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NFL PLAYOFFS : Montana Still Has Fight Left in Him : AFC: Chief quarterback feels bad after loss to Dolphins, but he says he will be back for more.

January 01, 1995|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — His season over, but apparently not his career, Joe said it ain't so. Once and for all.

Minutes after his team had been eliminated in the first round of the AFC playoffs Saturday, Kansas City Chief quarterback Joe Montana announced his intention to return for a 17th season of play. He said it with a straight face, not hesitating to answer the question that in recent weeks had produced silence or vague responses.

The question was simple enough: Did Montana plan to play for the Chiefs next season?

So was the response.

"Oh, yeah," said Montana, who will be 39 when training camp begins next July. "It's like asking a fighter after he lost a championship bout if you're going to fight again. Yeah, you feel bad, but I'm having fun. The game is fun."

It wasn't much of a ceremony, but then again, Montana never understood what all the fuss was about anyway. So what if he was 38; he could still throw couldn't he? And who cares if he had been injured in recent years; he's injury free now, right? Saturday's 27-17 playoff loss to the Miami Dolphins? A crummy way to end a season, but not the proper way to end a legend.

But a recent report in the New York Daily News said otherwise. According to the Daily News story, Montana was expected to announce his retirement at season's end. Montana responded angrily to the story, but never denied it--other than to say he hadn't made a decision.

Now he has. In a cramped room, with reporters spilling into the main hallway of Joe Robbie Stadium, Montana made it official: He will be back.

It took a while. First he had to explain his crucial fourth-quarter interception that came with the Chiefs on the Miami five-yard line and Kansas City down by 10 points. Then he had to detail the reasons for a first half in which he completed 12 of 15 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns, compared to a second half in which he passed for 136 yards, no touchdowns and that one interception.

At last came the topic of the day. Would he stay or would he go?

"No, I haven't even thought about it right now," he said. "I don't even think I have to think about it."

But pressed, Montana began to relent. He described his season--one in which the Chiefs failed to meet preseason expectations and finished 9-8--as "OK."

"It had some ups at the beginning, some downs," he said.

The downs came in December, when Montana sat out two regular-season games because of a sprained foot and the Chiefs lost to the Denver Broncos in overtime and to these same Dolphins. The Daily News story came about the same time. And now this, the playoff defeat to Miami.

If Montana has lost interest in the game, he didn't show it Saturday. Even with the Dolphins ahead, 27-17, the ball in Miami quarterback Dan Marino's hands and the clock moving toward the two-minute mark, Montana paced the sideline.

He talked with backup quarterback Steve Bono. He double-checked hand signals with third-stringer Matt Blundin. He buttoned his chin strap, licked the fingers on his throwing hand and watched with hands on hips as Miami finally was forced to punt with 1:52 remaining in the game.

Montana did what he could, but there would be no miracle finishes. He moved the Chiefs from Kansas City's 20-yard line to the Dolphins' 19, but that was it. Miami traded time for yardage and in the end, it quit doing that as Montana's fourth-down pass fell incomplete in the end zone with 15 seconds left.

Afterward, he sought out Marino, exchanged hugs and then disappeared into the end zone tunnel. And later, when Montana was escorted to the postgame news conference, he found himself squeezing past Chief Coach Marty Schottenheimer. Schottenheimer didn't say a word, but instead patted Montana on the back of the neck.

"I feel worse for them than anybody," Schottenheimer said of Montana and running back Marcus Allen, who also committed a costly fumble.

Schottenheimer said he refused to speculate on Montana's plans--and then speculated.

"If I were a betting man--and I'm not--I would bet he would be back," Schottenheimer said. "I think the real issue is if he's a winning performer. Clearly, he's still a championship player."

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