What made Joe Montana special?
Precision. Instinct. Timing. Leadership."He had all of that," said Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren, the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback coach during the late 1980s.
Joe Montana, who will retire from pro football on Tuesday, had all of those elusive qualities and he combined them into a brilliant package that made him the NFL's best quarterback ever. Even more, he could convince his teammates that he could do the impossible.
"He had a great ability to relax and relax his teammates," Holmgren said. "In practice, he was a little bit of a jokester. Yet they knew how hard he worked at it. And when it came down to crunch time, he always came through. They saw that. He was a great leader that way. By example."
The examples are legendary, an almost endless succession of plays that astounded opponents and 30 times brought his team from behind to victory in the final quarter.
And he was at his best in the biggest games.
Late in the 1990 season, the San Francisco 49ers' linebackers were shown tapes of a spectre they were lucky enough not to have to encounter in person.
"The coaches pulled out Joe's touchdown pass to John Taylor that beat the Giants," recalls Matt Millen. "Then they asked us where we'd aim the ball in order to put it where Joe threw it and most of us said at the `R' or the `S' where `49ers' was written in the end zone.
"It turned out that he threw it at the `4,' 10 yards away."
That was Joe Montana, 10 yards better than everybody else in his quest for perfection. If he wasn't perfect during his 16 NFL seasons, he was probably closer to perfection than any quarterback has ever been, his career a series of benchmarks with a "THE" in front of them - "The Catch," "The Drive," "The Comeback."
* * *
Bill Walsh didn't really want Montana when he left Notre Dame in 1979, preferring instead a guy named Phil Simms of Morehead State. Simms was an NFL prototype - big, tall, strong armed. Montana was a little too short, listed at 6-foot-3 but more like 6-11/2, and there were some doubts about his arm strength.
But Walsh's predecessor, Joe Thomas, had traded away the first pick in the draft for an aging running back named O.J. Simpson. So he had no shot at Simms, who went to the Giants with the seventh overall choice.
Jackie Thompson and Steve Fuller were the other quarterbacks taken in the first round; no quarterbacks went in the second and the Niners came up in the third.
Walsh was inclined to take Steve Dils, whom he'd coached at Stanford.
But Tony Razzano, the 49ers' chief scout, sold him on Montana, who had split time at Notre Dame with Rusty Lisch, completing an underwhelming 52 percent of his passes with the same number of interceptions as touchdowns. Still, there were harbingers - Montana had rallied the Irish from a 34-12 deficit to a 35-34 win over Houston in the Cotton Bowl. And Razzano convinced Walsh that Montana was a born winner.
He was right. But it took a while.
* * *
Early on, Montana was just another third-rounder draft pick.
He threw his first NFL pass on Sept. 16, 1979, completing it for 8 yards in a 27-24 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. He canceled that out a month later when he threw one pass for an 8-yard loss in a 21-15 win over Atlanta, the first victory for a team that started 0-7.
His first start came on Dec. 2 against the Cardinals, when he went 5 of 12 for 36 yards in a 13-10 loss, one of 14 that year for San Francisco.
The Niners weren't much better in 1980 (4-12), but Montana was. He took over from Steve DeBerg toward the end of the season and finished with a completion percentage of 64.5, best in the NFL. The 49ers had found their quarterback and were about to find themselves.
The 1981 team was hardly the equal of the 49ers who won four more Super Bowls. There was no Jerry Rice, no Roger Craig, a secondary that included three rookies as starters
But there was Montana.
He was the top-rated quarterback in the NFC, completing 63 percent of his passes. More important, the 49ers finished 13-3, and won the Super Bowl, beating Cincinnati 26-21 in a game in which Montana won the first of three Super Bowl MVP trophies.
But that was anticlimactic to the NFC title game in a 28-27 victory over Dallas, that included "The Catch" at the end of one of the first of many Montana productions known as "The Drive,"
This drive, a 13-play, 89-yarder was mostly a Walsh production - much of the yardage came on runs and catches by an obscure running back named Lenvil Elliott to outfox a Dallas defense playing a soft zone.
But the TD was Montana and his pal, Dwight Clark, a 6-yarder on a play with 51 seconds left that foreshadowed a career. Montana threw the ball so the only player who could catch it was Clark, leaping over Everson Walls, at the back of the end zone.
Memorable because of the circumstances, but no different from dozens of throws over Montana's 16 seasons. Like the one to Taylor at which Millen marveled or one that Willie Davis caught on a Monday night in Denver last fall as the 38-year-old Montana, then with Kansas City, took on John Elway and won the duel.
But the pass to Clark defined Montana's career in a way that the others only confirmed. Plays and drives like that happened with uncommon frequency.
