Joe Montana Super, But Not No. 1

The San Francisco 49ers, one of the NFL's most successful teams for nearly 20 years, plugged another winning quarterback into the same old offensive system Sunday.

He is Jeff Garcia, who was brought to San Francisco by new General Manager Bill Walsh, the 1979-89 coach of the 49ers.

In the 1980s, Walsh's first winner, Joe Montana, after two seasons as a backup, led the 49ers to four Super Bowl championships.

In the 1990s, the next Walsh choice, Steve Young, after four seasons as a backup, has become the only quarterback since Sammy Baugh to win six NFL passing titles.

Against undefeated Tennessee in Sunday's game of the week, Garcia, in his first year as a backup, began faster than either of his predecessors, running for a touchdown and throwing for two as the 49ers won, 24-22.

It has become fashionable lately to call Montana the greatest quarterback of all time, an overstatement considering Young's record, Sammy Baugh's and others'.

Montana should be more properly identified as the NFL's first great modern champion.

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The West Coast Offense Does It

It is the 49ers' system--Walsh's West Coast Offense--that has made them and the NFL what they are. The system, with its emphasis on passing, has spread throughout the league and has been used by all the recent Super Bowl winners.

When Walsh introduced it in the early 1980s, Montana was the only West Coast Offense quarterback. That gave him two advantages that neither Young, Garcia, Jake Plummer, nor any other 1999 quarterback has:

• He was playing against stone-age defenses that couldn't adjust to what the 49ers were doing.

• He was compared to quarterbacks who were still playing for old-fashioned offensive teams that emphasized running plays.

It takes great quarterbacks to make the West Coast work.

Clearly, Joe Montana was the first.

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Defenses Tougher Now

Charles Haley, the defensive veteran who has been brought back to the 49ers to pressure opposing passers, was asked the other day to compare Montana as a youthful quarterback to Plummer, the young Arizona QB who has led the NFL in interceptions all year.

Haley rightly pointed out that Montana threw fewer interceptions.

The reason:

When Montana was Plummer's age, he was carefully coached in the West Coast system, which still had elements of surprise for its opponents. Plummer, who isn't as well coached, is facing defensive players who have been working against West Coast offenses for up to 18 years.

Experience is a helpful teacher.

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The Way Garcia Did It Cheers 49ers

As for Garcia--a free agent from San Jose State who apprenticed in Canada--one good day hardly foretells his football future. Yet, the way he won his first NFL start Sunday impressed the 49ers.

San Francisco had fallen behind in the second quarter, 0-10, when coach Steve Marriucci sent Garcia out passing.

The 49ers scored five times in Garcia's next six series, taking a 14-10 lead at halftime and driving 90 yards to the decisive fourth-quarter touchdown.

Both of Garcia's scoring passes were thrown with the steam and accuracy of a poised veteran.

On a 21-yard play, he rifled one over the middle for a touchdown to running back Charlie Garner and next, on a 22-yard play, he lofted one into the corner to closely guarded wide receiver Terrell Owens.

The 49ers punted only twice in the three quarters with Garcia at the helm, once when a dropped pass stopped a drive, and once when the coaches tried to run the ball in defense of a fourth-quarter lead.

Montana at a comparable point in his 49er career was still backing up Steve DeBerg.

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Coming Up: An Unusual Ram-49er Game

In the biggest Ram-49er game of the 1990s at St. Louis next Sunday, the reborn Rams (3-0) will challenge their old tormentors (3-1) with the finest all-around offensive cast they've had in years, perhaps decades.

• The new Ram quarterback, Kurt Warner, a candidate for the club's best since Norm Van Brocklin 50 years ago, completed 17 of 21 passes in Cincinnati Sunday and threw three touchdowns for a record third time in three games.

• The veteran go-to Ram receiver, Isaac Bruce, whose only contemporary rivals for excellence might be Jerry Rice and Randy Moss, caught six passes this time for 152 yards.

• Rounding out what seems to be one of the league's best three-receiver units, Terry Holt, a candidate for NFL rookie of the year; and Az-Zahir Hakin, the clever second-year Ram from San Diego State; totaled seven catches for 136 yards.

• Marshall Faulk, who was thrown to only three times in this game, again gave Warner the running-receiving threat that every modern NFL passer wants.

