When coaches are asked to name one quarterback to start a big game, the name that invariably comes up is Joe Montana. His calm demeanor and cerebral approach resulted in 31 career fourth quarter comebacks, and his 127.8 passer rating is still the highest in Super Bowl history.
Montana’s winning ways were first on display at the University of Notre Dame, but not after an inauspicious start. He began his collegiate career as the seventh-string quarterback, but eventually won the starting job as a redshirt junior in 1977. It turns out the move was a good one, as Montana led the Fighting Irish to the National Championship.
The next year in the Cotton Bowl he engineered one of the greatest comebacks in history, as he brought Notre Dame back from a 34-12 deficit with only 7:37 left in the game. Montana’s game-winning touchdown pass as time expired sealed the 35-34 win for the Irish over the University of Houston. By the way, this was all done while battling both the flu and hypothermia.
In 1979, the San Francisco 49ers drafted “The Comeback Kid” in the third round of the NFL Draft. After spending his rookie year as a backup, Montana took over as a starter in the second half of the 1980 season. Even though the 49ers were only 2-5 in his seven starts, the second-year quarterback was impressive. He completed 176 of 273 passes for 1,795 yards, 15 touchdowns, nine interceptions, a 87.8 passer rating, and led the NFL in completion percentage at 64.5.
The next year proved to be a historic one for the 49ers and their young quarterback. In 31 NFL seasons, San Francisco had only four playoff appearances and had never played for an NFL championship. That changed on January 10, 1982, when Montana scrambled right and hit Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown to give the 49ers a 28-27 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game.
Two weeks later, San Francisco defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21 in Super Bowl XVI to claim its first NFL title. Montana was named the game’s MVP, as he went an efficient 14 of 22 for 157 yards with both a passing and rushing touchdown. For the season, he threw for 3,565 yards, 19 touchdowns and a 88.4 quarterback rating. He also led the league in completion percentage for the second straight year, and earned his first Pro Bowl selection.
The 49ers failed to make the playoffs in 1982, but Montana continued his stellar play, throwing for 2,613 yards and a league-leading 17 touchdowns in the strike-shortened season. San Francisco came up one game short of the Super Bowl in 1983, losing 24-21 to the Washington Redskins in the NFC Championship Game. Montana made his second Pro Bowl, throwing for 3,910 yards and 26 touchdowns, while completing 64.5 percent of his passes for a 94.6 passer rating.
The 49ers were back on top in 1984, going an NFL-best 15-1 in the regular season and advancing to the Super Bowl for the second time in four years. In a quarterback matchup for the ages, Montana outdueled record-breaking Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX. Montana was once again named MVP, going 24 of 35 for 331 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing for 59 yards and another score. For the season, the Pro Bowler set new career-highs with 28 touchdown passes, a 64.6 completion percentage and a 102.9 passer rating.
After two Super Bowl MVPs and three Pro Bowl selections in his first four full seasons as a starter, Montana was now one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. But he was doing it in a different way. As a master of Coach Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense, Montana relied more on accuracy than arm strength. He also used his mobility to extend plays, allowing his superb field vision and reading of defenses to find open receivers. The West Coast offense was virtually unstoppable under his leadership.
After another solid campaign in 1985, Montana suffered a ruptured disk in the 1986 season opener, forcing him to have back surgery. Doctors at the time advised him to retire, but the 49ers star was back in action only two months later. He was named Comeback Player of the Year for his heroics.
Montana had his best season-to-date in 1987, leading the NFL with 31 touchdowns, a 66.8 completion percentage and a 102.1 passer rating. He was also named an All-Pro for the first time. A huge upset at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs kept the 49ers from playing for another title, but their fortunes would soon change.
In 1988, San Francisco was back in the Super Bowl facing a familiar foe, the Cincinnati Bengals. In one of the most memorable drives in NFL history, Montana took the 49ers 92 yards in less than three minutes to give the 49ers a 20-16 lead. The drive was capped off by a 10-yard touchdown strike from “Joe Cool” to John Taylor with 34 seconds left. The 49ers were now Super Bowl champs for the third time in the decade.
They would have a chance to repeat in 1989, as San Francisco tore through the regular season with a 14-2 record and dominating victories over the Vikings and Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs. In Super Bowl XXIII, the 49ers obliterated the Denver Broncos 55-10 for their second straight title. Montana won his third MVP, completing 22 of 29 passes for 297 yards and five touchdowns. For the season, he threw for 3,521 yards and 26 touchdowns, while leading the league in completion percentage (70.2) and passer rating (112.4). He also earned his first NFL MVP award.
Montana repeated as MVP in 1990, throwing for 3,944 yards and 26 touchdowns. The 49ers were once again dominant with a 14-2 record, but they would fall short of a three-peat as they lost to the New York Giants 15-13 in the NFC Championship Game.
An elbow injury suffered in the preseason forced Montana to miss the entire 1991 season and all but one game of 1992. With former backup Steve Young now established as the starter, the 49ers traded Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs on April 20, 1993.
While Kansas City lacked playmakers like the 49ers all-world receiver Jerry Rice, Montana was still able to lead an efficient and effective offense. Under his leadership, the Chiefs won their first division title in 22 years. In the postseason, “Joe Cool” led back-to-back comeback wins against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Oilers before falling to the Buffalo Bills in the AFC title game.
In 1994, Montana led the Chiefs to the playoffs for the second straight year. There would be no miraculous comebacks this time, though, as Kansas City lost to Miami 27-17 in the Wild Card round, Montana’s last game as a pro.
After 15 seasons, Montana finished fourth all-time in yards (40,551), touchdowns (273) and attempts (5,391), third in completions (3,409) and second in passer rating (92.3). But what truly separates Montana from the pack is his play in the postseason. In 23 career playoff games, he threw for 5,772 yards, 45 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, and posted a passer rating of 95.6.
The numbers are even better on the biggest stage of all, the Super Bowl: 1,142 yards, 11 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, a 127.8 passer rating and, most importantly, a 4-0 record. It’s the last number that truly defines Montana’s legacy. No quarterback was better in the big game, and that remains true today.