1990’s San Francisco 49ers v. Dallas Cowboys: 49ers Perspective

Former San Francisco 49er Head Coach Bill Walsh referred to the early years of the organization’s coming of age as “Camelot”. After the 1981 Super Bowl championship they would go on to become “Team of the Decade” winning another 3 titles. San Francisco became the NFL’s gold standard in on field achievement and the corporate way they conducted themselves.

Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and John Taylor had taken the West Coast Offense to a record level.

Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and John Taylor had taken the West Coast Offense to a record level.

Their players were revered as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Ronnie Lott took their place among the league’s greatest ever players. They had been the toast of Presidents as the 80’s drew to a close. In 1989 new Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones traveled to San Francisco to learn from Eddie Debartolo how the league’s model franchise did business. This was nothing new as even former Head Coach Bill Walsh had become a favorite on the corporate motivational speaking circuit.

As the 90’s beckoned, the team was transitioning on the field as Steve Young, Ricky Watters and a new wave of 49ers emerged. It started with a team loss in  the 90 NFC Championship to the New York Giants 15-13 ending their chance at a 3-peat. Gone were 80’s holdovers Montana, Roger Craig, and Lott as the new generation took shape in 1991. Montana from a vicious hit that kept him out of football for two years. The others were released as the team looked to get younger to stay competitive.

They finished 10-6 as Steve Young finished his first season as a passing champion. It took awhile for San Fran to find their footing yet they finished on a 6 game winning streak. By 1992 the Niners hit their stride finishing 14-2 and retooled with Ricky Watters rushing for 1,013 yards to join Young, and Rice in the Pro Bowl. Another passing title moved Young into the elite of the sport yet it came crashing down with a loss to the upstart Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship 30-20.

Steve Young being sacked  during the 1992 NFC Championship Game.

Steve Young being sacked during the 1992 NFC Championship Game.

Yes, those same Dallas Cowboys who had studied the 49er organization some 4 years before. The same Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones who had traded for former 49er Charles Haley to help lead the upstart Cowboys and shift the balance of power. Haley had grown up a 49er and battled T Steve Wallace, G Guy McIntyre, and G Harris Barton for 6 years in practice. His experience and spirit settled the nervous young Cowboys in their ’92 NFC Championship triumph.

Going into the game it was a 50/50 split as to who had the upper hand. What really hurt Steve Young is a now healthy Joe Montana watched from the sideline. As San Fran fell behind in the second half, a growing feeling in the stadium loomed. Would George Seifert put Montana in if the game got away from Young. Even though Young was the NFL’s MVP, he still had the legend looking over his shoulder.

Troy Aikman outplayed him and made several signature throws to Alvin Harper while Young threw 2 4th quarter interceptions. What if Guy McIntyre doesn’t false start on the game’s 3rd play negating Jerry Rice’s 63 yard TD from Young?? It would have changed the complexion of  the game. However Troy Aikman had gone 24 of 34 for 322 yards and 2TDs. Emmitt Smith controlled the clock with 114 yds rushing and 59 yds receiving. They took the measure of San Fran and became the league’s signature team with their Super Bowl XXVII championship.

Going into 1993 the 49ers had traded away Joe Montana making it Young’s team. This added pressure from the fans but their real battle was catching Dallas who was now an established champion. They were brash and played with an in your face bravado that took the 49ers aback. In the locker room following the ’92 Championship, Jimmy Johnson’s boast “How ’bout them Cowboys!?!” reverberated in the CBS cameras & throughout Candlestick Park. It haunted the organization as they set their sights on dethroning the loud, brash Cowboys.

Once they qualified for the NFC Championship rematch in Dallas, it was time to right the ship. Dallas had beat them 26-17 in the regular season to add to their confidence. Then Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson dropped a bombshell.  He called a Dallas radio station and declared “We will win the game and you can put it in 3 inch headline!” Now they were calling San Fran out and how would they respond??

Called out and humiliated like an after school fight in 6th grade, the 38-21 loss in the ’93 NFC Championship was worse than it looked. Dallas was up 28-7 in the 2nd quarter and was sitting on the ball with 3:27 to go. The defense, which had struggled all year, was completely exposed. The gap was widening and the team needed to make drastic changes if they were going to compete with the younger Cowboys.

Michael Irvin had emerged as one of the best wide outs in the NFL. Emmitt Smith had the last 2 rushing titles and had his 3rd straight 100 yard rushing game against the 49ers. Troy Aikman had yet to throw an interception in 2 NFC Championship games. Alvin Harper was becoming a serious 49er killer as he emerged with the highest yard per catch average in postseason history. Most of it due to huge plays against San Fran.

Carmen Policy and the 49ers brass moved into swift action. Back then the team that lost the conference championship coached the Pro Bowl squad. Free agency had come to the NFL the year before and they used this as a recruiting trip. They signed future Hall of Famers Rickey Jackson, Richard Dent, Deion Sanders off the NFC Pro Bowl squad. Then stole Ken Norton Jr from the Cowboys and DE Charles Mann all fom the ’93 Pro Bowl.

Floyd and Watters celebrate touchdown during their 44-15 demolition of Chicago in the '94 playoffs.

Floyd and Watters celebrate touchdown during their 44-15 demolition of Chicago in the ’94 playoffs.

“If you can come in and give us the defense, we have an offense that can dethrone the Cowboys and get to the Super Bowl.” They also knew they needed a new approach psychologically and embraced a more brash, in your face street tough mentality. Embraced was the outgoing personalities of Ricky Watters, Deion Sanders, and rookie FB William Floyd. Gone was the laced up corporate attitude of the team on the field. This group showed its emotions on the field, celebrated with end zone dancing and Deion highstepping downfield after interceptions. The only thing that made the 49ers recognizable were their helmets. Thanks to the NFL commemorating their 75th season, the Niners elected to play most of the season in their “throwback” uniforms of the 1950s. The 49ers were reborn in 1994.

It worked as the 49ers blew through the regular season 13-3 and scored a team record 505 points. Steve Young was league MVP and Sanders was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. They retooled and had specific match ups ready as they eyed the defending champion Cowboys. They beat them during the season 21-14 to earn the right to homefield advantage for the ’94 NFC Championship. If the Cowboys were going to 3peat, they had to go through the last team that had that same chance just 4 years before.

The vanquished became the victors with their 38-28 defeat of the Dallas Cowboys in the ’94 NFC Championship Game. Super Bowl XXIX was an anticlimactic 49-26 win over the San Diego Chargers. Steve Young liberated himself from the ghost of Joe Montana. For 3 straight years these two teams pushed each other to heights they would not have achieved without each other. However the final shot was fired by the 49ers.

Young and Rice celebrate in Super Bowl XXIX.

Young and Rice celebrate in Super Bowl XXIX.

Jerry Jones had become obsessed with overtaking the 49ers who themselves made practical business decisions. They didn’t match Ricky Watters free agent contract with Philadelphia, which was a mistake, and they had to enter a bidding war for Deion Sanders. In ’94 they signed him to $1.1 million for one year where other teams were offering 4 years $17 million. Coming off a Super Bowl triumph and his 1994 NFL Defensive Player of the Year it was time to cash in. San Francisco baited jones and he took it and overspent for Deion at a cost of $35 million.

This crippled Dallas who wouldn’t be a player in free agency the rest of the decade. The Cowboys had all their money tied to Aikman, Smith, Irvin, and Sanders. The 49ers had freed themselves of the Dallas stranglehold and would go on to be an elite team the rest of the decade. They just didn’t see a new foe emerging in Mike Holmgren’s Green Bay Packers.

However there was the 1995 season where the 49ers were more in the spirit of the pre ’94 group. At midseason they took on the revenge minded Cowboys in Texas Stadium. The Cowboys were 8-1, healthy and ready to show with Deion Sanders in tow, they had overtaken San Fran. Going into the game they were missing QB Steve Young, FB William Floyd and staggered into the game with a 5-4 record. Perfect timing for the Cowboys to provide the knock out blow. Nobody believed the 49ers had a chance…

After being upset by the Packers in the 1995 NFC Divisional Playoffs 21-17, they began a new rivalry chapter with them. As for Dallas, they did win Super Bowl XXX to make it 4 wins in 4 years between these two organizations. New teams would emerge before the decade concluded. Most notable was Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos. Shanahan was San Francisco’s Offensive Coordinator during the heat of the 49er v Cowboys rivalry.