In the 1989 Super Bowl, for example, he was 8 of 9 for 97 yards in a 92-yard drive capped by a 10-yard pass with 34 seconds left to Taylor. That beat Cincinnati 20-16 in, ironically, the only Super Bowl Montana played in which he was NOT MVP - Jerry Rice won that year.
* * *
One uncharacteristic play may typify Montana's instinctive ability.
During a 1984 Giants-49ers playoff game, Montana scrambled out of the pocket with Lawrence Taylor chasing him. As he headed for the sideline, Montana slowed up, apparently content to go out of bounds. Taylor slowed with him.
Then Montana turned right and dashed for 60 more yards.
It wasn't always that easy for him.
In 1984, Montana led what many associated with the 49ers consider the best of the San Francisco Super Bowl winners. But two years later, his career nearly ended . . . twice.
First he underwent back surgery so delicate that several doctors said he should consider retirement. Instead, he missed just eight games, returning against the Cardinals by completing 13 of 19 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns.
Later that season, in a playoff game against the Giants, he was leveled by Jim Burt as the ball fluttered to Taylor, who returned it for a touchdown. As he was driven from Giants Stadium with a concussion, there was a sense that his battered body had had enough.
He was back in 1987, but was replaced by Steve Young after going 12 for 26 for just 109 yards in a 36-24 playoff loss to Minnesota. Young played well enough to begin a quarterback debate in San Francisco that lasted eight years.
Still, Montana remained the man.
In 1988, he pulled out that last-minute Super Bowl win and in 1989 won his third MVP with five touchdown passes as the Niners, now under George Seifert, beat Denver 55-10. That season, he completed 70 percent of his passes and compiling a quarterback rating of 112.4, the best ever until Young broke it in 1994.
There are those who question if Montana's success stemmed from a system that could have made anyone a star.
"I sometimes wonder if I had stayed there if I could have had his career," says Steve DeBerg, who preceded Montana at quarterback for the 49ers and had a 17-year career with five different teams.
"But no. I couldn't have. I was there. Joe beat me out and kept me out."
* * *
Montana's slide toward retirement started in the fourth quarter of the 1990 NFC title game with the Giants, he broke a wrist. Young took over, Roger Craig fumbled, and the Giants won 15-13, ending San Francisco's quest for three straight titles.
The next year, Montana felt a twinge in his elbow in training camp.
It turned out to be a two-year twinge - he missed all but half of the final regular-season game in 1992, and stood on the sidelines as Young quarterbacked the Niners in another NFC title game loss, this one 30-20 to Dallas as the Cowboys began an upswing.
Then he was gone to Kansas City, after a soap opera scenario in which the fans backed Montana over Young. Owner Eddie DeBartolo convinced Seifert to make Montana the starter entering training camp in 1993. Montana and Young, meanwhile, barely talked - mostly Montana's doing.
"It was a farce," concedes Carmen Policy, the team's president. "George was willing to name Joe the starter only because he knew Steve would eventually beat him out. We should have done it a lot more cleanly."
However it was done, it was done on April 20, 1993. The Niners got a first-round draft choice for a 36-year-old sore-armed quarterback and the Chiefs got Montana and David Whitmore, a starting strong safety.
Once again, Montana fooled people.
Although he missed all or parts of six regular-season games in 1993 with wrist and hamstring injuries, he almost did what Kansas City got him for - to get to the Super Bowl.
He was the same old Joe in a 28-20 upset in Houston that got the Chiefs to the AFC title game, leading Kansas City to three touchdowns in the final nine minutes. In the second half alone, he was 13 of 19 for 212 yards and three TDs and he finished 22 of 39 for 299 yards.
But the magic ended the next week in frigid Buffalo, when he was just 9 of 25 for 125 yards and left the 30-13 loss in the third quarter with a concussion.
Last season, the highlight came in the second week, when Montana led the Chiefs to a 24-17 win over Young and San Francisco, going 19 of 31 for 203 yards and two touchdowns. It was also a time that he recognized the end was near.
"How would you like to be a relatively young man and be told you can no longer do what you've done and loved all your life?" he asked during the week of hoopla before the game.
"It's a hard thing to do."
The Chiefs barely made the playoffs at 9-7 and Montana had his last hurrah in a memorable duel in Miami with Dan Marino. He finished 26 of 37 for 314 yards but the Chiefs lost 27-17 and Montana threw a critical end zone interception.
Fittingly, his last pass (incomplete) was in the West end zone at Joe Robbie Stadium.
The same end zone in which he found John Taylor for the winning touchdown in that 1989 Super Bowl.
Call it poetic justice. Call it symmetry.
Just call it fitting.