MONTANA : After a Miraculous Recovery From Back Surgery, Joe’s Play Has Been Less Than a Miracle

Times Staff Writer

Psssst! Have you seen San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana lately? Do you remember how well he used to run to his right and throw left?

Or, was it run left and throw right? Heck, it doesn’t matter, he can’t do either very well since, well, you know, the surgery.

Montana doesn’t even put on his socks the same way. Have you heard that one yet? Did you see the way he picks up his morning paper?

Remember when Montana could scramble out of the pocket and run for a first down? Remember when he didn’t even have to think about it?

Don’t you remember?

“It’s funny,” Montana said Tuesday from San Francisco by conference-call hookup. “One week, they say I haven’t rolled right and thrown left. They do that for the next couple of weeks. Then, they make something else up, like now it’s I’m not running the ball.”


Montana, who is playing again after having surgery on a career-threatening back injury Sept. 15, is having a difficult time convincing people--mostly reporters--that he’s all right.

They want to believe Montana, but it isn’t that easy.

Now it’s one thing to have back surgery and one day resume an active career in your garden, but it’s another to come back and lead your team to a possible division title.

Just 56 days after an operation to repair a ruptured disk in his back, Montana returned to the starting lineup and led the 49ers to a 43-17 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. In that game, Montana completed 13 of 19 passes for 270 yards and 3 touchdowns.

His return was hailed as a miracle in some circles. San Francisco has won four of six games since Montana’s return, and Friday night the 49ers can win the NFC West title if they defeat the Rams at Candlestick Park.

But Montana watchers say that he’s not the same quarterback he was before the surgery.

And true, his passing numbers are a bit different. Montana began the 1986 season ranked as the best quarterback in National Football League history with a rating of 92.4.

He has since been passed by Miami’s Dan Marino, and his rating this season has dipped to 79.5, his lowest since 1980.

Montana has never had a season in which he has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. So far this season, he has six touchdowns and eight interceptions.

In the last three games, Montana has twice thrown interceptions in the opponent’s end zone. In last Sunday’s 29-24 win over New England, he under-threw Dwight Clark on a pass that should have been a touchdown but wound up an interception.

Montana hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in two weeks.

But Montana said there’s no problem.

“Once I got back, it was like I never left,” he said. “Except that people keep telling you what you can’t do. All of a sudden, everyone’s an expert on what I can and can’t do. That’s the toughest mental part to handle right now.”

In recent weeks, Montana has been criticized in Bay Area papers for not scrambling the way he once did, suggesting that he may be trying to protect his back.

Montana said the answer to that one is easy.

“I’ve gotten good protection,” he said. “And when you get good protection, you don’t need to run the ball.”

Montana’s back has passed some big tests, though.

In a Monday night game against Washington, he completed 33 of 60 passes for 441 yards in a 14-6 loss to the Redskins while taking some hard hits from the fierce Redskin pass rushers.

Two weeks later, he threw 52 passes in a Monday night loss to the New York Giants.

Ram Coach John Robinson speaks about Montana the same way he does about Marino.

The Rams tried to pressure Marino last Sunday in the hope that he would have to rush his passes. Marino rushed 29 of them to his receivers for 403 yards.

“Both defy the values relative to sacking them,” Robinson said of Montana and Marino.

In other words, they’re something special.

Montana didn’t play in the Rams’ early season 16-13 win over the 49ers.

He’s playing in this one. And he can’t wait.

“Most successful athletes do like to play this type of game,” Montana said of Friday’s showdown. “This is what you’re here for. If it wasn’t for the thrill of the game, and not knowing what’s going to happen, then it would just be too easy. The people would lose interest as the players would. This is what it’s all about, this type of pressure.”

Most experts figured the division title would come down to Friday’s final game in Candlestick Park, though Montana didn’t exactly see it that way.

“Why should I figure it would come down to the last game?” he said. “I wouldn’t want it to come down to the last game.”

Especially against the Rams.

“They always do something to give us something to think about in a game,” he said.

Ram Notes Joe Montana on Ram rookie quarterback Jim Everett: “He’s a big strong guy, and the offensive line is protecting him well. He’s got all the tools, there’s no doubt about that. It looks like they’re playing better with him in there. Of course, it’s easier with a guy like (Eric) Dickerson back there. . . . The Rams will ease their practice schedule this week. Tuesday’s practice ended half an hour early. “Now, it’s rest every day you can,” Coach John Robinson said. . . . Wide receiver Ron Brown, out with a separated shoulder, will miss the 49er game but could be available for the playoffs. . . . Tight end Tony Hunter, on injured reserve with a shin injury, is probably out for the playoffs.