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SUPER BOWL XXIV CHAMPION 1989 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Want to hear something interesting?  Going into Super Bowl XXIV, the Denver Broncos were the ONLY team in the NFL the 49ers hadn’t defeated during the 1980s.  So in the last game of the decade…what happened??  Yikes 55-10 in a Super Bowl!!!  Joe Montana and company could have scored 80 if they wanted to…As crisp as the 49ers played, what did their practices look like??  Damn!

49.24The craziest thing was when Terry Bradshaw skirmished with John Elway that week about how Elway had been coddled…etc (remember Terry was roughed up by press and such as a young player) and after a back and forth, they sit down to talk about Super Bowl XXIV in a round table discussion and Bradshaw blurted out “I just don’t see Denver having a chance. This sucker could be as bad as 55-3!” Much to the chagrin of CBS brass trying to drum up interest for a game the press was touting as a blowout. Why 55? Eight tds, and a missed p.a.t.s? Only 3 for the Broncos?

If Bill Romanowski hadn’t faceguarded (form of pass interference) Orson Mobley in the endzone to give the Broncos 1st and goal at the 1, Terry Bradshaw would have NAILED IT!! The Broncos needed 4 plays to score from their touhdown also…Terry Bradshaw is a dummy? Not on this prediction! Final score 55-10.

49.24aHas there been a better or more dominant run in a single postseason?? In dispatching the Vikings 41-13, Montana carved up the #1 defense that ranked 1st in sacks with 71.  Joe was 17 of 24 for 241 yds and 4 touchdowns. In the NFC Championship, they faced their NFC West rival Los Angeles Rams. The Rams had been the scourge of the playoffs with their “Eagle Defense” with 2 D Linemen and 5 Linebackers.

No one could figure out Los Angeles hybrid defense as they befuddled Randall Cunningham’s Eagles and Phil Simms Giants. Well… Montana shredded them going 26 of 30 for 262 yds and 2 scores. Thanks to Craig, Rice, Taylor, and Rathman, San Francisco set a post season record with 29 first downs in a 30-3 slaughter. Don’t forget they split their games with them in the regular season. San Fran taught them the difference between post season and regular season play.

As for Super Bowl XXIV, Montana had his best ever game when it counted most. It almost seemed like a choreographed fight scene from a movie. Every move was countered perfectly. No matter what defense the Broncos were in Montana had an answer. The 1989 Denver Broncos were ranked 3rd in defense and had given up the fewest points in the NFL. Montana was 22 of 29 for 297 yards and 5 touchdowns and sat most of the 4th quarter.

super-bowl-logo-1989The perfect game Bill Walsh had Montana strive for from the quarterback position he watched in a booth next to Eddie DeBartolo. George Seifert was the coach who witnessed it up close as the Head Coach. He riddled the #1 and #3 ranked defenses with 9 touchdowns and no interceptions. This was a coronation, not just the 49ers becoming team of the ’80s, but Montana unseasting Johnny Unitas as the NFL’s greatest ever quarterback.

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SUPER BOWL XXIII CHAMPION 1988 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Super Bowl XXIII was a game for the ages, 49ers 20-16 over the Cincinnati Bengals in Joe Robbie Stadium. When I think of this Super Bowl I think of the moments that take place in a game that could have altered the course of history. If only David Fulcher could have knocked down a couple passes on that last drive…. What if the late Pete Rozelle had allowed the Bengals to use their “Sugar Huddle”?? All banter for historians now since Joe Montana did his thing!!

xxiiiWith the Bengals leading 13-6 early in the 4th quarter, Stanford Jennings had just returned a kickoff 93 yards to put the Bengals up by a touchdown. The 49ers were driving for the tying touchdown when the late Lewis Billups cut in front of Mike Wilson and had a clear endzone interception, then dropped the ball.

The Bengals had shut down the 49er offense all game long but now the 49er offense was clicking. Rice scored on the next play to tie it at 13 . What would have happened had Billups held on for that interception? Would that have been the demoralizing play that would have deflated the 49ers for good in a defensive struggle?

