Joe Goes

Joe Montana, the odd man out in San Francisco, signs with the Chiefs
April 25, 1993

It shouldn't have happened this way. Nobody deserved to be treated like this, especially not Joe Montana, the premier quarterback of the '80s. The guy who put four Super Bowl trophies in the case was severely jerked around by his team, the San Francisco 49ers. He got the old switcheroo, the good cop-bad cop treatment. In the end the Niners got stung, and they lost their man.

The Montana saga, which over the last two weeks changed hour by hour, reads like something out of an old J. Edgar Hoover file—you had to keep checking to see what had been added or deleted. It all began on April 7, when the 49ers, who had given Steve Young the starting job, gave Montana permission to shop himself around for a trade. Then last Saturday, San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. told Montana, Hey, guess what, you're our starting quarterback. This was six hours after the Niners told the Kansas City Chiefs that they wouldn't trade Montana to them unless the Chiefs softened the terms of their proposal. And it was less than 24 hours after Montana had turned down the Phoenix Cardinals, whose offer the 49ers had accepted pending Montana's approval.

The 49ers figured it was a lock. How could Montana walk away from a chance to compete for his old job, especially going in as the front-runner? They figured wrong. On Monday, having grown weary of the ceaseless, back-and-forth maneuvering, Montana said goodbye to the 49ers and announced that he would play for the Chiefs. "Three days prior to my decision to go with the Kansas City Chiefs. read his terse, one-page statement, "once again the 49ers stated publicly there would be no open competition for the starting job. Although Mr. DeBartolo and I spoke on Saturday about finishing my career with the 49ers, it is not going to be possible based on the commitment I made to the Chiefs on Friday." The bitterness was unmistakable.

This we know for sure: In early February, Niner coach George Seifert said that Young would be the starter. Seifert's position was not unreasonable. Young was coming off an NFL Player of the Year season, and Montana's surgically repaired elbow had sidelined him for two years.

This we heard: San Francisco had tried to peddle Young earlier this month—first for a pair of first-round draft choices and then for a high first-round selection, in particular that of the Seattle Seahawks, who own the second pick in this Sunday's draft. The trade would have positioned the 49ers for a shot at Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer (page 73) and would have created an enviable lineup of Montana as the starter, the veteran Steve Bono as the backup and Mirer as the quarterback of the future. Nearly everyone around the league seems to recall hearing something to that effect, but there was no solid confirmation of the Young trade talks. Supposedly the Niners contacted six teams regarding a Young deal but found no takers. Supposedly.

This we know for sure: After the Niners signed Bono to a three-year, $5.1 million contract on April 7, they gave Montana's agent, Peter Johnson, the green light to shop his client. Johnson would find a team willing to pay millions for Montana's services, and then that team would have to work a trade with San Francisco, which has Montana under contract through the '93 season. The Cardinals and the Chiefs were seriously interested.

On Thursday, April 8, Montana worked out for the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Montana threw for half an hour to equipment men. The Chiefs liked what they saw.

The next day he was in Phoenix, meeting Cardinal people and getting a physical. "Hordes of media were at the airport, fans with flowers, the whole bit," says Phoenix publicist Greg Gladysiewski. "A fan, Susana Chavez, had named her infant after him. Sara Joe Montana Chavez."

"Two news helicopters followed us in from the airport," says Johnson. "The scoreboard at Sun Devil Stadium said WELCOME JOE MONTANA. Senator Dennis DeConcini was there to meet us. It was like Michael Jackson coming to town."

Last week the process was reversed. Montana worked out on Thursday in Phoenix, throwing to the Cardinals' full set of wideouts, including newly acquired Gary Clark, the former Washington Redskin. Montana threw about 30 passes, including five of more than 50 yards. Four were on the money, the other was overthrown by a couple of feet. Afterward Clark got down on his knees and said, "See, I'm begging him to come here."

The Cardinals, who drew fewer than 30,000 fans for each of their last three home games in 1992, offered San Francisco a first-round draft choice—the 20th pick overall—for Montana, straight up. The Niners said fine.

Montana was scheduled to fly from Phoenix to Kansas City to arrive at 5:10 last Friday morning. The Chiefs said, Forget it, we'll send a private plane for you. On Friday the Chiefs took Montana and his wife, Jennifer, to lunch and dinner. Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt flew up from Dallas. Coach Marty Schottenheimer and his entire staff were on hand, including new offensive coordinator Paul Hackett, who had been Montana's quarterback coach from 1983 to '85 in San Francisco. They talked about Hackett's new offense, which would be similar to the Niner attack. Then Montana, Jennifer and Johnson stepped away for a brief private session. The decision was in. Joe would be a Kansas City Chief.

K.C. general manager Carl Peterson offered 49er president Carmen Policy the Chiefs' first-round draft pick (the 18th overall) in exchange for Montana, San Francisco's second-round draft pick and David Whitmore, the Niners' first-string strong safety last year but a projected backup this fall. Too steep, said Policy. No deal.

Montana had planned to meet with DeBartolo in San Francisco four days later, but on Saturday, with the deal suddenly collapsing, Montana decided to fly immediately to DeBartolo's Youngstown, Ohio, home. He was going to remind DeBartolo that the 49ers had made a commitment to help him get to the team of his choice. It was at that Saturday afternoon session that Eddie D dropped the bomb: You're our starter. Young can compete for the job, but you can come in as the first teamer—or go somewhere else. It's your call. "Joe was stunned," says Policy.

