Sunday, March 30, 2008

Not the Greatest Quarterback of All-Time, Part Seven: Joe Montana

Joe Montana. Joe Cool. “The Catch”. Four interception-free Super Bowl wins. Etc. etc. I’m guessing if you polled football fans or football experts on who’s the greatest quarterback of all-time, Montana would get the most votes. And if you’re over 30, I’d be insulting your intelligence if I explained why. The real challenge is trying to come up with reasons for why Montana isn’t the greatest ever. But I enjoy a challenge. And I don’t want to pick Montana as the greatest ever! What can I say, I was a Marino fan back in the 80’s and it irked me to no end to see Montana get all the credit for winning and Marino get all the blame for not winning even though a chimp could see how much better Montana’s teams were. But that’s petty. The more important reason to hold a grudge against Montana was the way he acted during the 1987 NFL players strike. While guys like Marino sacrificed their huge incomes to honor the picket line and hold the union together, Montana sat back to see which way the wind blew, made no public pronouncements in support of the union, and finally broke the picket line and reported to work while the strike was still going, leaving his fellow players to twist in the wind and helping to doom their noble effort to claim their right to free agency. The great Joe Montana; lining up with a bunch of scabs. Despite his on-field greatness, that proved Montana to be a me-first, selfish jerk who showed no understanding of the issue or of the sacrifices earlier union members had made to make Joe Montana one rich football player. Marino and a whole lot of other guys (Boomer Esiason comes to mind) acted far more honorably off the field than Montana ever did. Ok, now properly motivated let me nitpick a few reasons why Montana might not quite be the greatest of all-time.

1) Teammates

Football’s a team sport and obviously Montana didn’t win four Super Bowls by himself. I already pointed out in my Dan Marino post just how great the 1984 49ers were. And most of the great players on that squad had already won a title on the 1981 Niners. On offense, four All-Pro lineman protected Montana from his opponents’ pass rush. Montana could pass to his All-Pro receiver Dwight Clark, or hand off (or pass to) to his great backs Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig. Montana’s teams rarely trailed by many points as that defense featured arguably the greatest secondary of all-time, plus great pass-rushers like Hall-of-Famer Fred Dean and four-time all-pro Keena Turner. By 1988-1989 some of those players had retired or were past their prime. No problem. San Francisco just added the likes of Jerry Rice, the greatest freaking receiver of all-time, All-Pro tight end Brent Jones, and All-Pro lineman Harris Barton to the offense, while the defense added a seemingly inexhaustible supply of All-Pros like Charles Haley, Matt Millen, Mike Walter, Don Griffin, Kevin Fagan, Pierce Holt, and probably some more I’m missing. It’s endless! God, did the Niners ever miss in the draft? Honestly, every one of Montana’s Super Bowl squads was loaded. They had no weaknesses. And let’s not forget that the greatest offensive mind of the last three decades (maybe ever!) designed the offense and called the plays: Bill Walsh.

So how much was Joe and how much was the rest of the team? We know the Niners kept right on winning after Montana left though they added just one more title. No one can take away anything that Montana accomplished. But if he’d traded places with Dan Marino or John Elway, would those guys have won titles in the 1980's like Montana did and conversely, could Montana have elevated their less-talented teams to championships? The answer seems obvious to me. If Montana and Marino switched places in Super Bowl XIX than Dan Marino would be wearing at least one ring right now. I’m pretty sure Bill Walsh could have designed a few plays to take advantage of Marino’s skills while Montana wouldn’t have been doing anything but running for his life at QB for the Dolphins.

2) Adverse Conditions

Montana posted a stellar 16-7 career postseason mark. But check his postseason home/road split (which I’ve never seen anyone do before). Montana played in seven road playoff games and won but two, and one of those was a late-career wild-card game with the Chiefs. In Joe’s six road playoff games with the Niners dynasty he won only once. One out of six. Now that record’s far from unusual; the vast majority of the greatest quarterbacks of the last 40 years have losing road playoff records (I checked). It’s just really, really hard to win on the road. But despite his reputation for clutch play Montana wasn’t any better than Marino, Elway, or anybody else when it came to playoff road games.

