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Sunday, March 06, 2005 

Joe Cool

This is part two of a four part look at the quarterbacks behind the modern NFL dynasties. Today's we look at Joe Montana and Dan Marino.

When I was a kid, if we played football, which wasn't very often, everyone wanted to be Joe Montana. He personified cool in the pocket. He never got rattled. And he always made the big play in the biggest games, or so it seemed. Montana and the San Francisco 49ers didn't win the Super Bowl every year, but it just seemed that way. From the time Montana took over the QB job full time in 1981, through his last season as the starter in 1990, San Francisco won 10 or more games every season except the strike year (3-6 in 1982). They were 4-2 in NFC Championship games and 4-0 in Super Bowls. Not bad for a third-round pick from Notre Dame.

Montana's first title was unexpected, since the 49ers hadn't even made the playoffs in nine years before qualifying in 1981. In fact, San Francisco had made the playoffs just 4 times in their history, first in 1957 with a loss to the Detroit Lions, then three straight years from 1970 to 1972, losing to the Dallas Cowboys each time.

In 1981, San Francisco beat the New York Giants in a classic Montana game (20-31, 304, 2TD, 1INT), then exorcised some demons by upsetting the Cowboys 28-27 on the famous catch by Dwight Clark. The Super Bowl was anti-climatic, with the 49ers taking a 20-0 lead by halftime and holding on for the 26-21 win. This game always brings back memories for me, since it was the first NFL game I ever saw live on TV.

The 49ers failed to make the playoffs the following year, then lost to Washington in the 1983 NFC Championship game. But in 1984, Montana and the 49ers steamrolled the league, compiling a 15-1 record and adding two convincing playoff wins against the Giants (21-10) and Bears (23-0). Then they prepared to "host" the Super Bowl at nearby Palo Alto against Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins.

Marino was nearly the opposite of Montana. Although he was drafted "last" in the heralded QB class of 1983, Marino set NFL records in 1984 with 48 TDs and 5084 yards passing. His 64.2 completion percentage and average 9.0 yards per attempt were pretty good too. Super Bowl XIX was no contest. Marino and the Dolphins took 10-7 lead in the first quarter, then the 49ers took over. While the Dolphins went three-and-out on their next 3 series (Marino was 1-6, 4 yards and the Dolphins ran the ball 3 times for -3 yards) the 49ers scored 3 touchdowns and put the game away. Montana threw for 331 yards and 3 TDs and ran for a fourth. Marino was just 29-for-50 with a TD and 2 INTs, and the Dolphins completely abandoned the run - 9 carries for 25 yards.

Most folks figured this would be the first of many Montana-Marino Super Bowls, but it never happened again. The Dolphins were too one-dimensional, relying on Marino and the Marks brothers (Duper, Clayton) for all the offense and neglecting to build a solid defense. For the rest of his career, Marino would build awe-inspiring numbers, but would lose his only two other AFC Championship games to New England in 1985 and Buffalo in 1992 by lopsided margins.

Meanwhile, Montana built his legend. After being bounced from the playoffs in their opening game for three straight years, including an embarrassing 49-3 loss to the Giants in 1986, the 49ers returned to the Super Bowl with a vengeance in 1988. A 10-6 regular season record didn't look that impressive at first glance, but 34-9 and 28-3 blowout wins against Minnesota and Chicago made them favorites for a third Super Bowl title. Playing against a re-tooled Cincinnati team, San Francisco struggled early, and the Bengals held leads of 13-6 and 16-13 in the fourth quarter. But Montana's clutch play was never better. After Stanford Jennings had broken a 6-6 tie with a 93 yard kickoff return TD, Montana needed just four plays to drive 85 yards and tie the game:

SF15 1-10 Montana 31 pass to Rice
SF46 1-10 Montana 40 pass to Craig
CI14 1-10 Montana pass to Taylor almost intercepted
CI14 2-10 Montana 14 pass to Rice, TD

Lewis Billups dropped a sure interception that may have changed history - San Francisco hadn't scored a TD yet in the game, and Mike Cofer had already missed a 19 yard FG. If Cincinnati was able to keep the lead at 13-9 or 13-6, who knows if "the drive" ever happens?

But what did happen was that the 49ers tied the game, forced a Cincinnati punt, then Cofer missed a 49-yard FG while Jim Breech made a 40-yarder for the Bengals. It was 16-13 Cincinnati with 3:20 left. The rest is history: 92 yards on 11 plays, Montana 8 for 9 on the drive, and the final TD to John Taylor to win the game. Even though Jerry Rice set records with 11 catches for 215 yards, I still thought Montana should have won his third Super Bowl MVP. He certainly had the stats: 23-36, 357, 2 TD 0 INT, and his fourth quarter was probably the best clutch performance in the first 35 years of Super Bowl history.

By comparison, Super Bowl XXIV the following year was a walk in the park. There's not much to say about a 55-10 blowout, but here goes: Montana was 22 for 29 for 297 yards and 5 TDs, in a game where the 49ers out gained the Broncos 461-167; it was total domination.

Unlike the Bradshaw vs. Tarkenton comparison I made last time, the Montana vs. Marino one is easier for me to comment on because I watched nearly all of Montana and Marino's careers, while the 1970s were largely before my time. I have no doubt that Montana would have won at least one Super Bowl if he was on the Dolphins, but Marino would never have fit Bill Walsh's system in San Francisco. Montana threw for 11 TDs in his four Super Bowls without throwing an interception. He just didn't make mistakes on the biggest stage in football. Marino was a great player, but I saw him play a lot of average games, even against mediocre teams (like the Patriots for most of his era). He was a lot like Brett Favre in that he could be great or make a big mistake. A comparison of their TD-INT ratios is telling:

TD-INT Reg. Season Playoffs
Marino 420-252 (1.67:1) 32-24 (1.33:1)
Montana 273-139 (1.96:1) 44-21 (2.10:1)

Montana rose to the occasion in big games; Marino did not, and since the Dolphins offense was so one-dimensional, it doomed their chances. Marino had the better regular season career statistics, but Montana is the legendary QB.

G Comp Att PCT Yds TD INT
Montana 192 3409 5391 63.2 40551 273 139
Marino 242 4967 8358 59.4 61361 420 252

One of the most amazing things about Joe Montana and the 49ers was that they never had a great running back, just a series of serviceable ones: Ricky Patton, Earl Cooper, Wendell Tyler, Roger Craig, and fullback Tom Rathman. They are not household names, but they got the job done, largely due to the arm of Montana, the brain of Bill Walsh (and to some extent George Seifert), and the hands and feet of Dwight Clark and later John Taylor and some guy named Jerry Rice.

I don't think Marino could have fit in nearly as well.


QB Super Bowls Won (or Lost)
Montana 16, 19, 23, 24
Marino 19
Note: MVP in bold


Note on References: All statistics taken from Pro Football Reference. Other details taken from The Super Bowl: Celebrating a Quarter-Century of America's Greatest Game, published in 1990 by the NFL and Simon & Schuster.

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