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Pats’ Past: The Patriots trade QB Jim Plunkett to the San Francisco 49ers

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With the Patriots playing the 49ers on Sunday, let’s take a look back at what probably is the most memorable connection between the two teams.

When Babe Parilli left the Boston Patriots in 1967, it left a hole at the offense’s most important position. The team tried to fill the void with Mike Taliaferro, Tom Sherman and Joe Kapp but after 1970’s 2-12 season – the Patriots’ first in the NFL – it became clear that an upgrade was needed.

Luckily for the Patriots, who held the number one draft pick in 1971, three highly touted quarterbacks were up for selection: Stanford’s Jim Plunkett, Mississippi’s Archie Manning, and Santa Clara’s Dan Pastorini. The Patriots opted to draft the reigning Heisman Trophy winner Plunkett and make him the face of the franchise.

In his first season with the team – which had been re-named "New England Patriots" shortly after the draft – Plunkett was voted AFC Rookie of the Year. He started all 14 regular season games and led the Patriots to a 6-8 record, the team’s best since 1966. While his numbers were not overwhelming, Plunkett was able to show his potential and why he was selected one overall.

However, Plunkett failed to build upon a promising rookie campaign. His numbers stagnated while the Patriots went 3-11 in 1972 and 5-9 in 1973, the first year under head coach Chuck Fairbanks. While, the team’s record improved to 7-7 in 1974 (mostly because of solid defensive play), Plunkett failed to substantially improve his performances and remained an inconsistent and at times mistake-prone passer.

When the team invested a fifth round draft pick in Kansas State quarterback Steve Grogan in the 1975 draft, Plunkett – for the first time since arriving in New England – was faced with serious competition. Plunkett still won the starting spot but a combination of injuries and bad performances led to him getting benched in favor of the rookie. Grogan won only one of his seven starts as New England finished the year with a 3-11 record. However, his play gave Fairbanks enough confidence to keep him as his quarterback.

Consequently, the Patriots decided to move on from Plunkett. He went 23-38 in his four-and-a-half seasons as the team’s starting quarterback, while completing 48.5% of his pass attempts (league-wide, he was in the bottom third all five years) and throwing more interceptions (87) than touchdowns (62).

In the 1976 offseason, the Patriots began engaging in trade talks with the San Francisco 49ers, who came of a 5-9 season in which the team started three quarterbacks. On April 5, the two teams reached an agreement. The 49ers would receive Plunkett – if he was willing to sign a contract with the team, which he was – and the Patriots would get the following in return:

Two 1976 first round draft picks (#12 and #21)

One 1977 first round draft pick (#16)

One 1977 second round draft pick (#44)

Quarterback Tom Owen

Due to the trade, the Patriots held three first rounder selections in 1976. After drafting future Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Hayes with their own pick, the team selected center Pete Brock and safety Tim Fox with San Francisco’s.

Brock spent his entire 12-year career in New England and became the team’s starting center in 1981. Overall, he appeared in 154 games – only 17 Patriots have played more – and helped the franchise reach its first Super Bowl. Fox, on the other hand, played six years for the Patriots, started all 91 of his games and earned a Pro Bowl selection in his fifth season. His 17 interceptions are the 15th most in franchise history.

The following year, after the Patriots went 11-3 in 1976, the team selected cornerback Raymond Clayborn with the 49ers’ first round draft pick. Clayborn started 179 of 191 games (sixth most appearances in team history) over his 13 years in New England, was voted to three Pro Bowls and started on the Patriots’ first conference championship team. His 36 interceptions are tied with Ty Law for most in franchise history.

With San Francisco’s second round selection, the Patriots picked running back Horace Ivory. Ivory was with the Patriots for five seasons and worked as a rotational running back and kick returner, amassed 2,960 all-purpose yards and scored 17 touchdowns.

The final piece of the trade, quarterback Tom Owen, spent four years in Foxboro as Grogan’s backup. He started one of the 12 games he appeared in and threw three touchdowns and nine interceptions.

As has been the case in New England, Plunkett was inconsistent in San Francisco, leading to his release only two seasons into his three-year contract. Despite the chance of scenery and the return to his home state, his numbers and performances did not improve. While Plunkett started all 26 games he appeared in, the 49ers failed to reach the playoffs with him as their quarterback; going 8-6 in 1976 and 5-9 the following year.

After his release, Plunkett was signed as a backup quarterback by the Oakland Raiders. In 1980, he became the starter after Dan Pastorini – in his first year with the team – broke his leg. Plunkett, starting the final 11 regular season games and all four playoff contests, guided the Raiders to their second Super Bowl victory. In the title game, his performance earned him MVP honors. Three years later, Plunkett again came off the bench to lead his team to the playoffs and an eventual Super Bowl win.

While Plunkett never lived up to his potential with the Patriots, the team was still able to turn him into a valuable asset. After all, his trade to the 49ers, who found their franchise quarterback three years after releasing Plunkett, allowed New England to draft multiple key contributors for the next few years; an era of success the franchise had not seen since the early 1960s.