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.
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
Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham