Tuesday, October 02, 2007

49ers, Montana, Walsh

I don't know why I feel compelled to write this... but a couple days ago, we were trying to figure out greatest NFL quarterbacks, and of course, Joe Montana came up. I don't know if everyone remembers this, but when Montana led the 49ers to their improbable Super Bowl victory in 1981, no one had ever heard of the West Coast offense before. We've certainly heard a lot about it since.... I mean those things just didn't happen in those days. Throughout the '70s, the NFL was basically controlled by a handful of teams, the Steelers, Dolphins, Cowboys, Rams, Vikings, Raiders, and Rams. The Broncos and Redskins I think each snuck into the Super Bowl once, but they were always solid, good playoff contending teams. The 49ers and Montana, well, they came out of nowhere. They went from back-to-back 2-14 seasons (one of which they didn't even have a first-round pick after because they traded it to the Bills for O.J.) to 6-10, to Super Bowl champions. After that, they were pretty much a power for the next 20 years. When you come from such humble beginnings to achieve such great heights, people take notice, which is what they did of 49ers coach Bill Walsh and his West Coast offense. Some form of this offense is now probably used by at least half the teams in the league. But at that time...

Well, at that time, it was all about establishing the run, then throwing deep off the play action. All the aforementioned power teams of the '70s had great power running games. The West Coast offense turned the accepted offensive theory of the day on its head. It established the short passing game first and used that to open up the run. And, Montana, who was a third-round pick because he didn't have the classic big arm needed to throw the long ball, acceled in the accuracy-driven West Coast system.

In three years, he went from rookie back-up, to being a starter halfway through his second year, to a Super Bowl champion. And the 'Niners never looked back. In fact, it was the rest of the league that was looking ahead and them and saw the future.

Obviously, Montana excelled in the West Coast offense, but he was also kind of the right guy, in the right place, at the right time. Suppose Tampa Bay had taken him two picks earlier, instead of the erstwhile Rick Berns, a halfback from Nebraska, who I don't remember if he ever played a single down in the NFL? Would San Francisco have taken hometown kid Steve Dils from Stanford, who ended up going to the Vikes in the 4th round, and tried to run the West Coast offense through him? And as Montana settled into the kind of mediocrity that plagued Archie Manning with the Saints, would Dils have emerged as a superstar? These are the kind of questions that kill me.

Anyways, suffice to say that Walsh and Montana were certainly a breath of fresh air in 1981 and that the NFL has not been the same since. The only thing I can compare it to is when the Bears unveiled the Wing-T in the 1940 NFL Championship game and whupped the Redskins, a team they had lost to only a couple weeks earlier, 73-0. Reportedly, soon after that, everyone else in the league had their own version of the Wing-T.

That's about it. Long live the 49ers and the glorious days of Joe Montana.



DrD said...

My mentor from Butler Community College used to say that Shakespeare was the "right guy at the right place at the right time..."

It goes to show you how important luck is in becoming famous.

If Shakespeare had been born into a time other than the Renaissance, when art and drama and history were important to the queen and to the people, he would have been just another (gifted) artist trying to eek out a living.

I think the big asset of Montana, however, was his brain. He knew what needed to happen at any point in the game and then he took the simplest path to that point.

If they needed three yards, he threw for four. If they needed ten, he threw for eleven. He would always take what the defense gave him. He seldom (never?) forced the issue.

Compare this to Vinny Testaverde, who is a giant man who can toss the football out of a stadium. Vinny's Achilles Heel was his head. If you could shake him up, you could beat him. And instead of playing smart and taking what the defense gave to him, Vinny would often try to take over a game just through the strength of his arm.

Vinny used to try to muscle passes past the defense, and he would get picked time and time again. I used to love Vinny when he played with Cleveland, because you knew, at some point, he would get shaken and blow the game. Darren Perry was one of his favorite receivers...hahahahaha.

As for Joe Montana, he never got shaken.


Ralph said...

You've got a point, Montana was a great quarerback at ND, even before he was introduced to the West Coast offense, so he might have been a better-than-alright NFL QB even without Walsh. But then again, even with his college reputation, NFL scouts were obviously not impressed, as he went with the last pick of the third-round.

Walsh was a very studious, brainiac type, and while I don't think anyone would confuse Montana with a Rhodes Scholar, he sure knew how to handle himself under the pressure of a football game. It really was a perfect marriage.

Incidentally, Johnny Unitas, who many people consider a very smart QB, could not pass the entrance exam to get into Pitt. So, there's obviously a difference between football smarts and book smarts.