The quarterback has heard the whispers: He’s washed up.
He has heard the rumors: He’s going to be traded.
And he’s flustered.
He has admitted that much. He has conceded that he has been looking over his shoulder, looking for the safe pass, looking to dump his throws off to a running back, rather than risking the bomb, looking to save his job.
So what, you say. Hazards of the job. They can’t all be Dan Marino or Joe Montana.
Oh but that’s the shocker. This is Joe Montana we’re talking about. The Joe Montana.
This is the man who caught the nation’s attention at Notre Dame when he led his team back from a 34-12 fourth-quarter deficit to a 35-34 victory over Houston as time ran out in the Cotton Bowl. This is the man who led the Fighting Irish to a national championship in 1977.
This is the perennial Pro Bowl star who twice led his San Francisco 49ers to victory in the Super Bowl and was named the game’s most valuable player each time. This is the man who has specialized in salvaging hopeless causes, who has beaten not only opponents but the clock, time and again, who can spot the tiniest seam in an apparently flawless defense.
And this is the man who has gone gun-shy? Say it ain’t so, Joe.
Actually, that’s exactly what he said. After an early-season game, Montana told Sports Illustrated, CBS and San Francisco reporters the same basic story: “It’s hard to take as many chances as you’d like to do. You’re a little more tentative and tend to aim a little bit and say, ‘Ah, I hope it gets there’ . . . because I know if it isn’t, I might not be in there.”
Montana’s problems do not stem from a drastic deterioration of skills. This is no Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, pacing himself for an occasional burst of former brillance. Last season, Montana won his first National Football League passing title, teamed up with receiver Jerry Rice to devastate opponents, set a personal high with 31 touchdown passes and set a league record with 22 consecutive completions in 1 game.
But all that was quickly forgotten in the playoffs. The 49ers, seemingly flying toward another Super Bowl on the arm of Montana and the hands and legs of Rice, were brought shockingly back to earth by the Minnesota Vikings, who whipped them in their first playoff game, 36-24.
Enter the whispers. Enter the rumors. Enter Steve Young.
A former United States Football League quarterback, Young came to the 49ers in a trade last year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Although he’s not the field general Montana is, Young offered something Montana could not, the ability to scramble.
When the 49ers ran into trouble against the Vikings, San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh tried to run out of it with Young.
Despite the year Montana had had, Walsh went to Young in the third quarter and he responded by completing 12 of 17 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown. He also scored on a 5-yard run and finished with 72 yards rushing, more than any San Francisco running back got.
Still, the 49ers lost and the question soon became, would Montana be among the survivors?
Walsh reportedly favored dealing Montana, then backed off. There were reports of trade talk with the San Diego Chargers.
When training camp began, both Montana and Young were there, but Walsh refused to name Montana his starting quarterback until well into the exhibition season.
Since then, it has been a game of musical chairs, dictated to some extent by injuries to Montana’s back, elbow and ribs, and a case of the flu.
“He had a form of dysentery for about 2 weeks,” Walsh said. “He lost 11 pounds. From that point on, he was weak. Very weak. He has not been able to throw as much and as well as we would like.”
But many, Montana included, question whether injuries and illness are a cause or an excuse for much of his inactivity.
Young played part of the game against the Denver Broncos because, Walsh said, he was more effective in the wind. Young replaced Montana against the Rams, even though the 49ers were ahead by 10 at the time, proved ineffective in 2 series, and was then himself benched in favor of Montana. Young was brought in with a little less than 3 minutes to play in a loss to the Chicago Bears.
Montana hurt his back in practice the next week. That gave Young the start against the Vikings and he wound up leading San Francisco to a 24-21 victory with a 73-yard scoring pass and a wild, stumbling 49-yard run for the winning touchdown.
Young staggering into the end zone is the 49ers’ most memorable moment in a 6-4 season. And for the first time in the ‘80s, such a moment for them belongs to a quarterback other than Montana.
What to do?
Walsh named Young his starter for the next week against the Phoenix Cardinals. It marked the first time since 1980 that a sound and healthy Joe Montana was not starting.
At least Montana said he was sound and healthy.
Walsh said Montana was still not 100%. A week earlier, Walsh had said that Montana was “fatigued.”
Montana responded by telling the San Francisco Examiner, “Where did that come from? Maybe he was tired,” referring to his coach. “I can’t say, but I think maybe he’s ready to get rid of me.”
Walsh branded such talk ridiculous.
He had a lot worse to say about his own team after the Phoenix game last week. The Steve Young era dawned in promise, with a 23-0 lead by the third quarter, and died just as quickly when the Cardinals came back to pull out a 24-23 win on the last play of the game.
Back to the drawing board. Back to Montana.
Walsh has announced that Montana will be his starter Sunday when the 49ers play host to the Raiders and insists that the quarterback controversy was a media concoction.
“We’ve said all along that when Joe is healthy, he is our starter,” Walsh maintained. “That was going into the season, and he continues to be. The only people who have questioned it have been some of the local press.
“When a problem does occur, such as when he did lose a lot of weight and some strength, then it’s up to me to decide whether it’s in his best interests to play extensively.”
But since no sportswriter has yet been spotted on the sidelines with headphones on, giving orders, it has to be Walsh, denials notwithstanding, who has had the doubts that have triggered the frequent shuffling.
Two-quarterback systems rarely work. For consistency, confidence and team morale, one man must have the job.
But which one? Which is the lesser of two evils, keeping a superstar too long or letting him go too early?
At 32, Montana is no longer young.
The question now is: Can Young be Montana?