Walsh surely cringes at the notion that his complex offensive designs—JoeMontana remembers rehearsing 127 different plays for a game with Buffalo, then it rained—might be considered in the realm of improv. His initial philosophy was that the short pass is as effective a tool at controlling the ball as a bull moose running game if you have an intelligent point man who can read defenses, delineate situations and throw with accuracy. This offense was developed for a mechanical fellow named Virgil Carter when Walsh was an assistant at Cincinnati in the 1970s and the Bengals had to throw to make first downs. In 1981 JoeMontana took this strategy and turned it into an art form as the 49ers rolled to their first championship. It is said that along the sidelines in that watershed playoff victory over Dallas, Brodie and O.J. Simpson, Frisco kids from birth, were so caught up in the emotion that Brodie broke out in tears.
Last season, with Tyler and Roger Craig adding a running attack to the 49er monster, the entire NFL could be seen sobbing. Now opposing defenses had to cover every inch of the field in fear of runners and receivers and of JoeMontana everywhere. The quarterback's days of being overly patient—that is, in waiting too long looking for the perfect option and then hurling wild—were over. Now there was hardly ever such a thing as a 49er broken play for long because JoeMontana would qickly fix it.
When JoeMontana keeps the football, the fun begins. "It's a burden on us, sure," says Francis, "but a challenge, too. Our scramble drills cover all the possibilities. It's a relief to run down the field and see nothing but trouble, everything getting very hairy, and as you turn your head you see JoeMontana scrambling. He has seen the problem before you get there and now he's going to finish the play anyway. And you know he will finish it."
After six NFL seasons, JoeMontana already tiptoes with legends. Unitas and Starr: But they wouldn't be caught dead in the open field, or else they might be dead. Tarkenton and Staubach: JoeMontana has a better arm than the former, is more accurate than the latter. Though not necessarily as hard to catch, he is probably faster than both. "I don't know if anybody can run him down," says 49er guard Randy Cross. "The only reason Gastineau caught him in [this year's] Pro Bowl was because Joe stopped running to throw." Namath: the same elegant drop and setup. The same upbringing in Western Peeay. But after his Super Bowl, Namath basically faded into interceptions and summer stock. JoeMontana still has two good knees and can move sideways. "He's Fred Astaire," says Namath.
It has never been the arm with JoeMontana. "Weight room! Weight room!" the 49ers scream when one of his long practice heaves flutters short. Nor is his angular body particularly known for its hunkability quotient. "Who is this, the punter?" Clark said seriously upon their first meeting.
What JoeMontana has instead is the dramatic ability to get his body in position to throw—from all imaginable angles, through any multiples of crunching hits. "Escapability," Hackett likes to call it. "JoeMontana knows how important his feet are. Over a period of six weeks going over game films last season, we might have mentioned his feet three times. Last year on only five passes did his feet cost him an interception. That's just unbelievable."
JoeMontana still knows how much he doesn't know. He knows the lifeblood of a quarterback, the edge, especially his edge, is in a command of the Walsh system. Simply, he has to be a human memory bank for the 49er plays, progressions, personnel and various formations. Furthermore, JoeMontana not only knows the 49er offense, he also understands it—which is altogether a different kettle of, uh, Dolphin. This summer Hackett marveled at how JoeMontana could repeat whole game plans four months after the fact. Hackett's forte is innovation; he is renowned for challenging Walsh mentally. In weekly quizzes on the game plan Hackett will have the sheet of plays in front of him, but, he says, "I'll miss more than Joe does." Is it any wonder JoeMontana was the right quarterback for this job?
JoeMontana has subtly acquired a share of team leadership, though not off the field, of course. "If you didn't know Joe, you wouldn't know he was JoeMontana," says Tyler. But out there on the grid....
"There's not a lot of lemmings on this team," says Cross of the champs. "So JoeMontana's your perfect field general for a bunch of individualistic maniacs. No rah-rah. His leadership has come slowly, by example. He's always thinking a step ahead. A lineman's input isn't life and death to him, and he'll be polite. But you get the impression you might be a nuisance. He'll go 'oh sure' and give you that one-thousand-miles-away stare. I call it playing football in the third person. He's there and he's not there."
Well, folks, he's just taking what they give him.