What quarterback controversy?
That was the message from Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka and San Francisco 49ers Coach Bill Walsh Wednesday.
As their teams prepare to meet Sunday in the National Football Conference title game, both coaches are getting a lot of questions about their passers.
That's because the teams had times this year when they didn't know who would play quarterback.
When the Bears beat the 49ers, 10-9, Oct. 24, Walsh was torn between Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Walsh pulled Montana with about three minutes left in the game, saying Montana was fatigued. Montana said he wasn't.
Montana regained the job late in the season and led the 49ers to the NFC West title and a 34-9 rout of the Minnesota Vikings Sunday for their first playoff victory in four years.
Now the Bears' quarterback situation is unsettled. The game against the 49ers was the last one Jim McMahon started and finished. He later suffered a knee injury, and Mike Tomczak won the job while he was out. Tomczak reinjured his left shoulder in the playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles Saturday, and McMahon finished up.
Ditka alternated the quarterbacks during a workout Wednesday in Suwanee, Ga., and says he would go with Tomczak Sunday if he's healthy.
But how would he define healthy?
Tomczak probably can play with a bruised left shoulder. Major Harris did it for West Virginia in its Sunkist Fiesta Bowl loss to Notre Dame Monday. The problem is that Harris wasn't effective doing it, and Ditka has to wonder how effective Tomczak would be. Ditka also has to wonder how effective McMahon would be after throwing just three passes in the last two months.
Both coaches brushed off the quarterback questions.
Walsh didn't want to compare the Bears' situation with the one he had earlier this year.
As he did earlier in the year, Walsh said Wednesday, during a conference call, that the 49ers never had a controversy.
"I don't know if we had a controversy, other than the one that was semifabricated on us. ... We had to act as though there was a controversy when, in fact, Joe Montana could not get clearance from the doctors, so it wasn't really near the factor that had been presented by our San Francisco press, so it never was a problem with our team," Walsh said.
Walsh said Montana had a "sort of dysentery-type thing," lost 10 pounds and "never really gained it back until recently."
Montana then got on the phone and, when Walsh's comments were relayed to him, he disagreed with Walsh the same way he had earlier in the season.
"That's his judgment," Montana said, pausing a lot as he apparently tried to be diplomatic.
"Well, there was a time I had been hurt, but I don't think the strength ... " he said, pausing again.
He was asked whether there was a time when he didn't get a clearance from doctors to play.
"Not that I know of," he said.
Perhaps, Walsh was intrigued by Young's potential and concerned that Montana, who is 32 and had back surgery two years ago, had lost it. He had played poorly in the playoffs for three straight years and was pulled in the third quarter by Walsh in last year's 36-24 playoff loss to Minnesota.
Montana, though, proved in the stretch run he still can do the job. Sunday, he threw three, first-half touchdown passes to Jerry Rice.
Now he has a shot at joining Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterback to win more than two Super Bowls.
With Montana set to go for the 49ers, the quarterback question has turned to the Bears. Ditka did his best to downplay the situation.
"It's not a major thing. Really, you all make more out of it than it is," he said.
Ditka said he would choose a starting quarterback before Sunday, finally settling on McMahon Friday.
"The only people that seem to want to know are the media. I don't even think the kids are that worried about it. It just happens to be that everybody wants to make this the focal point. This game is not going to be won strictly because of a quarterback, believe me," he said.
Before Tomczak was hurt Saturday, he completed 10 of 20 passes for 178 yards. "I don't think he played himself out of the starting job," Ditka said. "I think he played pretty well."
By the time McMahon got in, the field was fogged in, and he threw just three passes, completing two.
McMahon hasn't talked to reporters lately, but Tomczak said he and McMahon were on good terms. Tomczak said he spent New Year's Eve at McMahon's $2.2 million, 10,000-square-foot, suburban home. "The coach will make the final decision. He'll observe us on the practice field. This isn't going to turn into a quarterback controversy. If I'm not healthy enough to play, I tell Coach Ditka, 'Start Jim McMahon,' " Tomczak said.
Tomczak said he was still hurting, but he joked about it.
"I'm not pain-free right now, unless they can get a voodoo doctor or somebody from Japan to come over and give me acupuncture. Hey, it's the Super Bowl year, right?" Tomczak said, referring to McMahon's use of acupuncture before the Bears' Super Bowl victory in Super Bowl XX.
But McMahon doesn't have the corner on doing unusual things. Tomczak saw a psychiatrist in the off-season to help him cope with Ditka's screaming and uses self-hypnosis 30 minutes a day.
"It might sound weird or hokeypokey, but it works," he said.
When he's under self-hypnosis, Tomczak probably tells himself there is no quarterback controversy.