Although Montana appeared in all 16 regular season games during the 1979 season, he only threw 23 passes.
He spent most of the season as the No. 2 player on the San Francisco depth chart behind fellow quarterback Steve DeBerg.
Montana did not become the number one quarterback until midway through the 1980 season.
On December 7, 1980, San Francisco hosted the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints, winless at the time, took a 35–7 lead at halftime. At the start of the fourth quarter, New Orleans still led by a score of 35–21, but San Francisco tied the game by the end of regulation play. In overtime, Ray Wersching kicked a field goal to win the game for San Francisco.
This marked the first time in Montana's career where his team overcame a fourth quarter deficit to win a game.
During his 16 seasons in the NFL, this happened a total of 31 times with Montana at quarterback; 26 of those games were while Montana was with San Francisco.
Though San Francisco finished 1980 with a record of six wins and ten losses, Montana passed for 1,795 yards and 15 touchdown passes against nine interceptions. He also completed 64.5 percent of his passes, which led the league.
Montana began the 1981 season as San Francisco's starting quarterback.
The season ended up as one of the franchise's most successful seasons to that point. Backed in part by Montana's strong performance at quarterback, the team finished the regular season with a 13–3 record.
In fact, Montana helped San Francisco win two of those games with fourth-quarter comebacks. The season was a precursor to one of Montana's most memorable moments as a professional quarterback.
On January 10, 1982, San Francisco faced the Dallas Cowboys at Candlestick Park in the National Football Conference Championship Game.
The final quarter was marked by one of the most notable plays in NFL history. Larry Schwartz of ESPN.com later defined the 1981 NFC Championship as Montana's signature game.
When San Francisco took possession with 4:54 left in regulation play, Dallas led 27–21; the drive began on San Francisco's 11-yard line.
Behind six successful Montana completions and four running plays, San Francisco moved the ball to the Dallas 13-yard line.
After one unsuccessful pass and then a seven-yard gain, San Francisco faced third down from the Dallas 6-yard line.
Montana took the snap and ran to his right. He then made an off-balance pass toward the back of the end zone, and San Francisco wide receiver Dwight Clark made a leaping catch for the game-tying touchdown. With just 51 seconds left on the game clock, Wersching kicked the extra point and San Francisco won the game 28–27.
The catch by Clark was coined simply "The Catch", and it put San Francisco into Super Bowl XVI.
San Francisco faced the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI. Montana completed 14 of 22 passes for 157 yards with one touchdown.
San Francisco won the game 26–21, and in recognition of his performance, Montana won the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Award, which he accomplished two more times before he retired.
Montana had a prolific season in 1982. However, the regular season was shortened to nine games when members of the Player's Association went on strike.
Although San Francisco failed to make the playoffs, Montana threw for 2,613 yards and 17 touchdowns during the year. He also set what was then an NFL record with five consecutive 300 yard passing games.
The next year, Montana threw for 3,910 yards and 26 touchdowns in 16 regular season games. The team ended the regular season with a 10-6 record and finished first in the NFC West.
In the divisional playoff game, they faced the Detroit Lions. Yet again, Montana demonstrated his ability to perform well in high-pressure situations.
Despite being out-played in terms of total yardage, the 49ers trailed by just six points as the game neared its conclusion.
However, with 1:23 remaining in regulation, the 49ers offense had the ball at the Lions 14-yard line.
Montana completed a touchdown pass to wide receiver Freddie Solomon, and San Francisco took the lead on the ensuing extra-point.
The victory placed the 49ers in the NFC Championship game against the Washington Redskins. As he had done before, Montana asserted himself late in the game.
The Redskins led 21–0 at the start of the fourth quarter, but Montana helped lead the 49ers back. Aided by three fourth-quarter Montana touchdown passes, the 49ers tied the game at 21.
However, Redskins placekicker Mark Moseley kicked a 25-yard field goal in the waning moments of the game. Despite Montana's efforts, the team lost 24-21.