Montana went on to lead that famous last second drive that cemented his legacy…however there are some interesting points to this team. Did you know this 49er team had the worst record of any Super Bowl champion at the time with a 10-6 record? Did you know that the ’88 49ers were 6-5 during the season after back to back losses in Candlestick including a 9-6 loss to the LA Raiders with no touchdowns scored? The first set of back to back losses at home in almost a decade. This was a team that had to overcome the psychological damage that was inflicted a year before that nearly sunk the ’88 season.

xxiii2The 1987 season was the best 49er team in history (up to that time) in The Chancellor of Football’s opinion. This was the first team since the 1977 Dallas Cowboys to finish #1 on both offense and defense in the same season. So prolific was this team in a strike shortened year of 15 games, Montana led the NFL with 31 TDs in only 12 games played with the regulars and Steve Young throwing for 10 more. It was the most prolific season of Montana’s career. Projected over a 16 game season, he would have thrown for 45 TDs at a time when only Dan Marino had surpassed the 40 mark.

Jerry Rice was league MVP with 23 TDs (22 receiving) in only 12 games that broke the single season TD reception record of Mark Clayton’s 18. Rice was so dominant he had 17TDs in the final 7 games alone. The overall touchdown record at the time was 24 by John Riggins. At the pace that Rice was going he would have had 30 TDs had they played 16 games. So Emmitt, Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, and Shawn Alexander NEVER would have touched the record.

The draft class of ’86 came to fruition with Charles Haley, John Taylor, Don Griffin, Tim McKyer, Kevin Fagan (The U), Brent Jones, Tom Rathman, and Harris Barton, who would anchor the team for years to come. This mixed youth with the experience of the Joe Montanas, Ronnie Lotts, Randy Cross’, and Dwight Clarks to form a team that rolled to a 13-2 record finishing on a 6 game winning streak. They scored the most points and gave up the 3rd fewest.

They outscored their last 3 opponents 124-7 including a 41-0 trouncing of the NFC Central Champion Bears on a Monday Night in front of the nation. So what happened?? Two things…the flu and Anthony Carter got hot and did a Larry Fitzgerald thru the 1987 playoffs with this being the centerpiece game of that run and his career.

The Minnesota Vikings were 8-7 and backed into the playoffs with losses in their last few games and had to have someone else lose just to get in.

Joe wasn’t himself in that divisional playoff game and even though he was weakened with the flu he was getting’ hounded by the Vikings pass rush. He did throw a down and out to Dwight Clark that was late and Reggie Rutland returned for a touchdown that put San Fran down 17-7. Bill Walsh benched Joe Montana for Steve Young, who had been acquired that year in a trade, who did lead a few TD drives that ultimately led to QB controversy to start the ’88 season.

That 36-24 loss along with Anthony Carter’s 227 yards receiving haunted that team to the midway point of the 88 season. This team clearly should have won Super Bowl XXII. I remember the shock that the Bears & Redskins took into their divisional playoff game the next day, realizing whoever won would host the Vikings in the NFC Championship game when they clearly were dreading a trip to San Francisco. Especially the Bears who in a matchup for home field advantage were trounced 41-0 at the end of the ’87 season and who did the ’88 49ers beat in the NFC Championship game to get to Super Bowl XXIII? The Chicago Bears 28-3 in Soldier Field in 28 below zero weather.

However the upset playoff loss to the Vikings caused tensions throughout the organization. Embarrassed by the biggest upset since Super Bowl III, it was rumored Eddie DeBartolo nearly parted ways with Head Coach Bill Walsh. This led to changes within the organization and corporate pressure was one of the reasons Walsh stepped down after Super Bowl XXIII a year later.

The 49ers did get revenge on the Vikings over the next two years in the playoffs. The ’88 postseason began with a 34-9 beat down of Minnesota puncutated by an 80 yard touchdown run by Roger Craig in the 4th quarter.

super-bowl-logo-1988However when I look at the Super Bowl XXIII ring, the ’88 season doesn’t come to mind. The turmoil that took place from the previous postseason and subsequent retirement of Bill Walsh dimmed the luster of their coronation. With this win, the 49ers had become The Team of the 80’s. It wasn’t a pyrrhic victory but…

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Dedicated to the late Bill Walsh

SUPER BOWL XIX CHAMPIONS 1984 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

