When it comes to playing quarterback in a Super Bowl, Joe Montana stands alone at the top of the mountain. Terry Bradshaw won four rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, but even his lofty play fell a few notches short of the San Francisco 49ers legend whose number 16 jersey has become synonymous with success in the NFL’s biggest game.
Some of the most recognisable names in the game have quarterbacked their teams to victory in the Super Bowl, including Tom Brady, Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. But the history books will show they all rightly play second fiddle to Montana.
While he was consistently elite during a Hall of Fame career, it was Montana’s performances in Super Bowls that elevated him into the realms of being considered the greatest quarterback of all-time. The numbers don’t lie. In four Super Bowls – all victories – Montana completed 83 of 122 passes (68%) for 1,142 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. His quarterback rating was an incredible 127.8 while beating the Cincinnati Bengals twice (Super Bowls XVI and XXIII), the Miami Dolphins (Super Bowl XIX) and the Denver Broncos (Super Bowl XXIV). He was named Most Valuable Player in three of those games, cementing his place in NFL history with clutch play in the most high-pressure situations.
In an exclusive interview with Gridiron magazine, Montana charted each Super Bowl success and also tackled some other subjects surrounding his outstanding career.
Montana on… Super Bowl XVI (San Francisco 26, Cincinnati 21)
The first one was great and was one of those things I would never forget. I remember stepping onto a Super Bowl field for the first time and the yays and the boos met at the 50-yard line. Once the game gets going, it becomes just another game but all the excitement around that first Super Bowl was very memorable to me. We didn’t actually play at the top of our game in that Super Bowl – but we got the win.
Montana on… Super Bowl XIX (San Francisco 38, Miami 16)
This was a Super Bowl that we basically played at home, just down the road at Stanford. Coming into the game, Dan Marino had just come into the league and there was a lot of hype about how he played the game.
He was always fun for me to watch and I enjoyed how he played the position. The one thing that was overlooked in the game is how good our defense was that year. We had our best defense that year in all the seasons I played in San Francisco. People didn’t think our defense could slow down Danny, but they soon found out otherwise as Ronnie Lott and those guys put on a show.
Montana on… star spotting ahead of his game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXIII (San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16)
One of the things I always tried to do was be myself, whether it be at the start of a game or the end of a game, whether we were winning or losing. We were in a TV timeout and happened to be waiting for the clock to start so we could begin the drive to win the Super Bowl. Our starting tackle, Harris Barton, was a people person. So all through Super Bowl week we were free for dinner every evening. So every morning Harris would come back in like a little kid as he told us about all the celebrities he had seen the night before. He was always so excited about it. So we were standing in the huddle and I looked at Harris and, over his shoulder, I saw John Candy. I didn’t remember Harris saying he had seen John Candy so I thought he would be interested to see John Candy while we were waiting to start playing. He looked over to the stands at John Candy and then looked back at me as if to say, ‘You’re crazy. What are you thinking about? We’re trying to win a game.’ I thought I was being nice to him.
Montana on… almost passing out during that game-winning drive against the Bengals
I never had it happen before – the crowd was so loud that I was screaming at the top of my voice, even in the huddle. I think I just ran out of oxygen. I was on my way to the line of scrimmage to put my hand under the centre and I started getting that black and white fuzzy TV look. It started to go away so I snapped the ball and, as I dropped back to pass, it came back again. I just turned to my left and threw the ball as far out of bounds as I could. And right underneath of that throw, there was Jerry Rice wide open. But I couldn’t see him.
Montana on… throwing the winning touchdown pass inside the final minute of Super Bowl XXIII
Throwing a touchdown pass to win the Super Bowl on your last drive of the game is something I did a thousand times before in the back yard with my best friend at receiver. As a quarterback, it is a dream come true to win any game that way, but especially a Super Bowl.
Montana on… Super Bowl XXIV (San Francisco 55, Denver 10)
I get a lot of credit and Jerry Rice gets a lot of credit, but you don’t win that many championships without great defenses and we had them. We shut down another high-powered quarterback in John Elway and we had so many offensive weapons that year.
We got on a roll and it was kind of hard to slow us down. I’m not sure I enjoyed the fourth Super Bowl win as much as I might have because we got so far ahead they took me out of the game early. I don’t like coming out of games, especially the Super Bowl – you don’t want to come out of that one.
Montana on… playing with Jerry Rice
I don’t see anybody better than Jerry Rice, I can tell you that. There are some people who say they are better than Jerry Rice but that guy, Randy Moss, may have a concussion or two because he is clearly not thinking correctly. Jerry is the best I ever saw play the game. He just had an ability to get deep and to get behind a defense.
Montana on… playing for Bill Walsh, who was his coach for three of those four Super Bowl crowns
Bill was one of those special coaches who come around only a few times in the league. There are some great coaches but only a handful of special ones in NFL history. Bill was one of them and he had a unique way about him in terms of his personality, how he treated his players and how his players were supposed to treat everybody else. There was total respect there and he demanded perfection. We would come to practice and he would have a script of plays. He would say, ‘Here we go. We’re running 90 plays. You can be out here for 90 minutes or you can be out here for 290 minutes. It depends how you want to practice’. If we didn’t do it right, we ran a play over and over again until we got it right.
Montana on… San Francisco’s diverse attack
One of the things you could see about our offense was that we didn’t just throw to the wide receivers. We would throw a lot of passes to the running backs and to the tight end – Bill Walsh liked to get everybody involved. Jerry Rice got a lot of balls because he got open a lot and he was usually number one in our progression as we went through our reads, but we really liked to get Roger Craig involved as well. He was not only a great running back; he could catch the ball out of the backfield very well.
Montana on… being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
The Hall of Fame was a strange experience for me at first because it felt like they were putting nails in my coffin. I was kind of like, ‘It was hard enough to retire and now you’re going to do this to me?’ But then I looked at it as just getting on another team, this time with some of the greatest players to ever play the game. Then I started to settle down and enjoy it a little bit more.
Montana on… still missing the game today
I wish everyone could experience a Sunday afternoon on the football field in the NFL. It is the most exciting thing I have ever done in my life. When you retire, you try to find that excitement but there’s nothing that even comes close. If we could take a magic pill and go back and play tomorrow, we would all take it right away.
This article originally appeared in Issue V of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE