Joe Montana vs. Steve Young, Joe Montana vs. the 49ers. His new teammates let him hear about that one. "I asked him, 'Are you going to play every one of those guys by yourself, Joe?' " defensive end Neil Smith said last Friday afternoon. " 'The way they played against the Raiders Monday night, you can have them all.' "
That game, a 44-14 annihilation by San Francisco, took place the evening after the Chiefs opened their season by beating the New Orleans Saints 30-17, with Montana putting on one of his highlight shows. "The old Joe? Oh, my god, yes," 49er assistant head coach Bill McPherson said' after watching film of Montana's performance. "A machine, putting the ball right on the money, one after another. See, he's healthy now, and that's the difference. He's got his legs under him."
Last year Montana was sharp for the Chiefs—when he was on the field. A sprained wrist, then a recurring hamstring injury and finally a concussion kept him out of action for all or part of 10 games. "I never felt right the whole year." he said at Friday's practice. "It was almost like I felt cheated. So I tried to do more work in the off-season, squeezing for the wrist, more lifting and sprinting for the hamstring. Now I'm strong, the strongest I've ever felt."
At 38. Another old-timer in the Chiefs' locker room, Marcus Allen, 34, a Los Angeles Raider reject, had his own lake on the Montana vs. Young-and-the-49ers angle. "It's deep, deeper than Joe will admit." Allen said during the week, "I went through it last year here. Vindication, poetic justice. I already got mine. His is coming. He feels it even though he won't talk about it publicly."
San Francisco veterans of the Montana Super Bowl years mentioned the odd feeling they would have seeing Joe across the field. "Maybe I'll get him to toss me a pass in the warmups," Jerry Rice said. "We're not supposed to be watching the other team's offense when we're on the bench," said left tackle Steve Wallace, "but I know I'll be sneaking pecks. I hope they have one of those big screens."
"It will be a weird experience," said All-Pro right tackle Harris Barton, one of the Niners' two casualties from the Raider game. Barton suffered a partially torn left triceps, and the guard next to him, Ralph Tamm, would miss the game against the Chiefs with a sprained left arch. Their absence from the offensive line would play a key role in the outcome. "Honestly, I don't know how I'll feel tomorrow," Barton said on Saturday. "I mean, it's Joe, man. When I was in the hospital getting my arm operated on, he was the first guy who called me. He and [Montana's wife] Jennifer sent flowers to my dad when he was in the hospital. He's meant so much, all the money we're making now, all the people in the 49er organization who wouldn't even have jobs if not for Joe."
You don't want to play Kansas City when you're shorthanded on the offensive line, not against its pass rushers. Smith was the NFL's sack leader in 1993. Derrick Thomas, a 247-pound speed-rushing linebacker who lined up in a down position against San Francisco, began the season tied for second among NFL sackers during his five-year career, with 66, only 10½ of them on natural grass. This year the Chiefs have replaced the artificial turf at Arrowhead with the real thing, but against the 49ers on Sunday, Thomas had three sacks. On the second, he beat Barton's replacement, Harry Boatswain, and tackled Young for a safety, and on the third, he blew by Boatswain without being touched, forcing a grounding penalty. "And so ends the myth of the grass," Thomas said afterward.
Kansas City lined Thomas up at left end, to the lefthanded Young's blind side, to take advantage of Boatswain. Smith was on the right flank. His mission was to get his hands up, block Young's vision on the short-drop time routes and make him scramble.
The strategy worked. Young was harried and belabored all afternoon. By halftime Niner left guard Jesse Sapolu was lost with a pulled right hamstring. In the third quarter right guard Derrick Deese went to the bench for three downs with a mild concussion, and his place was taken by Brian Bollinger, who had been cut by the Arizona Cardinals. Young's offense was crumbling, but he hung in, scrambling, taking some ferocious hits, including one by Smith that drew a 15-yard penalty and nearly put Young down for keeps.
"I apologized to him after the game," Smith said. "I asked him if he was O.K. I wanted him to know it was an accident. It wasn't easy for him out there. I know one time he should have stayed down but didn't."