On January 20, 1985 in Super Bowl XIX, Joe Montana bested Dan Marino in Stanford Stadium 38-16, or rather the 49ers over the Dolphins.  We had been told the aerial circus came to town with Dan Marino and his 48 TDs during the regular season, and 57 when you add the playoff stats to his totals.  Remember the hype of how it should be a shootout??  A can’t miss aerial show!!  The Marks Brothers: Duper and Clayton!  Mark Clayton had set the record with 18 receiving touchdowns as the Dolphins scored a record 70 touchdowns in 1984.  A young strapping quarterback with a rocket arm at the height of his power. Who could stop them??

xixringEnter the 1984 San Francisco 49ers.  A team motivated by the ’83 NFC Championship debacle against the Washington Redskins in a 24-21 loss. A game marred by a controversial pass interference and defensive holding call that prolonged the final drive where the Redskins milked the clock and made their game winning kick.  This thwarted one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the NFL where the highest scoring team ever (83 Redskins: 541 points), jumped to a 21-0 lead and were about to easily advance to Super Bowl XVIII.

Yet the secondary of Eric Wright, Ronnie Lott, Dwight Hicks, and Carlton Williamson shut down the explosive Redskins after that allowing Joe Montana to bring his team back.

In a frantic 4th quarter Joe Montana, who had been shut down all game long, went white hot and completed 3TDs in the quarter to tie the game at 21. The 49ers had all the momentum, their sideline was going nuts and RFK Stadium, home of the famous “We Want Dallas” chant, was so quiet you could hear vendors selling popcorn.

super-bowl-logo-1984Then a questionable pass interference call against Eric Wright going up the sideline, where incidental contact at best would have been a more accurate call.  A few plays later Ronnie Lott was called for defensive holding…which was the first time I ever saw someone get called for holding with his arms down to his side!!  All that could be talked about in the Niner’s locker room after the ’83 Championship was the frustration that the officiating decided the game and not the players.  So they were on a mission to win it all in 1984.

The 49ers became the first team to go through the season 15-1 in the regular season.  How strong was this team?  The only loss during the campaign was a 20-17 loss to Pittsburgh who made it to the AFC Championship that season.  Fair to say Pittsburgh was strong?  Thought so… Well led by their secondary which placed ALL 4 members in the Pro Bowl.  This team was definitely prepared to take on the pass-happy Dolphins who defeated the Steelers to meet them in Super Bowl XIX.

George Seifert put the defense in a 4-1-6 defense and Fred Dean, Gary “Big Hands” Johnson, and Duane Board (2 sacks) produced the pass rush that got to Marino by first smothering his receivers.  Many of these Dime defense principles Bill Belichick used with the Giants in stopping the 1990 Bills in Super Bowl XXV and for the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.  George Seifert didn’t get enough credit for coming up with a defense that produced upsets against high powered offenses in future Super Bowls.

19 joeOne of the most demoralizing things that a defense can do is intercept a team in the endzone negating a long drive which the 49ers did twice in both the 3rd and 4th quarters of Super Bowl XIX.  This was a signature game for one of the best secondaries ever.  They were built specifically to take on an explosive passing attack and nearly took out two of the greatest offenses of all time. The refs interfered with one in 1983 but they wouldn’t be denied in Palo Alto.

However with Joe Montana throwing for a then record 331 yards and most yards rushing for a QB in a Super Bowl with 59 yards the defense was overshadowed.  Roger Craig scored 3 touchdowns in the game.  The “other” offense set another record with 537 total yards in the contest.

Wow…Dan Marino was only in his second year…he’d return to the Super Bowl in the near future…right?

Don’t take any chances for granted, there are no guarantees that you’ll get back…

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SUPER BOWL XVI CHAMPION 1981 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac, Michigan where the San Francisco 49ers 26-21 won over the Cincinnati Bengals.  Two weeks after the catch….I can remember that it was somewhere in the 3rd quarter and I was still saying to myself “The Bengals and the Niners in the Super Bowl?”

sbxvi1.2The NFC Championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys was so good you forgot there was a Super Bowl yet to be played.  Then with the 59 below AFC Championship Game I don’t know if the Bengals had thawed out from that game.  For the first time in memory, you could see the national magazines and media outlets scrambling to sell these teams to the masses. Or actually to sell themselves that the 49ers and Bengals were in the Super Bowl.

