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Bull's-Eye

Look at that mustache. Jake Plummer is the only one of the league's white, terminally unhip quarterbacks who can pull it off. Brady? No way. He gets enough flak for having his hair professionally highlighted and for toting a man purse. Peyton? Cross him off, too. He'd look like a D-list honky-tonker who missed the bus to Nashville by 12 years. Brees? Combined with his birthmark—well, let's just say that God didn't picture him with a mustache.

Plummer is the only one who could unapologetically show up to training camp looking like a porn star, sporting a mossy brown strip on an otherwise laminate-smooth face. Although his mustache has now blended into a full beard, it's still all anyone wants to talk about. Fathers approach him and say, "No way I'd let my son grow something like that."

"You want to mess with our win streak?" Plummer usually asks, whether the Broncos are in the middle of one or not. He just wants a polite and easy way to dance away from criticism, a move Plummer has perfected. Ask him about this season, the best of his nine-year career, and he says "we" and "my teammates" so often, you'd think any Joe with funky facial hair could QB the Broncos to a first-round playoff bye. Plummer explains himself and his 90.2 passer rating as simply and unscientifically as possible. His mustache? A good-luck charm. His numbers? Great teammates.

Nice try. The reality is that Plummer's 74.4 winning percentage the past three years—behind only Brady and Manning—isn't an accident. And Mike Shanahan and his offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak don't simply manage Plummer as if he were a rock about to smash Denver's delicate offense to pieces. Plummer has become-dare we say it?-a tactician who could efficiently dink and dunk his way through a minefield. But he won't indulge himself. The 31-year-old simply shrugs and says, "I'm an older guy now. You've got to learn the game sometime."

During his six seasons as a Cardinal, when the ASU alum was supposed to be the hometown savior, he compiled a 30—52 record, a 69.0 passer rating and threw more touchdowns than interceptions in a season just once. Although his rating during three seasons in Denver is 88.1, almost 10 points higher than John Elway's career figure, the credit seems to go to Shanahan and Kubiak. They've kept Jake the Mistake in safe, controlled situations, goes the theory. Even if Plummer doesn't believe it, it's a theory he knows better than to challenge. "I could say I've made better decisions and haven't forced the ball," he says. "And then I might go force two balls for interceptions. Then what have I done?" Fulfilled everyone's expectations of him, that's what.

Instead, he has continued to defy them this season. Plummer has thrown just seven picks (down from 20 last year), and two were in the Broncos' season-opening loss to Miami. It's easy to fixate on those two numbers-20 and sevenand assume Plummer made monumental changes to his game. You'd be wrong. Last year, seven of those picks were tipped passes or Hail Marys that landed in enemy hands. That's why Kubiak says what he's most proud of isn't Plummer's decisionmaking, which has improved only incrementally. Instead, says Kubiak, "I'm proud of Jake's persistence."

Last off-season, Shanahan analyzed all of Plummer's 521 passes in 2004 and liked enough of what he saw to pay Plummer a $6 million bonus. Then he told his QB, "Let's start over." It was like relearning how to say hola after two years of advanced Spanish. Basic protections, basic routes, basic audibles were reexamined. On the practice field, when Plummer dropped back, Kubiak would yell over and over, "Let your feet read for you!" He wanted Plummer's little hops and bounces to be more than nervous tics in the pocket; he wanted them going in the direction of his progressions, serving as a compass for his reads. Says backup quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt, "He's improved in ways casual fans wouldn't even notice."

For those who say Plummer has become nothing more than a droid, programmed to execute whatever play Shanahan tells him, watch a replay of the QB against the Raiders on Dec. 24. The Broncos had third and 15 in the third quarter on their own 43. Shanahan called for Ashley Lelie to run a crossing route at five yards. But all game Plummer had noticed Oakland safety Stu Schweigert cheating in the Raiders' three-deep zone, moving from the deep middle up to where a linebacker would roam. As the huddle broke, Plummer told Lelie, "Slow your route" so the receiver wouldn't run right into Schweigert's zone. Lelie did just that, and Plummer found him for a short pass that he turned into a 22-yard gain.

For those who say Plummer only runs bootlegs and connects on short passes, watch him in the second quarter against the Patriots on Oct. 16. Facing second and five from the Broncos' 23, Plummer rolled right, stopped, dropped back three steps-a new wrinkle in Denver's rollout playsand led Rod Smith perfectly 50 yards downfield, setting up a 72-yard gain that ended at the Pats' 5. Two plays later, the Broncos scored the first of 28 straight points.

And for those who say Plummer is too loose and goofy to be considered a team leader, watch him unload on David Terrell for running a hitch at five yards instead of six-during a practice. "I thought he was a laid-back guy," Terrell says. "I was shocked at his intensity."

Missed those plays? Too bad. Plummer won't credit himself, only his teammates and coaches. Ask him about his 229 passes without an interception, the eighth-longest streak in NFL history, and Plummer says, "Guys were dropping picks right in their hands. You need luck sometimes."

Plummer was due for luck in the same way a 40-year-old virgin is due for an invite upstairs. He has probably-no, undoubtedly-heard more boos than any other active player. One heckler got to him last year and he flipped the guy the bird, which earned him a $5,000 fine and piles of mail, including various pictures of people's middle fingers. "I've tried to have fun with it," Plummer says. "At events I'll write Birdman on my name tag."

That's why he loves his mustache so much. Leaving his razor undulled is his way of flipping off everyone who suggests the fringe should go. Says Van Pelt, "It's how he says, 'Until you get it out of your head that I'm not a cookie-cutter quarterback, I'm going to be myself. I may not be the best in the league, I may not be a Super Bowl MVP, but I've played quarterback awhile and I know what I'm doing.'"

Plummer wouldn't have said it better himself.