As Joe Montana was walking off the field, he mouthed the winner's big-game words: "I'm going to Disney World." What should have been going through his mind was: "I'm going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame."
From Montana in the end zone with 34 seconds left Sunday, John Taylor grabbed the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XXIII and a prominent place in history for his quarterback and his 49ers.With three Super Bowl victories in the 1980s, the 49ers deserve mention with the Steelers of the '70s, the Packers of the '60s, the Browns of the '50s and some others consistently excellent uncommonly long.
With a 92-yard touchdown drive that produced the 20-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, Montana joins the elite fraternity of tension-popping quarterbacks. Let's imagine Roger Staubach holding open the door and crooking a finger toward the 32-year-old quarterback some thought finished about 10 games ago.
Pour Joe a drink, Staubach might say to Terry Bradshaw. Let Joe slide in next to you, Staubach might motion to Otto Graham and John Unitas.
Montana does not overcome ordinary adversity. Back surgery, for instance. Backs-against-the-wall pressure that produced The Catch against the Cowboys in an NFC title game seven seasons ago and The Drive Sunday.
A near-unanimous decision cost Montana the chance to be named most valuable player for the third time in a Super Bowl. Probably, he led the applause for Jerry Rice, whose 11 catches included the second best (behind Lynn Swann) in Super Bowl history.
Still, consider these numbers Montana has compiled in Super Bowls XVI, XIX and XXIII: 61 completions in 93 attempts for 845 yards and six touchdowns. Immortal stuff.
Along with so much else. Forty-Niners Coach Bill Walsh had that figured out long ago.
"Montana will be a great quarterback of the future," Walsh said after another 49er team beat another gang of Bengals seven Super Bowls ago. "He's one of the coolest competitors of all time and he has just started."
He's not close to finished now.
Those who see an end for Walsh as 49ers coach, perhaps sometime next week, have no such visions of Montana. Even the surgeon who operated on Montana two seasons ago and worries about his patient's long-term future seems resigned to more Joe-go.
"I want to have a few more gray hairs than George Blanda when he retired," Montana has said.
The gray hairs were sprouting in other heads during that rarest of Super Bowls: a close game that should have kept the enormous television audience away from other prime-time entertainment for a change.
The problem seemed more those around him than Montana. The protection was nothing special for the first half, neither were the usually competent special teams, who allowed a length-of-the-field kickoff return for a go-ahead touchdown.
Walsh seemed timid at times, once choosing to go for a field goal early in the second quarter of a 3-3 game on fourth and less than a yard inside the Bengal two. Even those seemingly certain three points fizzled on a botched snap.
So it went.
Something close to inspiring, such as Rice's 44-yard leaping catch with a Bengal wrapped around his waist, would lift the 49ers; something nice by the Bengals would keep it from producing any points.
Cincinnati was surprising in many ways. Without nose tackle Tim Krumrie, who suffered a broken leg early in the first quarter, its usually suspect defense figured to be Denver-porous.
Instead, the Bengals were superb. Especially strong was saftety David Fulcher, who caused a fumble and less obvious misery for more than a half. But the 49er defense alwo was fine, holding the league's most valuable player in the regular season, Boomer Esiason, to no touchdown passes. He had thrown 28 during the regular season.
In a mostly defensive, records still were set for punt returns (45 yards), the longest punt (63 yards) and shortest field-goal miss (19 yards). Also set was the unofficial record for most broken legs: two.
And then came the two-plus minutes for which Montana seems to live: 49ers down by a field goal; first and 92 for victory.
"There was a master at it," said Bengal coach Sam Wyche, a 49er aide when Montana was MVP of Super Bowl XVI. "He reproved it again. He has the touch."
"You don't want anyone in the history of the game in that spot except Joe Montana," Cross said. Who's to argue? The eyes saw Montana pitching and thinking; the mind saw Unitas back when the Super Bowl was nothing more than the NFL title game.
Short pass to a running back, short pass to a tight end, a couple of draw plays. Then a long sideline pass that only a gifted receiver such as Rice could gather in with his fingertips.
Rice soon took matters into his own hands and feet, catching a pass with two Bengals on him and two more nearby and wiggling lose for 27 yards to the Bengal 18.