Sports media was completely reeling from the high profile darling Cowboys of Tom Landry and “Air Coryell” Chargers going down in the conference finals. They weren’t ready for both Cinderella teams to crash the Super Bowl in Pontiac. Since Joe Montana had made so many so called experts eat their words with “The Catch”, he wasn’t covered as a great quarterback like he was later in his career. He had thrown 3 interceptions in the NFC Championship before “The Catch.” In fact the national figure that emerged from Super Bowl XVI wasn’t a player, it was Head Coach Bill Walsh.

Can you believe a team winning the Super Bowl on the basis of squib kicks?

sbxvi5After taking a 14-0 lead late in the 2nd quarter, most teams would be satisfied with the upper hand and not push the envelope. Walsh implemented his genius and stamp on the game with the ensuing kickoff. Totally unprepared, the ball bounced downfield and put the Bengals in horrible field position inside their own 15. Cincinnati played conservatively, couldn’t move the football and punted. The 49ers, on a short field, kicked a quick field goal and hit them with a squib kick again.

Archie Griffin (yes OSU fans) fumbled the second squib kick that the 49ers converted to another quick field goal to put them up 20-0 at the half.  Of course someone would say “But this was the middle of the game and the Niners were up 14-0.”  Yes but in a game decided by 5 points (26-21) you look at what could have been… and these 6 points were the difference in Bill Walsh becoming a genius and Forrest Gregg almost becoming the new Vince Lombardi.

Others point to the great goal line stand in the 3rd quarter that kept the Niners in strategic control of the game. San Francisco was up 20-7, however the Bengals could have stuck to their regular game plan had it just been 14-7 without the special team gaffes before halftime.

The late Bill Walsh was meticulous in his preparation and the blueprint for modern coaches to follow. He was the first to spend the game wearing a headset as well as scripting the first 15 plays. To game plan squib kicks into the mix showed he didn’t give lip service to the adage “special teams is 1/3 of the game.” Most coaches say that and don’t implement anything different to use it as a mode of attack.

sbxvi4A few of the reasons Coach Walsh scripted his first 15 plays he offered in one of his books. He did it not only because it kept him from getting excited and calling something different than what study showed he should do. It allowed the team to know what plays would be run from the outset and they could perform them no matter how nervous they were at the beginning of a game. By practicing them over and over they could run those plays on autopilot.

Before the Bill Walsh coaching tree would blossom and implement his intricacies throughout the league, it was Super Bowl XVI that gave genesis to this. If you take away “The Catch” in the NFC Championship Game, it looks similar to the Super Bowl. There was no marquee performer or performance that you could think of. Super Bowl MVP Joe Montana only threw for 157 yards against the Bengals. They were the first Super Bowl champion to allow more than 20 points in each of their postseason wins.

Joe Montana at the public memorial service for former coach Bill Walsh.

Joe Montana at the public memorial service for former coach Bill Walsh.

Bill Walsh made all the difference and is the model each present day coach is descended from.

This article is dedicated in his memory.

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Legends of The Fall: Joe Montana

While being interviewed for the 1999 documentary Unitas, legendary writer Frank Deford offered “all great quarterbacks are descended from John Unitas.” To which I believe. However the narrative has changed to this generation being descendants of Joe Montana. Some of his performances were so impressive they left sports writers in awe and unlike many of today’s quarterbacks, he was rarely thought of as the best during his time. For all his greatness he was overlooked until the latter stages of his career where he took quarterbacking to an art form.

Joe Montana during his san Francisco heydey.

Joe Montana during his San Francisco heydey.

Yet if you think back to the 1981 season, folks were waiting for the cinderella 49ers to fall on their face than appreciate Joe that year. It wasn’t until after The Catch in the NFC Championship Game and we were getting ready for Super Bowl XVI did Montana start to get acclaim.  It was similar to the attention Colin Kaepernick was generating before last year’s Super Bowl. Part curiosity surrounding his play and part flavor of the month.

Remember many writers were reeling at the time having picked Dallas to vanquish him in that ’81 Title game. Then thanks to the surprising Super Bowl opponent being Cincinnati, they were almost forced to talk about him. It was a grudging respect they afforded him.

