Joe Montana: Why 49ers’ Quarterback Has the Franchise’s Best Playoff Legacy
Super Bowl 50 is right around the corner and, quote notably, is being held at the home of the team with one of the most storied NFL histories ever. And San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana owns the accolade of being the franchise’s most memorable playoff performer.
Levi’s Stadium will play host to the finale of the 2015 NFL season on Feburary 7 when the Carolina Panthers face the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. While it is the home stadium of the San Francisco 49ers that is the stage for the biggest game of them all this time around, the Niners have once again been absent from the playoffs, missing the postseason for the second straight year.
Yet, although the Niners have not qualified for the playoffs since the end of the 2013 season — when they went on to suffer an agonizing NFC Championship game loss to the Seattle Seahawks — San Francisco fans have plenty of fond memories of postseason successes.
The likes of Steve Young, Dwight Clark, John Taylor, Roger Craig and Jerry Rice have all written their name into 49ers folklore, while more recently Vernon Davis and Colin Kaepernick have provided the postseason moments that will love long in the memory.
Yet there is one man who stands alone in possessing the franchise’s best playoff legacy, four-time Super Bowl champion Joe Montana.
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While Young created his legacy of his own with a dominant playoff run at the end of the 1994 season as he finally saw off the Dallas Cowboys and went on to throw an NFL record six touchdown passes in a Super Bowl, he was never able to quite match the achievements of man with whom he created the most famous quarterback controversy in league history.
Similarly, although legendary receiver Rice holds the all-time record for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in the playoffs and is unquestionably the greatest wideout in NFL history, his achievements are as much down his longevity and good fortune in playing with Montana and Young as they are to his undeniable talent.
Rice was far from just a beneficiary in circumstance in playing with the quarterbacks he did. Indeed, he was a wonderfully determined player with the aggression and speed to beat cornerbacks off the line and get down the field who also displayed excellent route-running and the desire and ability to make yards after the catch.
But the fact remains that when 49er fans think of the playoffs and the famous Super Bowl wins, most remember Montana and legendary coach Bill Walsh.
In combining for the four Lombardi trophies they won in San Francisco, Walsh and Montana revolutionized the league with the West Coast Offense. And it is the way Montana executed Walsh’s offense in the key moments in playoff time that will likely be his lasting legacy.
Still holding the NFL record for career passer rating in the Super Bowl, Montana’s playoff career was defined by displays of calm under pressure, the most famous of which is “The Catch,” when he showed the confidence to loft the ball into the air on the rollout with several defenders in his face for the leaping Clark to catch and defeat the Cowboys, sending the Niners to a first Super Bowl despite them having lost six turnovers in the game.
Only a controversial pass interference penalty in an NFC Championship defeat to the Washington Redskins denied the 49ers a return to the Super Bowl two years later after Montana had engineered another game-winning drive against the Detroit Lions.
But resilience was a theme of Montana’s career and he and the Niners responded with one of the finest seasons in NFL history in 1984, going 15-1 before easing to wins over the New York Giants and Chicago Bears to reach Super Bowl XIX.
Montana promptly outdueled Dan Marino to help the 49ers to an easy win over the Miami Dolphins in a dominant performance that would only be topped when he won a fourth title at the end of the decade, finishing the game with 331 passing yards and three touchdowns, along with one rushing score as San Francisco cruised to a 38-16 victory.
Greater tests were to follow for Montana, who suffered a severe back injury in 1986 and was advised by doctors to retire. He did not heed their advice and was co-awarded the Comeback Player of the Year for that season, only to have split playing time with Young as the 49ers followed up two straight playoff losses to the Giants with one to the Minnesota Vikings.
How did Montana respond to that adversity? By leading the Niners back to the Super Bowl with demolitions of the Vikings and the Bears and then dealing the Bengals more heartbreak with an effortless game-winning drive finished one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history — a perfect pass to Taylor at the back of the end zone.
That was followed by probably the finest defence of a Super Bowl title in history as San Francisco hammered the Vikings and Rams in the playoffs before crushing the Broncos 55-10 to retain the crown, Montana winning Offensive Player of the Year, MVP and the Super Bowl MVP in the same year.
Montana clinched his third Super Bowl MVP award after tossing five touchdowns in a rout that served as an encapsulation of the way in which he excelled under the bright lights.
His quest for a three-peat may have been ended by the famous Craig fumble, before injury all but finished his Niners career but by that point his legacy had long been sealed. And, although others such as Young – who would arguably have led the San Francisco to more than one title as starter had he not kept running into the Cowboys and Green Bay Packers – have had success, they all still remain in the shadow of the man they called Joe Cool.
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