Joe Montana

Reaching The Unreachable Star: Chasing Joe Montana

Photo from San Francisco Chronicle.

Over roughly the last decade during the NBA Finals, every June has followed a similar pattern for basketball fans.

The search for an entity comparable to Michael Jordan fills thoughts as if we’re trying to re-capture our childhood or another golden period of our otherwise mundane lives.

Undoubtedly, the same thing at a crucial point in the Finals occurs whether it be LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade, etc.

Some random basketball television analyst will compare the plight of (insert random superstar name here) to that of Jordan.

Forget about the fact that Jordan’s prime occurred in a vastly different era or the fact that he doesn’t have the most NBA titles as a player (that honor would go to former Celtic flagship Bill Russell, who owns 11 rings).

Yet, MJ is a pop-culture deity and  the modern athletic standard-bearer of success – not just in the NBA, but in all of American sport.

By now, we should get the narrative but just like the interminable chase for a soulmate, the public keeps searching for the next Michael Jordan.

The National Football League’s version of this chase involves one of the greatest winners of the Super Bowl era – Joe Montana.

The four-time Super Bowl winning quarterback turned 56 on Monday and much like Jordan, he is poster boy for ultimate success at the quarterback position as one of two quarterbacks ever to win four Vince Lombardi trophies.

Yes, I hear that loud collective dissenting voice from Pittsburgh and the rest of Steelers Nation…what about the great Terry Bradshaw?

While Bradshaw also has four rings, the Hall of Famer’s historical view is slightly different than that of Montana.

In his first Super Bowl season in 1974, Bradshaw was backed by the Steel Curtain defense and  star runner Franco Harris.

However, Joe Gilliam beat out the five-year veteran Bradshaw for the starting job. Thus, an eventual two-time Super Bowl MVP did not start until Week 7 of the ’74 season after Gilliam’s struggles became too great to deal with.

Bradshaw re-entered the lineup only to be benched again that season for…Terry Hanratty. It wasn’t until Super Bowls XIII and XIV did Bradshaw truly grab the team by the horns on the field.

Ultimately, Montana’s path to greatness was a straighter line than Bradshaw. Hence, Bradshaw’s name is never a serious contender in any discussion regarding the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.

But I digress.

With apologies to Otto Graham and Bart Starr, the number of excellence in quarterback success during the Super Bowl era is four…as in Super Bowl rings.

Despite hanging up his cleats in 1995, Montana remains the quarterback that all other quarterbacks are judged against. His 16 playoff wins (tied with Tom Brady for the most in NFL history) and 4-0 Super Bowl record remain a testament to his enduring greatness.

Since winning his fourth ring following Super Bowl XXIV, five quarterbacks won multiple Vince Lombardi trophies but none have reached Montana’s mark:

  • Troy Aikman: A Class of 2006 addition to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Aikman won three Super Bowls over a four-year span with the Dallas Cowboys. It seemed that at the very least, a fourth Super Bowl appearance was inevitable. Despite winning his third Super Bowl ring at 29 and being surrounded by eventual Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin on offense (and another when offensive lineman Larry Allen gets in), he never returned. A slew of injuries, free agency, ego, and dreadful drafts prevented the Cowboys from winning four Super Bowls in a decade.
  • Tom Brady: The greatest threat to Montana’s four rings will have a historical black mark on his record if he ties or surpasses Joe Cool – his two Super Bowl losses to the Giants. For all of achievements, remarkably stylish haircuts, and gorgeous wife, his somewhat flukey losses to the Giants will grant scribes and talking heads the license to denounce his claim as the greatest quarterback of all-time. Plus, Brady will be 35 at the start of the 2012 season. Time is running out. On a personal note, I use Bobby Heenan logic when it comes to Brady’s Super Bowl ring count. He is at four in my mind. I consider an NFL team going 16-0 in the regular season just as awe-inspiring as winning a Super Bowl. That’s good enough for me. Unfortunately though, my logic is that of a delusional person at times.
  • John Elway: As Charles Barkley told us a few weeks ago about Tim Duncan after the San Antonio Spurs were eliminated from the NBA playoffs, Father Time is undefeated as Elway learned as well. After dropping three Super Bowls to the Giants, Redskins, and Montana’s 49ers from the ’86 to ’89 seasons, Elway rallied with back to back titles in the 1997 and ’98 seasons. Following the latter victory and winning Super Bowl XXXIII MVP honors, Elway retired.
  • Eli Manning: Manning’s Giants are the idiot savants of this era. Their Vince Lombardi-winning efforts are thanks to a wide receiver pinning a football to his helmet in Super Bowl XLII; and then a collection of bizarre occurrences in Super Bowl XLVI including an intentional grounding penalty resulting in a safety and Wes Welker’s infamous fourth quarter drop. So, are the Giants a budding dynasty? Not so fast. Excluding their two Super Bowl runs in 2007 and 2011, guess how many playoff wins the Giants have in those Manning-led years since his 2004 rookie campaign? Zero. That’s a bit odd but it shows just how much good fortune is needed to win a Super Bowl, let alone four of them.
  • Ben Roethlisberger: The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback owns two rings in three Super Bowl appearances but also a litany of injuries. He has only played in all 16 games in a regular season once due to injuries. At 30, Roethlisberger still has plenty of football left in him…or does he? Opposing defenses sacked Big Ben at least 40 times in six of the past seven seasons. Also, check out this injury page from that stops in 2010. This guy has taken a beating. Granted, how many quarterbacks are truly healthy by the end of a season? Nonetheless, throw in a high ankle sprain last year and a motorcycle accident in 2006, and the 2004 first-round selection may not have as much football left in him as we might think. Oh yeah, he might want to stay from any more brushes with the law too.