Back in that time the prototypical quarterback was the tall, stout, rocket arm passer. The Terry Bradshaw, Bert Jones, a young Doug Williams, a Ken Stabler, or a Dan Pastororini. The 6’3 guy who could stand amidst the masses and deliver the football 50 yards down field. The late Bill Wash even contemplated trading Montana for the right to draft John Elway. Even after that first Super Bowl triumph. 

Yet it was his size and mobility that set him apart. On every scouting press release Montana was listed at 6’2 200 lbs. but anyone who saw those skinny legs know better. He looked every bit of 180 lbs. They led to his gliding around the pass pocket and avoiding big hits. Whether he scrambled for yardage or he was biding time for a receiver to clear downfield. It was Montana’s nimble feet that kept him in rhythm with his receivers and had his feet ready to throw at a moments notice. Only later was it revealed that those steps were timed with specific receivers to break open and throw at precise moments. That specificity was where Montana elevated quarterbacking to an artform.

Joe Montana and Bill Walsh are linked forever in football lore.

Joe Montana and Bill Walsh are linked forever in football lore.

Another aspect was the ability to bring his Niner teams from behind. The confidence he could instill in his team was on full display during the 1983 playoffs. First he led a last second drive to hold off the Detroit Lions 24-23 to prove The Catch wasn’t a fluke. Then came the NFC Championship with the defending champion Washington Redskins and NFL MVP Joe Theismann. The Redskins jumped out to a 21-0 lead and going into the 4th quarter were laughing their way to Super Bowl XVIII. Then San Francisco Joe got hot.

At the time, the biggest come from behind win in an NFL postseason game was 20 points. Yet in the 4th quarter alone Montana threw 3 touchdowns to tie the game 21-21. Only an offensive pass interference (pick play) that derailed a late drive and two questionable defensive calls kept Joe from performing the greatest championship come back in league history. RFK Stadium was silent until those questionable calls robbed fans everywhere of another possible great moment. Motivated by the slight they felt in not being able to determine they’re fate in that championship game, propelled Joe and the 49ers through 1984.

 

The 49ers became the first team to go 15-1 in the regular season in NFL history. In defeating the New York Giants and Chicago Bears during the NFC playoffs, he tamed the next two Super Bowl champions that were led by their defenses. Don’t forget the ’84 Bears record of 72 sacks in an NFL season still stands. He lost the MVP to the power passing game of Dan Marino that year. What did he do to earn the media’s respect ?? He beat Marino in Super Bowl XIX 38-16 and along the way set a passing record of 331 yards and the team set another with 537 yards of total offense. Only when Montana forced the media to vote for him did they award him what he earned. He became a Hall of Famer based on his second Super Bowl MVP.

Over the next two years the 49ers retooled their personnel and Montana adjusted to new receivers. Freddie Solomon was phased out retiring in 1985. Dwight Clark was now facing the Jerry Rices and John Taylors that came aboard during ’85 and ’86. Even Roger Craig moved from fullback to halfback. Joe lent continuity to the offense and raised his level of play and took his teammates with him. Those same blood thirsty defenses he sidestepped started getting closer and 1986 ended in the Jersey Meadowlands with a major concussion suffered against the Giants.

 

Although the 49ers would go on to win Super Bowl XXIII and XXIV, it was the 1987 season that was Montana’s zenith. Not only were the ’87 Niners the last team in NFL history to finish #1 in both offense and defense, it was Joe’s greatest season. Due to the player’s strike and injuries, Montana only played in 11 games when he threw a career best 31 touchdowns. Projected over a full 16 games he would have thrown for 45 and possibly challenged Marino’s record of 48. Yet he was beaten for NFL MVP by class of ’83 quarterback and media darling John Elway. Now consider the 49ers had the best record with a 13-2 record vs Denver’s 11-4-1 record and show me where Elway was better.