As for bad weather playoff games, I believe Montana only played in one. And he won it. And as luck would have it that was also the one playoff road game he won as a 49er. San Francisco routed the Chicago Bears 28-3 in the 1988 NFL Championship Game despite 17-degree temperatures and a wind-chill factor of -26. So only once did Montana triumph in a bad weather road playoff game. He deserves a lot of credit for that win but one game certainly isn’t enough to say Montana had anything like a track record of success concerning big wins in tough situations.

3) The New York Giants

Oftentimes, a good part of a quarterback’s reputation comes from his performances against his biggest rival. Brady vs. Manning’s the obvious example. And in the past we’ve seen Aikman vs. Young, Bradshaw vs. Staubach and Stabler, and Unitas vs. Starr. Unfortunately, Joe Montana lacked a great rival quarterback. The other great QB’s of his era, Marino and Elway, played in the AFC and Montana’s Super Bowl battles with them wound up as embarrassing one-sided routs. Other than San Francisco, the best teams of the 1984-1990 period were the Bears, the Giants, and the Redskins, but of them only San Francisco had a great quarterback. Those four teams were also the only teams to win Super Bowls between 1984 and 1990, with just the Niners and Giants winning multiple Super Bowls. San Francisco and New York also met four times in the playoffs in that period, more than the Niners met the Bears and Redskins combined, so it’s fair to say the Giants were the Niners biggest rival in the 1980’s. But somehow, for some reason, this matchup never registered with the public as a great NFL rivalry the way the Colts and Patriots are today. I can’t say why but, as great rivalries seem to revolve around the quarterbacks, my guess would be that Phil Simms, while a good player, just wasn’t anywhere close to the level of Montana, Marino, or the other top QB’s of the day. Without an intriguing QB matchup, the game failed to capture the interest of the general public. New York’s biggest stars, especially Lawrence Taylor, played on defense not offense and fans prefer offense to defense.

Montana and his team beat the Giants in the first playoff matchup. But that was in 1984, only Bill Parcells’ second season as coach and New York squeaked into the playoffs that year with a 9-7 mark (following a 3-12-1 campaign in ’83). After that it was all G-Men. Following one of the great seasons in NFL history, the Niners lost 17-3 in the first round to the Giants in ’85. The next year, an even more embarrassing first-round loss: 49-3. In 1990, the worst loss of all: the Niners, at home and owners of the league's best record, fell 15-13 to New York and blew their chance to win an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl. Three straight playoff losses to the Giants and in those three games Joe Montana could only lead his team to a combined 19 points. Montana's team beat just about everyone else when it mattered, but Bill Parcells' New York Giants had his number.

4) Arm Strength

The reason Joe Montana lasted until the third round of the draft was because of his lack of arm strength. Turns out that part of the game is way overrated and all those teams that let Montana slip through their hands look really stupid now. But, while arm strength is far from the most important attribute of a QB, surely we can picture a situation where it might come in handy right?

I bring all of the above up for a reason. If you base your choice on the greatest quarterback of all-time on a quarterback’s career accomplishments, than Joe Montana might well be your choice. Stats, championships, clutch performances. Arguably nobody in the last quarter century, if not ever, accomplished more on the field than Joe Montana. But what if your choice was the answer to this question: If you absolutely had to win one football game, who would you want to be your quarterback? Is it still Joe Montana then? What if the game was on the road? What if it was played in terrible weather conditions? What if your team was playing its biggest rival, a team with a great defense and pass rush? What if your team had no running game to speak of? If some of those conditions applied, would you still pick Montana?

If you did, you’d probably have at least as good a chance to win as anybody. But I say that based upon his body of work there’s one man who would give you an even better chance to win that game than Joe Montana. And I shall reveal his name in the final entry in this series of posts.

