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He's Back at it Again : Time May Pass Easily, but Not Much Better Than Montana After Strike, Back Surgery

October 31, 1987|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson already was limbering his legs for another victory jig. A Superdome audience of 60,497 was making plans for a victory trip to nearby Bourbon Street.

The Saints, you see, were that close to dropping the San Francisco 49ers into the wastebucket of life.

And then it happened, much as it often does with the 49ers and quarterback Joe Montana. Down by two points early in the fourth quarter of last Sunday's game, stuck deep in 49er territory, Montana began teasing the Saint defense and the noisy crowd with a sweep here, a sweep there.

Nothing to speak of. Third and five at the 49er 25.

The place is going crackers. Sure it's early, but the Saint fans probably figure that if they can stop the 49ers now, then maybe add a touchdown of their own, the game's a lock.

But wait a minute. What's that?

Montana takes the snap, drops back and finds no one. There is, however, a convenient opening on the left side of the field, just enough for a seven-yard gain and, wouldn't you know it, a first down.

Next, Montana finds wide receiver Jerry Rice open for a 39-yard completion, which goes nicely with a 15-yard face-mask penalty assessed against the Saints on the same play.

Now, suddenly, the ball is on the Saint 14. Montana drops back again, flicks the ball over the middle to wide receiver Mike Wilson, who runs past Saint cornerback Van Jakes and into the end zone. Touchdown.

So much for the Saints, who add another field goal, but eventually lose, 24-22.

Montana leaves with three touchdown passes and the memory of a near-four-minute drive late in the game that forces the Saints to try to score in the last two minutes. They don't, which explains why the 49ers (5-1), a day away from playing the Rams at Anaheim Stadium, find themselves comfortably atop the NFC's West Division.

Steve Young, the 49er backup quarterback, was there at the Superdome. He said he remembers the numbing sounds of an indoor crowd, the sight of the Saints' underrated defense. He said he remembers getting caught up in the moment.

But not Montana. He acted as if he were playing catch in the backyard with the neighborhood kids. Noise. What noise?

"Last week, that was when I realized how good he really is," Young said. "The crazier it gets, the louder, the more pressure there is, the calmer he gets. I think he's more excited with the first play. It's impressive to watch.

"He's aware of everything. Other guys, when things get intense, those are the times when they get frantic. They're not really in tune. But I think that's Joe's greatest asset, blocking things out."

Last year, Montana managed to overcome a celebrated back operation that, supposedly, would render him useless for football. Tell that to the St. Louis Cardinals, against whom he threw three touchdown passes; the Washington Redskins, whom he exploited for 441 yards in completions; the New York Giants, whom he stung for 32 completions, and the Rams, who gave up two touchdowns--all teams that witnessed Montana's recuperative powers in 1986.

Now ask Montana about the injury, and he thinks you're talking about his sore right arm.

"(The back surgery) . . . that's way in the back of my mind," he said in a conference call with reporters earlier this week. "I haven't heard or felt anything. I don't even worry about my back anymore, at all."

Nor is it much of a topic of discussion with the Rams these days. Fritz Shurmur, the Ram defensive coordinator, said he doesn't see much difference between the pre-surgery and post-surgery Montana. Then again, what's there to check?

"He looks very good to me," Shurmur said. "He looks like himself. It's hard for me to ever look at him in any kind of negative terms as 'the quarterback,' because I think he represents that."

Ram linebacker Mel Owens will go along with that. "He's one of the top three," he said.

As for Montana's back, Owens said the Rams don't give it a second thought.

"You're not going to go out there and stick your helmet in his back," Owens said. "He's going to get tackled, but nobody's going to try to hurt him. Nobody wants to do that."

Searching for something new to say about Montana, Owens could only remind everyone of the quarterback's walk across the union's picket line during the recent player strike. But even Owens said that will be forgotten as soon as Sunday's game begins.

More of Montana's exploits this season:

--Against the Cincinnati Bengals, he threw a winning touchdown pass to Rice with no time remaining. Even so, the 49ers didn't know whether to congratulate Montana or Bengal Coach Sam Wyche, who so thoroughly botched the game with his last-second instructions.

--Against the Cardinals, Montana completed 31 of 39 passes for 334 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Then there was last week's victory over the Saints.

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