SAN FRANCISCO — A bunch of Saints and a man with a bad back shook up the NFC's Western Division Sunday.
The back belongs to quarterback Joe Montana, who returned from spinal surgery to throw three long touchdown passes--all to wide receiver Jerry Rice--as, for a change, the San Francisco 49ers looked like a title contender.
The Montana-to-Rice bombs, which measured 45, 40 and 44 yards, made it easy for San Francisco to smash the troubled St. Louis Cardinals, 43-17, on a day when the Rams lost an altogether different kind of game in New Orleans, 6-0.
These events left the 49ers (6-3-1) a tick behind the Rams (7-3) with six weeks remaining before the playoffs.
And, later, Montana agreed that he might be a head case, as his doctor had suggested this week.
"Are you crazy?" he was asked by a reporter quoting a San Francisco back surgeon, Dr. Arthur White, who operated on Montana Sept. 15.
"Dr. White said anyone who plays football is crazy," Montana replied evenly. "So I guess I am."
White stood on the 49er sideline during the game but declined comment afterward. Asked what he thought of Montana's performance, White smiled and gave a brief thumbs-up sign.
During the week, after saying Montana was ready for football, White put a little extra pressure on his most famous patient.
Speaking to reporters during a medical convention here, he said: "For (Montana) to go out and put his back under directed, unprotected trauma is crazy."
But it turned out that what White meant is that he is against anyone's playing football. Or, as he said, he's opposed "to a pro football player playing football."
Asked about all this, Montana said: "The thing to keep in mind is that, medically, Dr. White cleared me. And, as you know, others have played football after similar surgery."
Although the Cardinals knocked him down often and were twice cited for roughing the passer, Montana, who wore a flak jacket during the game, said afterward that he had "no soreness, no pain."
Then he added: "And I was hit often enough to test the back."
The Cardinals questioned whether some of the hits were severe enough to rate the penalties they got.
Al Baker, a St. Louis defensive end, said: "Anybody who sees the film on my roughing the passer is going to say: 'Wow, what a (bleep) call."'
Asked what he said to a prone Montana while while hovering over him as Rice scored on a 44-yard play, Baker replied: "I said, 'You're a hell of a man.' "
Montana, however, said Baker said: "It wasn't intentional."
In any case, Baker wasn't being penalized for a late hit. He drew the penalty for going for Montana's head, probably unintentionally.
Some critics of the officiating missed this point.
Many other Cardinals joined with Baker in praising Montana's courage. Said St. Louis safety Leonard Smith: "When a guy comes out of back surgery just wanting to play football, that's quite a guy."
Agreeing, San Francisco safety Tory Nixon said: "Joe Montana is a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback. His playing lifted our whole team."
This was obvious in the contributions by the offensive line, which played its best game since Montana left in September, and by halfback Joe Cribbs, who gained 105 yards after a disappointing start this season as a 49er.
It was also obvious in Montana's statistics. He completed 13 of 19 passes for 270 yards.
The opponent, however, wasn't much of a team. The Cardinals under their new coach, Gene Stallings, are at least as weak as they've been in any recent year.
And now that Stallings has benched quarterback Neil Lomax for journeyman Cliff Stoudt, the Cardinals might not improve much for a while.
Stoudt's numbers--40 passes attempted, 23 completed for 276 yards--testified mainly to the absence of the 49ers' best two defensive players, injured safety Ronnie Lott and nose tackle Michael Carter, among others.
This has been one of Coach Bill Walsh's toughest years with injured players.
But his quarterback came back not only throwing but throwing deep. On all three of Rice's scoring catches, he was crossing the goal line as he went for the ball.
Montana used to be known as a short-pass specialist. But while he was gone, his backup, Jeff Kemp, introduced the long ball to the 49ers, and Montana was clearly watching.
Moreover, the exercising Montana has done in rehabilitation seems to have made him more powerful than ever.
Asked if the bombs indicated that his arm is stronger, he said: "That's possible."
It's more than that. It's probable.