had to do with Plummer was easier; he had to subtract talent rather than add it.

"This has required the cooperation of Plummer, who cannot dodge the credit. A player of wayward instincts has been sanitized into a lobster bib."

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