  • Joe Montana 1987- 266 of 398 66.8% for 3,054 yds 31 TDs 13 ints
  • John Elway 1987- 224 of 410 54.6% for 3,198 yds 19 TDs 12 ints

So two years later when the 49ers were up 55-10 in the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XXIV over Elway’s Broncos, how satisfying must that have been?? The ’87 season ended with Montana having the flu and playing in his worst playoff game that saw him benched. The 36-24 upset loss to the Vikings in the NFC Divisional is what propelled the 49ers play in an unprecedented run during the 1988,1989, and 1990 NFL playoffs. They came within :02 of having the chance of a threepeat. However Joe was knocked from that game and was out of football for two years.

As we look back, think about some of Joe Montana’s exploits. To win Super Bowl XIX & XXIII, he beat reigning MVPs Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason. In winning his record 3rd Super Bowl MVP, he beat the QB he was almost traded away for in John Elway. During those 4 Super Bowl wins he went 83 of 122 for 1,142 yds 11 touchdowns and a completion rate of 68%. He never threw an interception in the Super Bowl. He came close when the late Lewis Billups of Cincinnati cut in front….but i digress.

Joe Montana at the public memorial service for former coach Bill Walsh.

Joe Montana at the public memorial service for former coach Bill Walsh.

Now we talk about his coming back from back surgery, concussions, or being out of football for 2 years, then leading the Kansas City Chiefs to their only conference championship appearance in 40 years. Consider the greatest pass rush in NFL history was the ’84 Bears with 72 sacks. He beat them in the NFC Championship 23-0. The second greatest was the ’89 Minnesota Vikings of Chris Doleman and Keith Millard with 71 sacks. Montana carved them up something special in a 41-13 NFC Divisional blowout. In Super Bowl XXIV, he beat the #1 scoring defense with a 55 point scoring barrage where he threw a record 5 touchdowns.

It was the four year run from 1987-1990 that changed the landscape of quarterbacking in the NFL. Everyone was looking for their quarteback to run the “West Coast Offense” as Montana had. Then you had the coaches in Dennis Green, Mike Holmgren, and Mike White go abroad preaching the gospel of the offense.

Former Head Coach Bill Walsh had left the 49ers after 1988 and watched Montana’s mastery of the offense he fathered, reach record heights over the next few seasons. Maybe Walsh knew what he was doing when he let it out he was looking at Elway. Then challenged Joe when he brought in Steve Young from Tampa before the 1987 season. No matter what pundits make of these events, they pushed Montana to become the best quarterback he could be. He finished with a 4-0 record in Super Bowls and 16-7 playoff record along with countless completion records. NFL executives have changed the rules over the last 15 years to make pedestrian quarterbacks look more Montana-like.

montana going to kcWhat made Montana special was he was the first Hall of Fame caliber quarterback who went on to success with his 2nd team. The magic spoken of in the vid followed him to Arrowhead while the 49ers lost back to back NFC Championship Games to Dallas.

Both years in Kansas City he carried the Chiefs to the postseason. His 1st season (’93) began with a 27-24 wildcard win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Montana threw the game tying touchdown on 4th down to Tim Barnett with just seconds left. The 1st playoff win for the franchise since Super Bowl IV.

This would have been enough for most Chief fans but the encore was one for the ages. Kansas City earned an all expenses paid trip to Houston for the AFC Divisional playoff. The Oilers finished the ’93 season with an 11 game winning streak and had hired Buddy Ryan who recreated the ’85 Bears with a talented roster. During the streak Houston had knocked out 5 quarterbacks and now faced 37 year old Joe.

In one of the NFL’s defining games of the decade, Montana was battered in the 1st half yet bounced back with 2nd half 3 touchdown passes in a 28-20 win. You could see Montana breathing life into his offense as the game wore on. It was a triumph of perseverance as the Chiefs came within a game of the Super Bowl for the first time in 24 years.

An incredible run… had he won the AFC Championship in Buffalo, he could have faced the 49ers in a dream Super Bowl matchup. Alas it was not to be.

The next time someone wants to talk greatest ever quarterbacks and doesn’t start with this man, they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. Don’t tell me what a quarterback was voted, show me what he earned on the field of battle. How did he fare against the best competition during his time?? Competition between his offense and opposing defenses and against opposing quarterbacks. Would his contemporaries pick him as the quarterback on their side in a big game they had to win?? You come to those conclusions and you have a best ever quarterback. Not the quarterback that sports writers want to be.  Big difference.

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