So was everyone else—Johnson, the Chiefs, the Cardinals, Susana Chavez, her baby girl—everybody, especially Montana. In his mind, he was a Chief. In choosing K.C. over Phoenix, he had taken nearly a $5 million hit. The Cardinals had offered him $15 million over three years, a deal that would have made him the highest-paid NFL player in history. The package was so front-loaded with bonuses and incentives that he could have earned $8 million in his first season. Kansas City's offer was $10 million and change for the same three years, with almost $5 million in the first year. Clearly Montana wanted to play for the Chiefs, a playoff team in each of the last three seasons. Phoenix, by contrast, is 13-35 in that same span.

Throughout the weekend—DeBartolo and Montana flew from Youngstown to San Francisco on Sunday—DeBartolo, Policy and Seifert kept telling Montana: The job is yours if you want it and if you can take the competition from Young. The decision had been Seifert's, they said. He had made it last week. Montana said he would talk it over with Jennifer, and he went home. The next day he announced he wanted to play for the Chiefs.

Now, let's try to unravel this thing. If Seifert or whoever really wanted Montana to be San Francisco's No. 1 quarterback, why did the Niners allow matters to get this far? Why did they let Montana work out the two contracts? Why were the 49ers willing to make a deal if the terms were right? Why had Seifert said that Young was No. 1?

A few cynics have suggested that the Niners' seemingly late change of heart was simply an attempt to pressure the Chiefs into lightening up on their trade demands. But would the 49ers really mistreat an all-timer that way? Besides, who's kidding whom? When has Joe Montana ever ducked a challenge? Joe, you're No. 1 as long as you can take the heat, but you can always clear out. C'mon now.

"First of all," said Policy on Sunday night, "George didn't actually make up his mind until late in the week, although he'd toyed with the idea earlier. When he named Young as the starter, he felt that open competition would create a circus atmosphere. But he always wanted Joe to be part of the team. It took George some time to reverse his field. Do you know how hard it was for him to do that?"

O.K., Carmen, then why didn't you let Joe know the decision was in the works before he went to Phoenix and Kansas City? "Look, this is a wacky situation," said Policy. "I'm not going to tell you that emotion didn't play a part in it. Maybe the fact that we saw him ready to leave tugged at us. Maybe negotiating with Kansas City made us sit up and say, Hey, we're haggling over Joe Montana. This is senseless. Why don't we try to keep him?"

That's the official version. Two weeks before Montana's Youngstown meeting with DeBartolo, according to a newsletter, the Niners were thinking of making Montana the starter, a move that now seems to have been orchestrated by DeBartolo and forced down Seifert's throat. Montana had to decide if he really wanted to put up with the turmoil that would surround him and the Niners if he stayed. The answer was no. Give me my freedom.

As of Monday he and Johnson were counting on the 49ers to stick by their promise to allow him to play where he wanted, i.e., Kansas City. San Francisco has other ideas. "We never told him that," said Policy on Sunday. "We'll take Joe's wishes into consideration, but we're not promising anything. Eddie at one time was seriously considering holding Joe to the terms of his contract. If we do let Joe go, it's up to the organization to work out the terms, and right now Kansas City's terms are unacceptable."

The Niners were surprised but not stunned by Montana's decision. "Maybe at this point," said Policy, "Joe doesn't want the league MVP chasing him around the field. Maybe he feels it's year to year for him here, but in Kansas City he can play for three years with no backup quarterback even a threat. What's that guy's name in Kansas City...[Dave] Krieg?"

Montana in a Chief uniform when he had a chance to take the Niners to another Super Bowl seems a bit odd now, but who knows? Hackett may be installing the 49er system, but the players are still Kansas City style: big, heavy, drive-blocking linemen, far different from the nimble trap blockers in San Francisco; decent wideouts but certainly not in a league with Jerry Rice and John Taylor; no tight end who can split the seam or run the crossing pattern like Brent Jones; no spin-move, big-yardage runner in Ricky Watters's class; no fullback like Tom Rathman who can perform the dual tasks of being a heavy-duty blocker and an outstanding possession receiver. The Chiefs have a difficult job ahead of them.

Montana will be 37 in June, and history has not treated aging quarterbacks kindly, particularly after they have switched teams. Who can forget John Unitas in '73 in a San Diego Charger uniform sitting behind rookie Dan Fouts? Or Joe Namath languishing on the bench with the Los Angeles Rams in '77—and Namath was only 34 when he left the Jets.

A few quarterbacks have gotten it done at 37. Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers is only five months younger than Montana, and he is still Pro Bowl caliber. The Minnesota Vikings won two division titles with Fran Tarkenton calling signals at 37 and 38. George Blanda was in his 40's when he was pulling games out for the Oakland Raiders in '70 and '71. Sonny Jurgensen, 40, and splitting time with Billy Kilmer, himself 35, ran up a 94.6 quarterback rating for the '74 Redskins, who finished 10-4. Y.A. Tittle was 37 when he led the Giants into the 1963 NFL championship game against the Chicago Bears.

It can be done. And maybe Montana will do it for the Chiefs. It just should have happened differently.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVER PHOTORICHARD MACKSONMontana was KO'd in the '90 postseason, but elbow surgery the next fall cost him his starting job. PHOTOMANNY MILLAN[See caption above.] PHOTOGREG JESSENJoe met DeConcini in Phoenix and the press in K.C., where Schottenheimer wooed the Montanas. PHOTORICH SUGG[See caption above.] PHOTODANIEL STARLING[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN IACONOWhen the Niners dominated the '80s, there was no question who was No. 1 in San Francisco.

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