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Worthy of the Hall

The story is very familiar by now.

He grew up in a home in San Jose where his mother was blind, his father was legally blind, and his family was on welfare. A large tumor on his neck briefly derailed his career at Stanford and almost prompted a move from quarterback to defensive end.

For his first five years in the NFL he played behind a paper mache offensive line and took a tremendous beating. He was later unceremoniously cut by his hometown team, the San Francisco 49ers. He underwent 18 operations to his neck, shoulders, knees and back.

Despite—or rather, because of—those challenges, Jim Plunkett’s story is one of the most inspirational in college and pro football history.

Plunkett led a ground-breaking turnaround at Stanford that sparked a nationwide movement to the passing game. He became the most celebrated player in Stanford history, winning the Heisman Trophy and leading his team to a stunning upset over Ohio State’s Team of the Decade in the 1971 Rose Bowl. He was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

After a promising Rookie of the Year season in New England, he struggled on a weak team and was traded to the 49ers. He started off with six wins in seven games, but was later benched and released by the horrific Joe Thomas regime.

Al Davis and the Raiders gave Plunkett another chance. And he made the most of it, leading the Silver and Black to two Super Bowl wins. He was MVP of the 1981 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year. Three years later, he quarterbacked another Super Bowl victory over the Washington Redskins. Overall, he was 38-19 as the Raiders’ starter.

And he was the first great quarterback of color at a time when very few blacks or Latinos were given the opportunity to play the position.

Despite all that, Plunkett is rarely mentioned as a candidate for the NFL Hall of Fame. His statistics aren’t as gaudy as some other quarterbacks, primarily due to the fact that he played for so many bad teams, sat on the sidelines for a few years, and played hurt for much of his career.

Yet he ranks among the league’s career leaders in yards per completion and fourth quarter comebacks. Plunkett never took the five-yard dump-off on third and 11. With his teams usually behind, he had to force things. He’d throw down the field and try to get the first down. He engineered 19 fourth quarter comebacks and 23 game-winning drives.

Plunkett is the only two-time Super Bowl winner not in the Hall of Fame. In fact, seven of the 26 modern era quarterbacks in the Hall never won a Super Bowl or a league championship, and another five won only one. He is one of only four players ever to win the Heisman Trophy and be MVP in the Super Bowl, the others being Roger Staubach, Desmond Howard and Marcus Allen.

I’ve known Jim Plunkett for 50 years. He is a winner in life and on the field. He is the definition of clutch, a study in endurance and perseverance. An inspiration not only to people of color, but to anyone dealing with adversity or personal tragedy. A man of honor and character.

He belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Bowl Ups and Downs: Final ratings for 2017-18 college football reveal that ESPN’s post-season audience was up 12% over last year, proving once again that bowl games are great TV content. As noted previously, the games on Fox didn’t do as well, lacking the all-in, 24/7 promotion that ESPN provides. Out of 40 bowls, the Foster Farms game on Fox rated 27th with 2.1 million viewers, and the once-prestigious Holiday, in its first year on Fox, plummeted to 31st with 1.6 million, the lowest audience in the history of the bowl.

Attendance results weren’t as positive as the TV numbers. Overall, announced crowds were down 4%, and 25 bowls declined from last year. This year there were 10 bowl games that drew 20,000 to 30,000 fans, and another five that drew under 20,000. Those types of numbers were unheard of 10 years ago. But because of the proliferation of bowl games, increasing travel costs, the national obsession with the playoffs, and the quality of the home viewing experience, more fans are choosing to stay home and watch on TV.

Thursday Night Lights: Speaking of football on TV, the NFL has reportedly reached agreement with Fox to air the league’s underwhelming Thursday night schedule. Ratings were down this year, and players complained that having to play two games in five days increased their risk of injury.

Yet Fox ponied up $3 billion for a five-year deal, an average of $600 million per year. This was a substantial increase over the previous agreement, in which CBS and NBC each paid $450 million to split the package for two seasons.

So, despite declining ratings and lots of doomsday predictions, NFL rights fees continue to escalate.

I believe it will be another five years, or more, before the current trends (lower ratings, cord-cutting, over the top viewing) will translate into a decrease in media rights fees. And by then, fees from other distributors—Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, You Tube, etc.—may be enough to offset the losses from the more traditional networks.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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