April 5, 2015

1976: Patriots Trade Jim Plunkett to 49ers

A deal that had been in the making for two weeks was consummated on April 5, 1976 when QB Jim Plunkett was traded by the New England Patriots to the San Francisco 49ers. A moratorium on NFL trades had only been lifted the previous week and the deal was conditional on San Francisco being able to agree on contract terms with Plunkett, who signed for three years. It was something of a homecoming for the 28-year-old quarterback as he was from San Jose and went to college at Stanford, but he had failed to live up to his promise in New England and the 49ers paid a steep price, giving up three number one draft picks, two in 1976 and the top choice for ‘77, plus a 1977 second-round choice in addition to QB Tom Owen, a two-year veteran.

The Patriots thus came away with three of the top 22 picks in the ’76 draft that was just days away. They used the choices to take C Pete Brock from Colorado twelfth overall and Ohio State DB Tim Fox 21st (with their own choice, the fifth overall, they grabbed Arizona State DB Mike Haynes). The 1977 first-round pick was used for Texas DB Raymond Clayborn and RB Horace Ivory from Oklahoma was chosen in the second round.

“Obtaining Jim Plunkett is a vital cornerstone toward building the kind of club we want the 49ers to become,” said Head Coach Monte Clark of the 49ers.

“Jim didn’t feel he had accomplished what he had set out to do individually or for the team as a whole,” explained New England Head Coach Chuck Fairbanks. “He told me that in some respects, ‘I’m leaving the job unfinished’. He found that distasteful. But in our judgment, it was the best possible trade we could make, as opposed to Jim playing out his option year and us not getting anything in return.”

The 1970 Heisman Trophy winner was at the top of a highly-regarded quarterback draft class in ‘71. Plunkett was the first overall pick and moved quickly into the starting lineup for the rebuilding Patriots. The results were very favorable that first year as Plunkett passed for 2158 yards and 19 touchdowns, giving up 16 interceptions, and the team improved to 6-8.

The 1972 season was far less successful. With the offensive line doing a poor job of pass protection, Plunkett led the league in yardage lost to being sacked (385) and was often flushed out of the pocket. When he did get the ball away, it was often into coverage, the result being 25 interceptions, as opposed to only eight TDs. The team dropped to 3-11 and Fairbanks arrived as head coach in ’73.

Plunkett’s performance improved, helped by the addition of better receivers and the presence of rookies John Hannah at guard, bolstering a still-shaky line, and FB Sam Cunningham, a solid blocker in the backfield.  New England still had a losing record, but in 1974 broke out to a 6-1 start, although the defense received most of the credit for the improvement. Nevertheless, the offense played its part as Cunningham added solid running in addition to blocking, and diminutive (5’5”, 170) all-purpose HB Mack Herron was highly productive. The attack was far better balanced and scored 348 points, which ranked second in the NFL, but injuries to Cunningham and the receivers were part of an overall drop that saw the Patriots lose six of their last seven games and finish at 7-7. Plunkett, who was bothered by a thigh injury, was sacked only 21 times and matched his rookie total with 19 touchdown passes, although he also led the league by giving up 22 interceptions.

The situation deteriorated in 1975 as Plunkett was troubled by knee and shoulder injuries for much of the season, appearing in five games and throwing only 92 passes. In his place, rookie Steve Grogan struggled but also flashed enough potential to gain the favor of Coach Fairbanks. With Plunkett expressing a desire to return to the West Coast and threatening to play out his option, the stage was set for the trade to San Francisco. Overall, in five years with the Patriots, Plunkett completed 48.5 percent of his passes for 9932 yards and 62 TDs while giving up 87 interceptions.

As for the 49ers, since the retirement of long-time QB John Brodie in 1973, there had been instability at quarterback with Steve Spurrier, Tom Owen, Joe Reed, Dennis Morrison, and Norm Snead all starting games over the ensuing two seasons. The team had not posted a winning record since topping the NFC West for the third straight year in 1972 and now had a new head coach in Clark, replacing Dick Nolan, who paid the price for the decline.

The trade for Plunkett certainly looked good during the first half of the 1976 season as the 49ers broke out to a 6-1 start, but they dropped their next four games and ended up with an 8-6 record. Plunkett had problems with consistency, throwing fewer touchdowns (13) than interceptions (16). His best performance came in a Week 3 win over Seattle in which he passed for 239 yards and three touchdowns. Overall, the offense was more effective on the ground with HB Delvin Williams gaining 1203 yards and garnering a Pro Bowl selection and FB Wilbur Jackson adding 792 yards. Plunkett was even briefly benched in favor of rookie QB Scott Bull late in the season.

With an ownership change that brought Joe Thomas in as general manager, Clark was out and Ken Meyer in as head coach for 1977 and the record dropped to 5-9. Plunkett was all too ordinary, passing for 1693 yards with only nine TDs and 14 interceptions. He was let go during the preseason in ’78, having again fallen short of high expectations.

Plunkett moved across the bay to the Oakland Raiders, where he became a seldom-used backup to Ken Stabler for two years. In 1980, Stabler was dealt to Houston for Dan Pastorini, and while a frustrated Plunkett initially wanted out, his fortunes changed significantly when the newcomer suffered a broken leg four games into the season. Plunkett had a fine season as the Raiders became the first Wild Card team to win the Super Bowl. He received NFL Comeback Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP honors to cap the improbable rise from the ashes. Plunkett remained with the Raiders (who moved to Los Angeles in 1982) through 1986 and was behind center for another Super Bowl victory after the ’83 season. The two years in San Francisco became a nearly-forgotten byway on the path to eventual success.

As for the players the Patriots obtained in the trade for Plunkett, Pete Brock, despite taking longer than anticipated to develop into a starting lineman, spent his entire 12-year career in New England, playing in 154 games and starting 88 of them. More successful was Tim Fox, who moved directly into the starting lineup at free safety and stayed there through the 1981 season. He was chosen to the Pro Bowl in 1980 and intercepted a total of 17 passes before moving on to the Chargers in 1982. Raymond Clayborn was used primarily as a kickoff returner in his first two years, leading the league with a 31.0 average as a rookie, before becoming an outstanding cornerback who tallied 36 interceptions and three Pro Bowl selections before departing after the 1989 season. Horace Ivory became part of a good group of running backs and had his most productive seasons in 1978 and ’79, gaining a high of 693 rushing yards in ’78. As for Tom Owen, he threw a total of five passes in 1976 as the backup to Steve Grogan and remained in that role through 1981. The team as a whole posted five consecutive winning records from 1976 to ’80 and reached the postseason twice.