Someday, when football historian sit down and analyze the great NFL quarterbacks, they will stop at Super Bowl XXIV and say, "Here was a fascinating matchup." John Elway versus Joe Montana. Denver Broncos versus San Francisco 49ers. The individual versus the system.
Montana and the system are heavy favorites going into Sunday's game in New Orleans. Why shouldn't they be? The Niners' offensive system, put in 10 years ago by then coach Bill Walsh and refined by his successor, George Seifert, and offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, has reached a frightening level of proficiency. The 49ers' two playoff victories approached perfection offensively, and Montana was close to flawless in both. Technically precise, gifted with an uncanny touch on short passes, he has been the ideal operator of the system.
"Watching him in the playoffs was like watching him in a skeleton drill in practice," says Mike Giddings, who runs a scouting service for 12 NFL clubs. "It was like a professional quarterback coming back to his high school and running a drill. I've never seen a quarterback make it look as easy as Joe does."
He completed nothing deep in the 49ers' 41-13 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional playoffs or in their 30-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC title game. He didn't have to. Protected by his offensive line of tackles Bubba Paris and Harris Barton, guards Guy McIntyre and Bruce Collie and center Jesse Sapolu, Montana carved up both teams with crosses and slants and quick outs. He gave them the slow death.
Elway has been wild and unpredictable in the playoffs, a mirror of his season—of his whole career, actually. When the Broncos' system breaks down, he puts in his own system—scrambling out of the pocket, peering downfield, buying time, dodging a rusher, looking, always looking. Then comes a flick of the arm, and from nowhere one of Denver's fleet wide receivers—Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson or the new one, Michael Young—materializes 40 yards downfield with the ball in his hands.
"Elway's greatest strength is reading on the run," says San Francisco linebacker Matt Millen, a former Raider who has seen more than his share of Elway from the other side of the ball. "Always was, always will be."
"The Cleveland Browns said to Elway, 'We're going to blitz the hell out of you,' " says 49er defensive coordinator Bill McPherson of Denver's opponent in the AFC Championship Game. "They chased him plenty, and what does he give 'em? The Singapore Sling."
That's the fascination of this matchup. It's the machine versus the free-spinning wheel, Broadway against improvisational theater. Elway's postseason statistics, in beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-23 and Cleveland 37-21, don't match Montana's except in one category: the long one. Elway is at the top of his game, with four touchdown passes and one interception in the playoffs, but here's the exciting stat: 19.5 yards per completion (versus Montana's 11.7). The NFL's quarterback rating system doesn't award points for a number like that; all that number does is give cornerbacks gray hair.
Denver versus Cleveland, Jan. 14: Elway scrambles right and finds Young for a 70-yard touchdown. Elway scrambles left, buys time and finds Young for 53 down the left side. Elway scrambles left on third-and-10, stops and throws across his body to Johnson, who's crossing left to right, away from him, for a 20-yard gain.
Montana can throw with touch on the go too, but his big numbers have been built with timed patterns off short drops. And no quarterback has ever put together the playoff numbers that Montana has. In three playoff games last season and two this year, he has thrown 14 touchdown passes and one interception, and it came 112 passes ago. His quarterback rating for those five games is an unheard-of 127.2. Then consider his final-minute drive to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in last year's Super Bowl and his selection as MVP in the other two Super Bowls the Niners have won, in 1982 and '85. He has the skins on the wall.
Under Elway the Broncos have been blown out in two Super Bowls. In both games he found himself in the shadow of the opposing quarterback. Elway lifted Denver to a 10-9 first-half lead over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI, and his numbers at intermission read 13 completions in 20 attempts for 187 yards. But that was the day Giants quarterback Phil Simms chose to have a career game, completing 22 of 25 passes, and by the second half the undersized Broncos had been worn down. Final score: New York 39, Denver 20. A year later Elway's long passes got the Broncos off to a 10-0 lead over the Washington Redskins—he completed three of his first four throws for 96 yards—but that accomplishment was buried under the Redskins' 35-point avalanche in the second quarter and under the record 340 yards passing that won quarterback Doug Williams the MVP and Washington a 42-10 victory.
Both Montana and Elway have had poor stretches. At midseason the Broncos had a 6-2 record, but they were coming off a 28-24 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, and Elway had turned in a miserable performance. Scouts were saying that his fundamentals were screwed up. He was feuding with the local media. Maybe it was his reunion with quarterback coach Mike Shanahan, who returned to Denver in Week 7 after an unhappy 1½-Year stint as head coach of the Raiders, but by the start of the postseason, Elway had pulled his game together.
Montana's walk through the shadows was longer, and it cut deeper. In the mid-1980s he was recovering from the breakup of his second marriage, a costly business venture of his had failed, and he was the target of unsubstantiated drug rumors. "I remember watching the six o'clock news with Joe one night," says his present wife, Jennifer. "They flashed his face on the screen, and underneath was the word drugs. Then they went to a commercial. I can remember Joe's eyes welling up. It was just so untrue, but what could we do about it?"