• Ram offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the pride of Sioux Falls, S.D., who was best known as a college player and coach before he learned 1990s pass offenses from Washington Coach Norval Turner in 1997-98, had a third winning plan in three weeks.

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Are the Defenses Beginning to Catch Up?

As a contest, the first Ram-49er game of the year appears to pack many of the elements of an offensive blockbuster.

Instead, though, it may show whether defensive players who have now been training against modern, pass-oriented offenses are finally catching up.

Some football fans think so.

As a passer, Warner is still a stranger to the 49ers, so it will come as a surprise to many NFL watchers if San Francisco wins with either Young or Garcia at quarterback.

Young is now in Montana's early-1990s shoes, when the aging 49er great began to fret about a new one wonder-passer who was fighting to take his spot.

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Warner in Right Town to Work Cheap

In St. Louis, Warner is making $254,000 this year, comparable with Garcia's salary but a fraction of Young's.

As the highest-paid football player of all time, Young will take in $10 million from the 49ers this season.

Reportedly, Warner says he isn't playing for money and he's happy with what the Rams are paying him. If he really thinks that, he's in the right town.

Over the years, Ram ownership, which loves to hear such talk, has traded off Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and many others who merely wanted commensurate wages.

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Phillips Saves One for San Francisco

On the 49er roster, Walsh has apparently improved things at least somewhat this year with Garcia, Haley, and running backs Garner and bad-boy Lawrence Phillips, among others.

The 49ers' many Bay Area detractors announced several weeks ago that it was absurd for Walsh to bring in Phillips, who once pushed a woman downstairs and whose behavior outraged even Jimmy Johnson, the Miami coach who previously had never met a troublemaker he didn't like.

In the Monday night game in Arizona last week, there was another twist to a bizarre story.

With a sudden 68-yard run, Phillips scored the fourth-quarter touchdown that saved the 49ers, whose offense, even before Young was injured, had been standing still.

Though seven points behind, the Cardinals, after giving San Francisco two touchdowns in the first half, appeared to be surging when Phillips took off to bury them, 24-10.

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Here's Why 49ers Hired a Bad Boy

Walsh's reasoning for importing Phillips seems logical enough:

• Garrison Hearst, the running back who made the 49ers a complete team last year in a 12-4 season, was injured, possibly for the entire season. It was too late to draft or trade for a first-class replacement.

• No one else was out there but Phillips, whose personal history was depressing but whose talent had for years been taken for granted. It is the American way, or at least the NFL way, to give a man another chance.

• There was little to lose with Phillips' comparatively small salary. If the deal didn't work out, the 49ers would be no worse off than they were the day before they signed him.

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New Coaches Impair Steeler Continuity

One problem plaguing Pittsburgh is that the Steelers' offensive team has had three coaches in three years.

Although that can be devastating to a young quarterback like Kordell Stewart, the lack of continuity throws off other offensive players, too.

There are wide receivers and offensive linemen who swear by the offensive coordinator the Steelers had in 1997.

There are others who thought they were coming along under the 1998 coordinator.

And there are those who see that they finally have a chance with the new coordinator, Kevin Gilbride, who inherited a mess but, to hear his supporters tell it, will straighten everything out in the first month of this new season.

Who takes the blame in such a predicament?

As usual, the quarterback.

There aren't too many Jeff Garcias and Kurt Warners. And who knows whether even Garcia and Warner are for real?

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Short subjects:

• One sure thing about the Rams is that they have gained some momentum, which always helps, with three early-schedule wins against reorganized Baltimore, demoralized Atlanta and helpless Cincinnati.

• Jacksonville Coach Tom Coughlin's response to those blaming his troubles on his inferior signal-calling: "Everybody is 20-20 in hindsight."

• Tennessee quarterback Neil O'Donnell came to San Francisco with a third-down passer rating of 130.2 and improved on it. But his defense let him down.

• The way San Francisco's opponents have been working over Steve Young, sometimes legally but usually illegally, it was a surprise to hear from New Orleans defensive back Chris Hewitt that he's going to appeal the $7,500 he was fined for hitting Young helmet to helmet. Even Hewitt's coach, Mike Ditka, was distressed by the illegal action. "It was a bad play on his part," Ditka said.