Not The Greatest Quarterback Of All-Time: The Series

Tom Brady
Brett Favre
John Elway
Dan Marino
Johnny Unitas
Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham
Joe Montana
Bart Starr


JB said...

You said that arm strength was the reason he fell in the draft in 79. I also heard that he wasn't the most accurate QB coming out. Bill Walsh made this man. Without Bill, he wouldn't be in the Hall, just like if Brady didn't go to New England, he wouldn't be anything.

Rob said...

Thanks for the comments here jb.

I'm not sure I could totally agree with saying Walsh made Montana. Walsh inherited a decent QB in Steve Deberg when he came to SF, but Walsh drafted Montana because he knew Deberg wasn't quite good enough to win him any championships ("just good enough to get you beat" I think were his exact words). Walsh knew Montana was the perfect QB to run his systema and he was. Now Walsh designed the West-Coast offense back in his days as Cincy offensive coordinator (Dr. Z's written about this extensively at He had a big-armed QB there named Greg Cook who tore up his arm. The backup was mobile but couldn't throw deep, so Walsh came up with his new West Coast offense and brought it to SF as head coach. There's no question Montana benefited from superior coaching and a ridiculous number of talented teammates. But I don't think just anybody could have come in and won four Super Bowls. I do think Steve Young would have won a few if he, and not Joe, was the Niners QB in the 80's. I'm sure Walsh would have used a different style offense if he'd had Marino or Elway to take advantage of their cannon arms. The Niners might have had more success against the Giants anyway with one of those guys.

As for your earlier post on Elway, it's possible I was a little unfair. He had some bad luck in Super Bowl XXI. I remember the Broncos got stuffed several times at the goal line and then Karlis missed a chip shot FG. And later a good drive got stopped by a bad official's call after CBS couldn't produce the replay that would have shown a catch rather than an incomplete pass. It could have been like 20-9 instead of 10-9 at the half and maybe the 2nd half might have gone differently. I still think Elway had a good shot to win the next year but he couldn't make the one or two more big plays early that Denver needed to a commanding early lead. Anyway, I know he had his problems with Reeves, but Reeves was a good coach. The guy won games everywhere he went. And if he was so conservative, seems like that should have helped raise Elway's completion percentage anyway.

JB said...

Now, I agree that Reeves was a good coach, but his offense was antiquated. When he left in 1993, Elway's stats were pretty good for the rest of his career. Another thing: You said that he didn't move the ball when TD went out in SB 32, but what people forget is that, before they punted to the Pack and the Pack scored to make it 17-14 in the 2nd, Elway threw a pass to Derek Loville for a first down on a 3rd and 2 and it was called back. Also, Elway threw a nice pass in the 2nd quarter that was almost caught for a 50-yard TD by Rod Smith. And, you said that in 87 against Washington he should have made one more big play, but when I look back, I don't remember Elway's failure. I remember our Swiss Cheese defense and a lack of a running game.

Mike said...

Montana pulled that crap again recently when they had some Hall of Fame get together, and everyone was there, EXCEPT him because they weren't paying him enough to show up. Joe, you're a bleep-hole. The NFL makes you famous so you cna do a bunchof UPS commercials and thats how you show gratitude?

Gene said...

I appreciate your point of view, particularly with respect to the Giants. No team showed less respect for a perennial champion and that earns credit from me as well. However, considering the broken back and the shot he took from Jim Burt, I'd say no other quarterback took that kind of punishment and still came back to win the titles. Case closed.

Unknown said...

Why is there nothing about taking a KC team that probably nobody remembers on that team? I was a big time broncos fan in the 80's and 90's but who were his receivers again? Willie Davis, jj Birden and Johnathan Hayes. So I would say taking KC to an afc championship is taking a lesser team without him to new heights.

Unknown said...

A rivalry is a reason seriously? The quarterbacks don't line up on defense against each other. Quarterbacks facing each other and saying there is no way this guy can beat Brady. As quarterback you are trying to beat the other teams defense. I shouldn't even have to mention this. Until the announcers and analysts stop doing this stupid crap then I'll just keep on dreamin I guess.