"The absolute low point came in 1985," says Montana. We'd lost to Detroit on the road, we were 3-4, and I came back with the flu. Our baby, Alexandra, had caught it, and I was getting in the car to take her to the hospital, holding her in my arms, and I couldn't get out of the driveway. A bus was blocking it, and the driver, a woman, was sitting there making faces at me and turning thumbs down, and all the people on the bus were staring. I just sat there thinking, Just go away. Please go away. That was the worst."
In 1986 he needed surgery to widen his spinal canal. He was 30. Doctors told him it would be risky to play again. He was back in eight weeks. He was named All-Pro the next season, when he threw a league-high 31 touchdown passes and led the Niners to a 13-2 record. But then came a first-round playoff loss to Minnesota, in which Montana was benched for his 26-year-old backup, Steve Young. For a while in '88 he and Young shared the position, and the word was that Montana was trade bait.
"I didn't want to go anywhere else, but Jen and I sat down and started looking at teams," says Montana. "Two that jumped out were San Diego and the Raiders. We started planning how we'd do it—would she move out with me right away or stay in the house? I knew I wasn't through, but I thought maybe I'd have to prove it somewhere else."
Leading the Niners to their third Super Bowl victory, last January, put an end to that. But the bitterness remains. "He could have one bad week," says Jennifer, "and it would all start again."
"His confidence is so high that it will be a problem slowing him down," says Bronco defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (page 62). "At one time Ken Stabler was considered the NFL's most accurate passer. He was hitting 60 percent of his throws when most of the league was in the 50's. Now the league is approaching 60 percent, and Montana's at 70 percent. He's got a lot more weapons to work with now. They're throwing to their fullback, Tom Rathman, more, and they've got a real threat at split end—John Taylor—who can burn you short or long."
Taylor broke two short catches for 90-plus yards against the Rams in Week 14, and San Francisco's other wideout, Jerry Rice, turned a five-yard pattern into a 72-yard TD in the playoff game against the Vikings. There's a reason these plays turned into long gainers. Montana's timing is so sharp on short passes that his receivers are almost always in full stride when they catch the ball. They run their routes with confidence, knowing the ball will be where they want it. They're in perfect balance. Hence, the short becomes long.
"One strength of their offense is that they don't make their players do what they can't do," says Phillips. "They have everyone in the right slot. Our defense is the same way. For instance, our left linebacker, Michael Brooks, is real strong against the tight end, so he plays the tight end, and he is expected to be stiff against the run. Our right linebacker, Simon Fletcher, can rush the passer, so that's what we let him do. We free up our strong inside backer, Karl Mecklenburg, so people can't get to him, and we protect our corners by not putting them in too much man-to-man. You know, the 49ers have scored 30 or more points in 10 games this season, counting the playoffs, but we have yet to give up 30 points in a game."
The Denver defense has some new players, including left end Alphonso Carreker and right corner Wymon Henderson, both of whom are Plan B pickups. It's also got a new coaching staff under Phillips and a new philosophy—all in an effort to prevent what happened to the Broncos in their last two Super Bowls. The Giants wore them down physically. The Redskins destroyed them with their favorite running play, the counter gap, in which the offside guard and tackle pull and lead the back through the hole. Now Denver has bigger, bulkier defensive players, although the Steelers hit them hard with the same counter gap play in the divisional playoff. And the 49ers got good mileage out of the play in both their postseason victories. One key to Sunday's game will be how well Denver copes with the counter gap.
The Broncos can rush the ball better now too, but the effectiveness of their ground attack will depend largely on the condition of rookie halfback Bobby Humphrey, who cracked two ribs against the Browns.
If the Niners have shown one weakness in the playoffs, it has been a tendency to play soft on defense in the early going. The Vikings and Rams both got long drives, capped by field goals, the first time they had the ball. For Elway, a long drive could be two plays—for a touchdown.
But just as Montana has lifted the San Francisco offense in the postseason, 30-year-old free safety Ronnie Lott has elevated the defense. He has been the steadying influence, the guy who keeps everything under control. "A guy like Elway can make things happen so quickly that he can induce a state of panic in a defense," says Lott. "That's when you have to step in."
The smart money says the 49ers will blow out the Broncos. The line opened at 10 points after San Francisco routed the Rams. A week later it jumped to 12. People with long memories recall the biggest Super Bowl spread of all, in 1969, when the Baltimore Colts opened as 17-point favorites over the New York Jets. After the bettors took a good look at the Jets, the number rose to 19½.
"Big numbers scare me," says Millen. "I remember how the Jets beat the Colts and how Kansas City beat Minnesota [in Super Bowl IV] when the Chiefs were heavy underdogs."
Perhaps the truest Super Bowl formula of all is this: Go with the hot team. No one has ever been as hot as the Niners. The call here is San Francisco 31, Denver 21.