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THE JURY ON JOE : The Kansas City Chiefs Believed They Needed Joe Montana to Reach the Super Bowl. The San Francisco 49ers Thought Steve Young Was the Quarterback for Them. With the Chiefs and 49ers a Victory Away From What Would Be a Classic Super Bowl Showdown, the Debate Still Rages About Who Got the Better Deal. Today's Conference Championship Tests Will Be Strictly . . . Pass or Fail : Montana, Fans Enjoyed Bond That Young Can't Match

January 23, 1994|PETER H. KING

SAN FRANCISCO — Weird, primal screams began to bounce last Sunday afternoon across the back-yard fences of the wooded San Francisco suburb where I live. The faithful were communicating and the message was clear. Joe Montana was doing it again.

Every time Montana completed a big pass against the Houston Oilers, the neighbors would break from their television, throw open the back door and whoop with joy. I heard them because I was standing at my back door, too. Whooping.

Now, many people consider such behavior crazy. Many people, and especially those who write for the sports pages--and thus consider themselves sufficiently clear-eyed, cut-throat and savvy to serve as general managers of any team, any sport--can't understand why many San Francisco fans persist in rooting for Montana. How, they ask, can anyone fail to see the wisdom in letting old Joe migrate to Kansas City?

Well, let me try to explain. You see, these fans know--as Montana knows, as some of his former teammates hint they know, as the owner must know and as even Steve Young knows or, at least, suspects--that the 49ers blundered, and blundered badly, by letting Montana slip away.

They didn't make their team any better on the field. They didn't make their fans any happier in the stands. They didn't secure their future. All they did was take the best quarterback ever to play, a popular fellow who managed to be at once both charismatic and self-effacing, and show him the door.

Makes sense to me.

Perhaps some history is in order. When I started rooting for the 49ers as a kid, the team's only marquee player was a kickoff returner named Abe Woodson. Now think about that. Only on a truly bad team does the poor guy who runs back kicks after opponents score emerge as a star. And the old 49ers were bad. We fans called ourselves the 49er faithful, and season after season we endured a succession of George Mira and Steve Spurrier and Steve DeBerg. Yes, there was John Brodie, but he was never quite able to move past Dallas.

Then came Joe. Early in that 1982 NFC championship game against Dallas, the contest that later produced "the Catch," Montana slipped a touchdown pass low and hard to a kneeling Dwight Clark.

The quarterback thrust his arms into the sky, and then trotted on spindly legs toward Too Tall Jones, all 6 feet 9 of him. The Dallas defender had been babbling all week about how the almighty Cowboys did not respect the upstart 49ers. Montana looked Jones in the eye and said, "Respect that. . . ."

I love that story. It goes to the heart of understanding the deep, residual loyalty to Montana, a relationship that almost transcends football--a bond that in and of itself should have been enough to persuade the 49ers to keep Montana in San Francisco.

Montana emerged amid a dark season in this city. Jonestown. Mayoral assassination. AIDS. A shrinking municipal importance, especially in relationship to rival Los Angeles. With Montana, the 49ers cut against the downward grain.

There were times when, for many San Franciscans, it seemed the only thing they could count on was Montana delivering in the clutch. Cable cars might break down, ports might close, but Montana always could find someone in the back of the end zone. Respect that. At least.

The hard-hearts who run teams or write about them will snicker at such sentimentality. Fans, schmans. Joe was old. Joe was scarred. Joe had to go. And forget about the unwritten NFL rule that starters don't lose their jobs because of injury. With Joe, who was sound again by midseason last year but confined to the bench--forced to watch, along with the rest of us, as Young and the rest fell to Dallas--with Joe, they rewrote the rule.

Just why the 49ers were so bent on moving Montana is a mystery. My hunch is that it had more to do with ego than economics or competitive edges. My hunch is that from the top down, there was a clandestine desire to show that the job could be done without Montana.

Well, if so, we are still waiting for the proof. They always want to talk numbers, the supporters of Young. Efficiency ratings. Touchdown totals. Yardage. Without question Montana's former back-up has posted some gawdy stats. So did DeBerg, the first quarterback in the Bill Walsh system. So did Jeff Kemp, who replaced Montana after a back injury. The 49er system produces passing yardage faster than McDonald's makes hamburgers.

The system, though, won't take you all the way. DeBerg had a bad habit of killing drives on the 10-yard line. Montana took over and found the end zone. He also found the Super Bowl. Steve Young has not. In comparing the quarterbacks, here's a number that trumps all others: Montana 4, Young 0.

But age, they clamor, age. Listen. Everyone understands Montana's best days are behind him. His legs show it more than anything. So what? He is still winning, isn't he? More to the point, he is still entertaining.

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