The backdrop was identical to that of his most momentous throw, and as Kansas City Chief quarterback Joe Montana stared into the west end zone of Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium last Saturday, he wore the same steely glare that he had displayed nearly six years before, when his target and his career vistas were both wide open. There were 26 seconds to go this time, enough for a touchdown, an onside kick and one last miracle, and the greatest player of his era still saw a chance for victory. Montana wheeled back, set his front foot and looked toward wideout Willie Davis, who was tantalizingly close to the spot where John Taylor had cradled Montana's game-winning touchdown pass for the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII. Three Miami Dolphin defenders surrounded Davis, but Montana was out of options. He fired a gorgeously defiant spiral, Davis leaped...and the trio of Dolphins converged to knock the pass away.
One more end-zone incompletion later and it was all over. Montana had been undone by an impotent Chief defense and outdone by Dan Marino, the other legendary quarterback in this duel of icons. Marino's spotless performance—22 of 29 for 257 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions—pushed Miami to a 27-17 victory in the wild-card round of the playoffs, while Montana's honorable effort may have helped nudge him toward retirement. If this was his last game, it was a noble and dignified finale. Montana played like a champion, and it took another champion to bring him down.
Last Saturday's showdown was, as Kansas City running back Marcus Allen called it, a "game within a game"—the third career meeting between two of football's alltime greats. The last Montana-Marino matchup took place almost a decade ago, in Super Bowl XIX, a 38-16 Niner win that earned Montana his second Super Bowl MVP award. Marino threw for 318 yards, but he spoiled a record-setting regular season (he threw for 48 touchdowns and 5,084 yards) by blaming teammates for making mistakes. Since then, injuries to one or the other had prevented four potential rematches. This time Marino, still sore from the torn right Achilles tendon that had knocked him out of the last 11 games of 1993, danced toe-to-toe with Montana and moved the Dolphins into a second-round game this Sunday against the San Diego Chargers.
In the puntless first half the two quarterbacks led their teams to 34 points, threw for 340 yards and had a mere five incompletions in 31 attempts. The pass everyone will remember came just after the two-minute warning. Marino says his right leg has not improved since July, and he is probably headed for more surgery in the off-season. But he can still pick apart a defense. Trailing 17-10 and facing a fourth-and-three from the Kansas City 36, Marino wanted to throw short. But when he dropped back to pass and saw the Chiefs' coverage unfold, he knew that the middle of the field would be open for receiver O.J. McDuffie.
Marino faced one obstacle: the Kansas City pass rush. For most of the game, defensive end Neil Smith and linebacker Derrick Thomas, both Pro Bowl perennials, were nowhere near the ball, but on this play Smith had a clear-cut path toward Marino. Marino pump-faked once, then twice, as Smith kept coming. Dolphin tackle Ron Heller bumped Smith just enough while Marino pump-faked a third time, then rifled the ball to McDuffie for a 17-yard gain. "We didn't think he could move, with the leg and all," Smith said later, "but he showed he still has it."
Having self-destructed in his lone Super Bowl trip, Marino has spent 10 years seeking redemption. Still ring-free at 33, he has been reminding his teammates, especially the younger ones, not to take this opportunity lightly. The Dolphin defense got the message. While the Chief defenders went the entire day without a big play, Miami came up with two in the fourth quarter alone: cornerback J.B. Brown's goal line interception of a Montana pass early in the period and safety Michael Stewart's strip of the ball from Allen on the Miami 34 on the next Chief series.
Brown's interception represented the one mistake in Montana's 26-of-37, 314-yard day, and his intended receiver, Eric Martin, may have tipped the play when he spoke by telephone last week with Dolphin safety Gene Atkins, a former teammate with the New Orleans Saints. According to Brown, Martin, a 10-year veteran, told Atkins that when Montana gets near the goal line, "he likes to go to the OGs"—meaning the "old guys."
Of the game's four legendary OGs, three—Allen, Marino and Miami coach Don Shula—have made it clear that they will be back next year. The only question mark is Montana, who turns 39 in June and may not make a decision before then.
Montana angrily denied a New York Daily News report in early December that said he had decided to retire. And yet it seems likely that he has thrown his last pass. The injury to his right knee that he suffered in the regular-season finale against the L.A. Raiders is more serious than has been reported; Montana says it will probably require surgery. And while it was once assumed that Montana has few interests outside football, he has taken a fancy to flying. For Christmas his wife, Jennifer, bought him a Malibu Mirage, a single-engine, six-seat turboprop plane.
In addition, Montana has been frustrated by the conservative play-calling of offensive coordinator Paul Hackett, especially near the goal line. Some close to the quarterback say he might have quit after last season's loss to the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game had he not been knocked from the game with a concussion. They say Montana wanted a dignified exit. Last Saturday's game would surely be that.