Montana carved niche in defenses

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 28, 2000

The Associated Press

CANTON – Playing in a quarterback era of strong arms and long touchdowns, Joe Montana never felt a need to pitch every pass far downfield.

Friday, July 28, 2000

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CANTON – Playing in a quarterback era of strong arms and long touchdowns, Joe Montana never felt a need to pitch every pass far downfield. Instead, he chewed up defenses in small gulps and when he was done, he had passed for over 40,000 yards and first-ballot induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Montana, who directed the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl championships and won the game’s MVP award three times, will be honored Saturday with longtime teammate Ronnie Lott, defensive lineman Howie Long, linebacker Dave Wilcox and Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney.

A third-round draft choice out of Notre Dame in 1979, Montana crafted a brilliant career. He was the fourth quarterback to go in that draft behind Jack Thompson, Phil Simms and Steve Fuller, each picked in the first round, each equipped with long-pass capabilities.

”Some guys don’t want to throw the ball five yards,” Montana said. ”I’m not a guy to throw 30 yards downfield all the time.

”At Notre Dame, we threw maybe 20 passes a game. Jack Thompson was throwing 50. How do you compete with that? I played within the system. I helped make the system run.”

He tries to keep the role of the quarterback in perspective.

”We get too much blame and too much credit, by far,” he said. ”What the quarterback is doing is so much more visible. He’s got that thing in his hands every time. Most of the negative things that happen, happen to him.”

Blaming the quarterback, Montana said, is the easy way out, sort of like blaming the mailman when a letter is lost. ”I was the mailman,” he said, ”not the U.S. Mail Department.

”For me to throw four touchdown passes, I’ve got to have protection. I just had to get it to the right person at the right time. Once I throw the ball, somebody’s got to catch it. Now, somebody else has to stop the other team. Ask Dan Marino what it’s like to score 30 points and lose. Football is the ultimate team sport.”

Montana lived for the games.

”Nothing comes close to a Sunday afternoon, the ups and downs,” he said. ”This is a game that gets to you in a special way. I’ve tried some other things. I like golf. I’ve done some things with horses. The race is over after 2 1/2 minutes. Then you talk about it for three hours.”

Instead, he played for three hours.

Montana was at his best in big games. He never threw an interception in 122 Super Bowl passes and had six 300-yard postseason passing games. His 3,409 completions ranked third all-time and his career passer rating of 92.3 still ranks second all-time.

”Football wasn’t easy,” he said. ”It was fun. When you have fun, a lot of people perceive it as easy. I was fortunate to be on a great team. I tried to treat every play, every down the same.”

All those plays, all those downs have brought him to the Hall of Fame. He has spent a long time trying to craft his acceptance speech.

”It’s one of the hardest things to try to put together,” he said. ”You go one way, then throw it away, go another way, then throw it away. They give you eight minutes.”

That’s six minutes more than Montana usually had for those late-game comebacks that made him one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks. He directed 31 of them in his career, perhaps the most famous the 92-yard march to the winning touchdown in the final minute of the 1989 Super Bowl against Cincinnati.

To Montana, that drive was no big deal. He was shooting for the 25-yard line and the tying field goal, then was prepared to take his chances in overtime. And he had no doubts that he’d get at least that far.

”You have to remember,” he said, ”every Thursday we practiced the two-minute drive against the best defense in the league, a terrific defense that knew all our audibles.”

That’s not to say he wasn’t aware of the situation and what was at stake. Still, in the midst of the drive, he took the time to point out actor John Candy on the sidelines, leaving lineman Harris Barton a bit flabbergasted about how cool the quarterback was.

”I tried to deal with my nerves,” Montana said. ”I tried to be the same person all the time. Nerves are good. I wanted to be nervous. If you don’t care, I hope you’re on the other side.”