MIAMI — Well, as Yogi Berra said, It ain't over till it's over.
The Cincinnati Bengals had the XXIIIrd Super Bowl well in hand and almost in the bank Sunday. They had the lead, 16-13. They had the San Francisco 49ers on their own 8-yard line. There were 3 minutes and 20 seconds left to play.
The only trouble was, Joe Montana had the football. And, he had Jerry Rice.
I don't know about you, but whenever I see Joe Montana standing in a huddle licking his fingers, if I were an opposing coach, I'd want to cover my eyes.
When Montana licks his hand like that, it's like John Wayne beginning to drawl, Cagney balling his fists and bouncing up and down on his heels. It's Wyatt Earp walking down Main Street at high noon with his hands just above the holsters.
You can't give Joe Montana the football and 3 minutes on the clock, even if there are 92 yards to go. It's like giving Nick the Greek the deal, Van Gogh a brush, or Gene Kelly something by Gershwin and rain. Caruso an aria with a high C in it.
What you're going to get is not so much a football game as a work of art.
You had a feeling of inevitability as Joe began to play his hand. "That is as good as you can play," the losing coach, Sam Wyche, was to say at the end of the recital.
Joe licked his fingers and went to work. He didn't get desperate, greedy. He just got deadly. Bogart in a room alone with a murderer.
The stats at the end of the game told the story in dull prose: "Montana passes to Craig for 8. Montana passes to Frank for 7 and first down. Montana passes to Rice for 7. Montana passes to Rice for 17 and first down. Montana passes to Rice for 27 and first down."
All of a sudden, the 49ers weren't on their 8, they were on Cincinnati's 18 and there were only 39 seconds left to play.
The world was thinking field goal and a tie game and overtime.
Joe Montana licked his fingers and thought, Bet it all. The Super Bowl was right there to be grabbed.
Joe Montana threw a pass to Roger Craig over the middle. Eight yards. Only 10 more to go. Montana threw a pass to end John Taylor. Touchdown.
You can't say Cincinnati lost the game. They really had very little to say about it. They were just flummoxed by a guy who has been doing this between finger licks for most of his life. Joe Montana was born to throw a football. As probably was an Otto Graham, John Unitas, Sammy Baugh. Just as Hogan was born to hit a golf ball, they were born to pass a football.
Montana, afterward, was probably less impressed with what he had done than anyone in the ballpark. Was this his greatest game, someone wanted to know? Joe looked at him as if he lost his mind. "No, not nearly," he said. "I did a whole bunch of dumb things I shouldn't have done. I threw some bad passes. I missed some open people."
Even the final drive did not make Joe choke up with sentimentality. He allowed carefully as how the drive the 49ers put together to defeat the Dallas Cowboys and put themselves in their first Super Bowl 7 years ago might have had a higher quotient of virtuousity.
Try telling that to the Cincinnati Bengals. "As good as you can play," repeated Sam Wyche.
Montana admitted he was not the cool frontier marshal he appeared to be. "When I overthrew Jerry Rice, I was hyperventilating so much that I was getting dizzy. I was trying to call time out and couldn't even get attention."
A man who plays his hand close to the vest to the last, Montana refused to divulge what the play that won the Super Bowl was.
"I hope nobody else does either," he grinned. "We may want to keep it in."
If there was a false note to the game-ending recital, it was that the winning touchdown was not scored by Jerry Rice.
There may be better football players than Jerry Rice but none more graceful. There may have been better games played than the one he played on Super Sunday 1989--but don't bet on it. There may be more graceful athletes than Jerry Rice on his way out for a long pass--but I've never seen one.
He practically took charge of Super Bowl XXIII, pulling down 215 yards worth of passes, some of them on balls that were so far over his head or out of his reach as to seem to be reachable only by phone.
Jerry Rice catches a football the way Baryshnikov dances Swan Lake. It's an art form, too, not an athletic contest. The football world hasn't seen anything exactly like this since Lynn Swann retired. Neither one of them ever seemed to just catch a football out in the open. They seemed to do it in the process of leaping a tall building or diving out of a low plane.
I thought the 49ers had blown the game in the second quarter. With the ball on Cincinnati's 2, fourth down and a yard to go, the 49ers elected to go for a field goal.