Manning and Roethlisberger, once young pups, are grizzled veterans at this point. At 31 and 30, respectively, their proverbial football biological clocks are ticking too.

It’s going to be difficult though for them or anyone else outside of Brady to reach Montana’s mark.

In order to win one Super Bowl or four for that matter, numerous factors come into play:

Luck  – Geez, where do you start with Joe? How about the time San Fran turned over the ball six times in the ’81 NFC title game versus Dallas, and still won? Or when cornerback Eric Wright tackled Drew Pearson with a fingernail to save a potential game-winning touchdown during the same game? Or when Lewis Billups dropped an interception in the end zone during the second half of Super Bowl XXIII? Or when the 49ers drafted the greatest player in NFL history to play wide receiver? Or when Bill Walsh’s plan to put Montana in mothballs and replace him with Steve Young failed? Or that there wasn’t a significant free agency system while his Niners run took place? You get the point. In-season and off-season fortune is a huge part of this.

Head Coaching Stability – Bradshaw and Chuck Noll were together from 1970 to 1983 and won four Super Bowls; Brady and Belichick have been together for 10 years and have three rings; and Montana and Bill Walsh were attached at the hip for 10 seasons and won three Super Bowls. Montana’s fourth came one year later after Walsh retired following Super Bowl XXIII. George Seifert took over but essentially won with Walsh’s players. It’s hard to be a repeat winner with multiple head coaches. In fact of the 11 quarterbacks that won multiple Super Bowls only three did so with two different head coaches. Aikman, Montana, and Roethlisberger pulled it off with two of the three losing their head coaches due to retirement.

Adaptability – The NFL doesn’t stay the same for long whether it be scheme or team personnel. Montana won his first two Super Bowls with Dwight Clark as his leading receiver. Opponents caught up with Frisco after Super Bowl XVI and then again, following Super Bowl XIX when the 49ers did not have anyone to stretch defenses. The 49ers responded by drafting Rice in 1985. Three seasons later, he was a Pro Bowler. When guys like Ricky Patton and Bill Ring were ineffective rushers, San Fran drafted Roger Craig and acquired Wendell Tyler. Alas, be prepared to make changes, don’t stand pat.

Talent – There has been plenty of verbal and written lovemaking done to the Montana-led 49ers’ offense over the years. However, their run isn’t possible without a significant amount of help along the defensive side of the football. Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Pierce Holt, Kevin Fagan, Charles Haley, and Jack Reynolds are just some of the names that helped make San Francisco’s defense one of the biggest reasons why the team became a dynasty. Without them, Montana is Peyton Manning; a great player but someone who couldn’t overcome his team’s deficiencies to win more than one Super Bowl. No offense, P.

Especially during the free agency, it indeed does take a village to become a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

All of those factors coming together to allow a quarterback to win a collection of Super Bowls is rare, which is why Montana’s four rings help make him the NFL’s gold standard of quarterbacking excellence.

Maybe Brady, Eli, Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers can get to the top of the quarterbacking mountain one of these days.

Until then, every quarterback will strive to be like Joe.

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