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Scott Ostler

Joe Was Spectator When the Time Was Right for a Montana Miracle

January 10, 1988|Scott Ostler

SAN FRANCISCO — Say it ain't so, Joe.

If October is Reggie Jackson's time, then the fourth quarter of any given lost cause is Joe Montana's time.

Isn't it so, Joe?

How many times--pro, college, high school, sandlot when you were a kid--did you mock the clock and sneer at the scoreboard and bring your team back from nowhere to everywhere?

You and St. Jude have been the co-patron saints of lost causes. You two should call the pregame coin-flip together.

Game is lost, season is shot, time is running out, who ya gonna call?

Mon-tan-a.

But Saturday, in the gloom and drizzle of Candlestick Park, on a day for soggy peanuts and rain and tears in your beer, when the going got tough, the coach went to the bullpen.

Midway through the third quarter, Vikings leading your 49ers, 27-10, plenty of time for the customary Montana miracles, the coach sent in another quarterback, gave you the hook, like a bad comedian on "The Gong Show."

Coach Bill Walsh looked you in the eye and said, "Joe, we're going with Steve."

Steve Young trotted onto your field, did a few very impressive things, but ran short of miracles. It was Montana Time, but as the clock was clicking down, you stood on the sideline, your socks drooping, your spirits drooping.

In the closing seconds of the Vikings' 36-24 win, Walsh turned to you on the sideline and, out of respect and professional courtesy, tried to explain.

"We had to see if the chemistry could change," Walsh told you.

You nodded.

What the 49ers needed was not chemistry, but alchemy, and that was your major in college, and in post-grad study with the 49ers.

Twenty years from now, when the football freaks talk quarterbacks, they'll talk about Montana and his miracle comebacks.

But there you were on the sideline. The Quarterback of the '80s, benched, wearing a warm-up jacket as the Team of the '80s was being 86'd in '88.

"You see what he (Walsh) was trying to do," you tell the reporters. "You have to stir things up."

But you were always San Francisco's swizzle stick, Joe, the guy with pencil legs and a mediocre arm and a knack for pulling touchdown rabbits out of football helmets.

You were having a lousy day Saturday, 12 for 26, for 109 yards. You threw a second-quarter interception that Reggie Rutland returned for a touchdown; it was a sideline pass that you wanted to snatch back once it left your hand.

"I just threw it behind," you say. "It was a bad throw."

You once threw a miracle pass to Dwight Clark on the way to a Super Bowl. In big games, under pressure, you were ice, you had some kind of scary composure that eludes most mortal men and even most pro athletes. Jerry West could probably relate, and Reggie Jax, a few freaks like that. The rest of us could only admire.

You played when a doctor said you were putting your spine on the line. You love the game.

And if ever there was Montana Time, it was in that third quarter, when Walsh turned the team over to Young.

"We really weren't out of the game," you said. "All we needed was a couple big plays."

Not that you were second-guessing Walsh, with whom you have developed an understanding and mutual respect, almost a father-son relationship.

But Walsh seemed to be second-guessing himself.

"We knew Steve could run," Walsh said, discussing the switch. "We thought (before the game) about using him (in certain situations). But no, I think you go with the All-Pro quarterback as far as we did. Or further."

There's plenty of room for second-guessing. Why did Walsh punt on fourth-and-10 at the Minnesota 31 at the end of the third quarter. Ray Wersching, no long-ball kicker, barely reached the end zone. Why not punt, or go for the first?

But that's not your department. You're just the quarterback.

You felt good about the team. Friday you got together with Dwight Clark and Ronnie Lott and hit on the idea of asking each player on the team to kick in $1,000 of his playoff money to pay the $50,000 fine owner Eddie DeBartolo got for giving you players "illegal" bonuses. Not that Eddie needs the money, he's swimming in it, but the thought, well, it knocked Eddie on his can. You felt good about the game plan, too. You went into the game with 97 pass plays in your game plan, about 20 of them brand new. You understand the system. But it was almost like the Vikings had stolen your game plan and studied it. They were ready. They were reading your mind.

After the game, in the locker room, you huddled with Steve Young, both of you sitting on stools, leaning close to one another and talking quietly.

You like the kid. He keeps telling everyone how you've made him a better quarterback, and you can't hold this game against him.

"It's quarterback talk," Young said, when asked about what you guys discussed.

You said, "We go through certain plays. Sometimes you question yourself, what you did. . . . Maybe we were trying to comfort each other. . . . Maybe he was trying to comfort me."

Wave after wave of press people ask you about getting the hook. You can't remember it happening before, ever, except for an injury.

Life goes on. The cable cars were still running up and down the hills Saturday night, but the grips were ringing the bells without the usual zest. The foghorns on the bay were the perfect postgame background music.

A reporter asked you, "When he took you out, Joe, did your heart sink?"

You just looked up and said, "Yeah."

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