Running back Clinton Portis is named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press
The Snake charms Denver
Jake Plummer was well-known in Phoenix. After quarterbacking the Arizona State Sun Devils to their first Rose Bowl trip in a decade, the Cardinals made the local hero their second-round pick in the subsequent 1997 NFL Draft, and he became their starter at midseason. A year later, he led the Cardinals to their first playoff appearance since moving from St. Louis, and their first postseason win in a half-century, when they were still the Chicago Cardinals. Plummer was the face of a franchise that hadn’t really had one for its first eight years in the desert.
But what he found as he got to know Denver was something different. His first glimpse was on Dec. 29, 2002. It was the regular-season finale. Led by Beuerlein, who replaced the benched Griese, the Broncos rolled, 37-7. But the affable Beuerlein would turn 38 just over two months later; at best, he was a temp at the position. Broncos fans at Invesco Field at Mile High knew that Plummer was likely to be the hottest free-agent quarterback on the market, so some chanted, “We want Jake!”
“I was thinking in my head, ‘I want you,’” Plummer would later recall.
Then there was Denver. Although Chicago had the more recent playoff appearance of the group, in 2001, that 13-3 finish was a fluke, created by opportunistic defense and special teams. Those Bears went 8-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less. After a 4-12 season in 2002, that wasn’t happening again, not without a rebuild.
The Broncos, on the other hand, were ready, even though they’d missed the playoffs two years in a row. Recent Pro Bowlers dotted the roster. Clinton Portis had just won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
“You know where I’ve been, you know where my career has gone, and when it came down to the decision, it was all about winning,” Plummer said.
Winning is exactly what he did. The Broncos went 40-18 in his starts, beginning with a 9-2 mark in games he started during the 2003 regular season. That powered their return to the playoffs after two years away.
Plummer was dangerous running the play-action bootleg. With fullback Mike Anderson and Portis aligned behind him in the backfield, the Broncos’ offense had balance, and had at least 30 points in six of Plummer’s 11 regular-season starts.
But the season came crashing down in the wild-card round at Indianapolis, where the Broncos had clinched their playoff berth with a 31-17 win two weeks earlier. The Colts adapted, and throttled the Broncos 41-10, giving them their worst postseason defeat since Super Bowl XXIV.
The defense had faded; the Broncos allowed 23 points per game from Week 5 onward after surrendering just 12 points per game during a 4-0 start. And with Plummer settling in at quarterback, defense would be the Broncos’ area of focus heading into 2004.