Joe Montana finally admitted it on Sunday, minutes after the conclusion of his first regular season in Kansas City. He felt the heat this fall. The pressure got to him. The iceman melteth. Sort of.
This wasn't supposed to happen, of course. Not to the best pressure quarterback most of us have ever seen, the quarterback with the 14-5 postseason record and the 4-0 Super Bowl record. But after the Chiefs beat the Seahawks 34-24, ending an 11-5 season that wasn't the cake-walk fans had hoped for when Montana arrived last April, the 37-year-old quarterback paused while munching a postgame cheeseburger to talk about how tough the year really was.
"I was, well, all right," he said. "I was O.K. at times, not very good at other times. I had my ups and downs. I think, especially late in the season, I started getting caught up in the expectations people had for me. I'd never done that before. But people expected me to be perfect. I found myself playing games and thinking, I've got to be perfect. I can't make mistakes. Mentally, the pressure got to me."
Appearing in 11 games, the most he had played in since 1990, Montana completed 60.7% of his throws. His 87.4 rating was second in the AFC to that of Denver's John Elway. But there was something missing in his game—a fluidity, a consistency, maybe, or the lack of a radar fix on his receivers, the sort he had with Jerry Rice and John Taylor back in San Francisco. He was bothered by the pulled hamstring that sidelined him for much of four games. And it hurt just as much that the injury forced him to miss 30 midseason practices. The Chiefs were installing a new Montana-style, short-passing offense that they couldn't practice or use efficiently when the man it was designed for was not there. The Chief offense still isn't in a groove: The 1992 team outscored the '93 version by 20 points. "I tell the offense we need to have five terrific drives a game," offensive coordinator Paul Hackett said. "We had two of those today."
Hackett noticed some of the tension in Montana alter the Chiefs' dismal 30-10 loss at Minnesota on Dec. 26. And so on Sunday, before Montana went out to face Seattle, Hackett sidled up to him and said, "Hey, just go out there and throw the s.o.b. today."
After Montana's efficient 18-of-28, 210-yard day, Hackett reflected on what it must be like to be Joe Montana. "What Joe felt with Rice when they went to the line of scrimmage has to be built here, and it can't be built in a day," he said. "It's going to take time. I hate to say it, but it's like our offense is teasing people, showing great things every once in a while but not consistently."
In the playoffs, teams don't have time. They have pressure. "The reason Joe and Marcus [Allen] came here is for the big games," cornerback Albert Lewis said. "They've raised our expectations for the postseason. I know I'm more confident with them here." But as the regular season has shown, just having Montana on the roster doesn't put a lock on the Super Bowl.
There's some history in the Kevin Gilbride—Buddy Ryan feud, which flared up on Sunday night with the astounding sight on national television of Ryan, Houston's defensive coordinator, throwing a punch at Gilbride, his offensive counterpart, near the end of the first half of the Oilers-Jets game. Ryan, who coached the Eagles from 1986 to '91, and Gilbride don't speak to each other, the result of Ryan's season-long criticism of the Oilers' wide-open offense. Gilbride has grown to detest the irascible Ryan, but his bitterness extends to Oiler management, which refused to allow him to talk with South Carolina last month about that school's head-coaching job, even though South Carolina was reportedly willing to let him finish his Oiler duties this season. "Kevin's been miserable this year," a source close to Gilbride said. "First they don't let him take the South Carolina job. And Buddy's made his life awful." With his impulsive right hook, Ryan might have killed any chance he had of landing another top job. What owner wants to hire a head coach who throws punches on the sidelines?
Very quietly, kid quarterback Rick Mirer grew up in his first season in Seattle. Mirer became the first quarterback since the Bills' Joe Ferguson in 1973 to start every game of his rookie season. He broke virtually every record for a rookie quarterback, including attempts (486), completions (274) and yards (2,833). One of the reasons Mirer succeeded was that he tried not to think of himself as a rookie. Last Saturday, before facing the Chiefs in Kansas City, he was watching a TV promo touting his matchup with Montana and was asked if he felt a little overwhelmed at being billed beside the great veteran. "I'm not in too much awe of my situation," Mirer said. "I can't be in awe of Joe because then I'll always be the kid. It's like this: I don't want to be judged against the other rookies. I want to be judged against every other quarterback, because that's what I am."