TEMPE, Ariz. -- On the surface, it doesn't look as if life has changed much for Jake Plummer.
He still dresses in jeans and sweat shirts, looking more like the relatively poor college student that he was rather than the second-highest-paid player in the NFL that he recently became.
One more thing: The player known as "Jake the Snake" still is performing miracles.
The latest has taken place over the past month, as he has transformed the laughingstock Arizona Cardinals from a team whose most famous player was the fictitious Cuba Gooding Jr. character in "Jerry Maguire" to the Cinderellas of this season's playoffs.
Arizona's 20-7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys last Saturday was the first playoff win for the franchise in 51 years. It lifted the Cardinals into Sunday's NFC semifinals against the Minnesota Vikings.
"I think a lot of the young guys think this is the way it's supposed to be," Arizona coach Vince Tobin said Monday.
Plummer wasn't one of them. He had been close enough to the situation while at Arizona State to know how mediocre or worse the Cardinals were under Joe Bugel and Buddy Ryan.
He also undervalued his own abilities.
"I had a lot of doubts about playing at the next level after listening to the scouts," said Plummer, who started four years for the Sun Devils and broke most of Danny White's school records. "It's a lot different than college, but it comes down to playing football."
After being drafted in the second round, Plummer was the third-string quarterback holding the clipboard for the first six games last season. When starter Kent Graham was injured and backup Stoney Case couldn't move the team in a game in Philadelphia, Plummer got his chance.
Coming in with 10: 26 left in the fourth quarter and the ball on his team's 2-yard line, Plummer took the Cardinals on a 14-play, 98-yard touchdown drive, the longest from scrimmage in the NFL last season.
Arizona lost that day, as it did against Tennessee in Plummer's debut as a starter, a game in which he threw four interceptions and was sacked six times.
But Plummer gained the respect of his teammates last season as he completed 53 percent of his passes for 2,203 yards. He threw as many interceptions as touchdowns (15) but led the Cardinals to four wins in his nine starts. He also began to take a leadership role off the field.
In an incident on a plane trip home from a defeat, Plummer became incensed at the attitude of some of his veteran teammates, some of whom were yukking it up while playing cards. Plummer lit into them, then quietly returned to his seat. It didn't go unnoticed by his teammates and coaches.
"He's mature beyond his years," Tobin said. "He's going through what all young quarterbacks do their first or second year in the league. But I think he's come out the other end and has become a much more consistent quarterback. For a player of his age, he's very consistent."
After a slow start this season in which he was intercepted 11 times in the team's first seven games, Plummer regained the reputation he created in college for John Elway-esque comebacks. Arizona's 16-13 victory over San Diego in the last game of the regular season was the ninth won by the Cardinals in the fourth quarter in Plummer's 26 games.
The week before against New Orleans, Plummer led the Cardinals on a six-play, 73-yard drive in the final 81 seconds to set up a 36-yard winning field goal by Chris Jacke. He did it with two back-to back completions to Frank Sanders and two scrambles for 25 yards.
After that game, Arizona owner Bill Bidwill turned Plummer from a rich young man making $1.6 million over three years into another obscenely wealthy pro athlete. With the help of agent Leigh Steinberg, Plummer signed a four-year, $29.7 million deal that included an NFL-record $15 million signing bonus.
It marked the first time the penny-counting Cardinals had ever re-signed one of their players while still under contract. "This is a Christmas present to our fans," said Bidwill, whose generosity belied his reputation as one of the league's biggest Scrooges.
Said Plummer: "I'm just a piece of the puzzle."
A highly visible piece, nonetheless.
Going into the game against the 15-1 Vikings, Plummer has had a breakthrough season. He has completed 343 of 583 passes (58.8 percent) for 3,956 yards. He has thrown more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (19), but has won over his teammates with his late-game cunning and a confidence that might exceed his natural ability.
"He's got this smile in the huddle when he comes out and lets everyone know the situation," offensive tackle James Dexter said. "That smile, it's energizing. It's just fun to be out there with him."
Plummer is looking forward to this week's matchup with the Vikings. As a kid growing up in Boise, Idaho, one of his favorite quarterbacks was Randall Cunningham, whose fearless and sometimes reckless style Plummer emulated. Cunningham recently said that Plummer reminds him of himself as a young quarterback when he played with the Philadelphia Eagles.
"I remember watching him and my mouth opening at some of the things he did," said Plummer. "For him to say that is pretty awesome."
This town has gone so crazy over the Cardinals and their kid quarterback that the locals barely paid attention to Monday night's Fiesta Bowl. Last Saturday night, some 4,000 fans went to greet the team plane at Sky Harbor Airport on its return from Dallas.
But it's a laid-back enough place to give their new hero, who is also something of their old hero, some space. He went to see "Patch Adams" last week and was barely noticed, in part because Plummer looks like any other suburbanite. He was planning to go food shopping after practice one day last week and didn't expect anything more than a couple of autograph requests.
Still, he's aware that celebrity comes with a price, having learned that while still in college. He was arrested two years ago after an incident in which he was accused by several women of lewd behavior at a bar. The matter was settled out of court.
After the football season ends, he said he is considering heading back to Boise to get out of the spotlight.
"You need some place where you can pick your nose in public and there's nobody reporting on it," Plummer said recently.
The recent string of comebacks and upsets is reminiscent of that magical run to the Rose Bowl at ASU in 1996, when he led the Sun Devils to an 11-0 regular season before losing to Ohio State. Plummer is still "Jake The Snake," except now with a lot more zeros attached to his bank account.
There's one more difference Plummer has noticed.
"It's a lot different because I don't have to go to class," he said. "Back then, I'd go into a class and get a standing ovation."
San Francisco at Atlanta, 12: 35 p.m., chs. 45, 5
Miami at Denver 4: 15 p.m., chs. 13, 9
Jacksonville at N.Y. Jets 12: 40 p.m., chs. 13, 9
Arizona at Minnesota 4: 15 p.m., chs. 45, 5
Pub Date: 1/07/99