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COMMENTARY : Even at Age 38, He’s Still Joe Montana

NEWSDAY

No one knows if it was the end of Joe Montana’s career, maybe even not Montana himself, but it was his end zone at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami. He had thrown a touchdown pass there to win the Super Bowl once, with just a few seconds left in that game.

Now he was back or a playoff game against the Dolphins and was behind 10 points, but there was plenty of time. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Montana drove the Chiefs toward his end of the field, completing pass after pass like a pool player using the whole table, moving effortlessly into his own past.

The Dolphins led, 27-17, because Dan Marino had been the better player. The score was tied at 17 at halftime. Montana was 12 for 15 and 178 yards and two touchdowns, while Marino was 14 for 16, 162 yards, two touchdowns. Montana is 38 and Marino is 34, but they had made throwing a football look ridiculously easy, a couple of kids in a touch football game with maybe six players on a side.

“Was it fun?” Montana said when it was over. “It’s always fun when it’s like that.”

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Marino and his team had taken charge of the game in the third quarter and Montana had been shut out. But then he completed a big pass to Keith Cash at the end of the third quarter. It was still his ball to start the fourth.

Earlier in the year, in a Monday night game against the Broncos, Montana had reminded us what he could still do with two minutes left and the game on the line. He could make two minutes feel like two hours if you were trying to stop him. Now he had the whole fourth quarter. Maybe he could run the table.

Marino had been magnificent. He would end up 22 out of 29 on this day, and at least four of those incompletions were dropped balls. Here came Montana, anyway. Here came Montana east to west at Joe Robbie on this playoff Saturday, much as he did on Super Bowl Sunday in 1989. He hit Kimble Anders for three yards to start the fourth quarter. Then he hit Derrick Walker for 15 yards and J.J. Birden for nine more and all of a sudden he had the ball at the Dolphins’ 10-yard line.

There were 12 minutes and change left at Joe Robbie. A touchdown would cut the Dolphins’ lead to 27-24. It would be Marino’s ball then. Just not yet. Anders ran for 5 yards, giving the Chiefs first-and-goal at the 5. And there was Montana’s end zone, the west end zone, right in front of him.

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In that Super Bowl of 1989, he had gotten the ball on his 8 yard line. He completed 7 of 8 passes and finally John Taylor made this sharp little move to the inside and Montana drilled the ball to Taylor in the west end zone, and that was his third Super Bowl title for the 49ers. Now Montana had a 10-year veteran named Eric Martin over on the left side, and the Chiefs thought all week that they should throw to the left on a situation like this.

“I thought (Martin) could get inside and outfight them for the ball,” Montana would say.

He looked to his left and there were two Dolphins there. One of them was J.B. Brown. Montana threw it in there anyway, thinking Martin would keep going to the inside and outfight the Dolphins for the ball the way Taylor and Jerry Rice always outfought the other guys for the ball in moments like this. But Martin hesitated, and now Montana looked like another quarterback forcing a throw into double coverage on the goal line.

On a field that Montana had owned once, in the end zone that belonged to him that day, J.B. Brown intercepted Montana.

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The receiver was a little bit slow and the pass was a little too much to the inside. Suddenly this was the wrong game and the wrong year and the wrong place for Montana. Maybe even the wrong team.

In the interview room after the game, someone finally asked Montana, who finished 26 of 37 for 314 yards, if he planned to retire. Montana managed to build a smile that just climbed over the microphones in front of him.

“That’s like asking a fighter who just lost a championship fight if he wants to fight again,” Montana said.

Maybe he will decide to retire. Maybe he sees the Chiefs going in the wrong direction. Last season they made it to the AFC championship game; now they are out of the playoffs in the first round. Montana is not going to play the last season of a glorious career without having a chance at one more Super Bowl. He will probably need assurances from the Chiefs that they will upgrade the team before he ever considers a return. Or maybe he will even have to make one more stop.

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But he is still something to see at quarterback, even on a day when Marino beats him cleanly. The first Chiefs drive of the game was flawless, something out of Montana’s past. He worked both sides of the field, he used all his receivers, and you wondered if he would ever throw an incompletion.

“Games like this are what it’s all about,” he would say.

There was still plenty of time after his interception. But then Marcus Allen, another old Super Bowl hero brought in by the Chiefs to put them over the top, was stripped on the next Chiefs drive. That was the end of it for the Chiefs, for everybody except Montana.

The Chiefs got the ball one more time, in the last minute, and Montana still played quarterback against the Dolphins as if he had a chance, as if he could search the field and his own memory and find a miracle. He hit Birden again. He hit Willie Davis. There were 26 seconds left and he was on the Dolphins’ 20. The scoreboard still had the Dolphins ahead 27-17. Montana would not give up the field. With 21 seconds left, he threw to Davis in the end zone, in almost the same spot where he had hit John Taylor once. The pass was too high, too well-covered.

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“I was thinking that if we could score, then get an onside kick, we could tie,” Montana said.

Finally it was fourth down. Montana threw it to Willie Davis again, in the end zone. A defender named Troy Vincent jumped in front of Davis and knocked the ball to the ground. There were 15 seconds left at Joe Robbie. Montana walked slowly to the Chiefs’ sideline, his helmet tipped back on his head. Derrick Thomas, a Chiefs linebacker, hugged him. Marino knelt on the last play of the game and then he and Montana met briefly at the middle of the field. Marino would say there were too many people around to say much, so he just wished Montana luck, as if Montana ever needed that.

He did his interview and walked into the hall, wearing a baseball cap, a gray T-shirt and gray sweats that went to his knees. He still looked too frail to do everything he has done. He kissed his daughter and then embraced his wife, Jennifer.

A TV camera tried to intrude. Montana gracefully put out a famous right hand, and covered the lens, and said something to his wife, then disappeared into the losers’ locker room, behind the west end zone.

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