Testaverde the next Plunkett?

September 28, 1997|By John Eisenberg

SAN DIEGO -- As much as each of the Ravens' players would benefit from the distinction that comes with a winning season, one has more to gain than the rest.

For Vinny Testaverde, it's a personal matter.

That doesn't mean the Ravens' quarterback wants to win any more than the rest of his teammates; they'll all feel more than enough motivation against the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium today when they try to continue their surprising run of success.

But Testaverde is fighting another battle with implications could resonate for years, long after he has taken his last snap.

He is playing to save his name.

As a team leader, he is a "we" guy who is not even thinking along those lines now, but it's an emotional issue that exists beneath the surface.

Long ago dismissed as a disappointment by the pro football world for not living up to his billing as a Heisman Trophy winner, he could help rewrite his legend if he continues to play well and leads the Ravens to a successful season.

You might think that it's too late, that Testaverde's infamous reputation already is attached too strongly after his many years of quarterbacking losing teams.

Wrong.

The career of another quarterback demonstrates that it's never too late to save your name.

Remember Jim Plunkett?

Sure, you do. He was the guy who won two Super Bowls as the quarterback of the Raiders in the early '80s, right?

Now, 11 years after his retirement, he has a winning legacy and a positive place in football history.

But did you know that the arc of his early career was eerily similar to Testaverde's?

As a Heisman Trophy winner from Stanford, Plunkett was the first pick in the 1971 draft; the New England Patriots put their future in his hands and expected him to win. He was Rookie of the Year in 1971, but the Patriots were an incomplete team that never developed, and Plunkett was booed out of town after five years.

Sixteen years after Plunkett was drafted, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made Testaverde the first pick and expected him to lead a resurrection.

As with Plunkett and the Pats, it was asking too much.

The Bucs also didn't have much of a team around Testaverde, and, although he was not without blame for the mounting losses, he was booed out of town after six years.

Plunkett went from New England to San Francisco, played poorly, sat on the bench and almost retired after two years.

Testaverde went from Tampa to Cleveland, where he sat on the bench at first, then took Bernie Kosar's job and played competently for more than a season, then was benched by Bill Belichick in 1995. (He helped the Browns to the playoffs in 1994, but their defense carried them.)

As a last gasp, Plunkett signed with the Raiders in 1978 and suddenly realized success; he was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year, led the Raiders to the 1981 Super Bowl and was named MVP in a victory over the Eagles. He led the Raiders to another Super Bowl victory over the Redskins in 1984.

Testaverde came to Baltimore as a last gasp in 1996, and, after a decade in the league, also suddenly realized success. The Ravens won only four games, but Testaverde played so well that he made the Pro Bowl for the first time.

Surrounded at last by skillful receivers, a strong line, a sound scheme and a multitude of dangerous weapons, he is finally fulfilling his vast potential.

But he still needs to win to show that he has changed since the disappointments of Tampa and Cleveland.

No one understands that better than Testaverde himself.

"Individual success is fun and great, and I enjoyed it last year," he said earlier this month, "but in the end, you're always measured by winning and losing."

It's asking too much to expect him to follow Plunkett's lead and win two Super Bowls late in his career. Those Raiders were far more talented and proven than the Ravens.

But a winning season and a trip to the playoffs would reflect immeasurably well on Testaverde, given a continuation of the success he has enjoyed in the first month of the season.

As much as he proved last year that he could excel as a pro quarterback, he didn't prove he could win. In fact, there were several games in which he failed to make potential winning plays.

After confronting the problem and saying he planned to do better in the clutch this year, he has delivered a key fourth-quarter drive in a win over the Bengals and a huge comeback victory over the Giants.

It's a start, for sure. But when a player's reputation has suffered as much as Testaverde's, it needs a lot more than just a good start to undergo such a major change.

Plunkett was lucky and talented enough to save his name in the end; incredibly, given the text of his first decade, he was named one of the NFL's 300 greatest players in Total Football, a league-approved football encyclopedia published this year.

Testaverde has done more for his reputation in 20 games in Baltimore than he did in nine years in Tampa and Cleveland, giving him the chance to record a similar "save."

Thus, as much as each of the Ravens would love to keep winning and surprising the league, Testaverde, in particular, would benefit.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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