Though the Miami Dolphins finished the 1972 NFL season with no losses, the regular season at the time comprised only 14 games.
Thus, when the 49ers finished the 1984 NFL season with a 15–1 record, they became the first team to win 15 games in a single season.
Montana again had an excellent season and earned his second consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl. In their first two playoff games, the 49ers defeated the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears by a combined score of 44-10.
In Super Bowl XIX, the 49ers faced the Dolphins, whose quarterback was Dan Marino.
In the game, Montana threw for three touchdowns and completed 24 of 35 passes. He established the Super Bowl record for most yards passing in a single game (331) and supplemented his passing with 59 yards rushing.
The 49ers defeated the Dolphins 38-16 and Montana earned his second Super Bowl MVP award. After the game, 49ers head coach Bill Walsh said: "Joe Montana is the greatest quarterback today, maybe the greatest quarterback of all time."
Aided in part by Montana's performance at quarterback, the 49ers advanced to NFL Playoffs again in 1985; however, they lost in the NFC Wild card game to the NY Giants.
In 1986, Montana suffered a severe back injury during week two of the season. The injury was so severe that Montana's doctors suggested that Montana retire.
On September 15, 1986, the 49ers placed Montana on the injured reserve list; however, he returned to the team on November 6 of that year.
Despite the fact that Montana appeared in just eight games, and, though he threw more interceptions than touchdown passes for the only time in his career, the 49ers finished the season with a record of 10–5–1.
In 1987, Montana had 31 touchdown passes, a career high, in just 13 games. In 1987, he also set the NFL record for most consecutive pass attempts without an incomplete pass (22), passed for 3,054 yards, and had a passer rating of 102.1.
Though the 49ers finished with the best record in the NFL, they lost in the NFC semi-finals to the Minnesota Vikings.
Prior to the 1987 season, Bill Walsh completed a trade for Steve Young, then a quarterback with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Young went on to appear in eight regular season games for the team and finished the year with a passer rating of 120.8.
Young's performance in 1987 was strong enough that by the time the 1988 season began, a controversy was in place as to who should get more playing time at quarterback.
Young appeared in 11 games that year and rumors surfaced claiming that Montana might be traded.
Despite the competition for playing time, Montana received most of the playing time during the 1988 season.
After a home loss to the Los Angeles Raiders that left the 49ers with a 6–5 record, the 49ers were in danger of missing the playoffs.
Montana regained the starting position and led the 49ers to a 10-6 record and the NFC Western Division title.
The 49ers earned a trip to Super Bowl XXIII when they defeated Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears in the playoffs.
The 49ers faced the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. Montana threw three first-half touchdowns as the 49ers won 34-9.
The victory over the Bears in the NFC Championship game is of particular note. Playing in Chicago, with temperatures in the single digits and a strong wind blowing across Soldier Field, Montana threw for 288 yards and 3 touchdowns.
His first touchdown pass came on a play in which Montana threw a perfect sideline pass to Jerry Rice on a 3rd down play late in the first quarter, and Rice outran two Bears defenders for a 61-yard score.
The 49ers won 28-3 to advance to Super Bowl XXIII.
In January 1989, the 49ers once again faced the Bengals in the Super Bowl. Of his third trip to the Super Bowl, Montana told the San Jose Mercury News: "This trip to the Super Bowl is more gratifying than the others because the road has been harder."
Then, in Super Bowl XXIII, Montana had one of the best performances of his career. He completed 23 of 36 passes for a Super Bowl record 357 yards and two touchdowns.
Despite his great performance, the 49ers found themselves trailing the Cincinnati Bengals 16-13 with only 3:10 left in the game and the ball on their own 8-yard line.
But Montana calmly drove them down the field, completing 8 of 9 passes for 87 yards and throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to John Taylor with only 34 seconds left.
1989 proved to be successful for Montana and the 49ers. The team finished the season with an NFL-best 14–2 record, and their two losses were by a total of only five points.
Montana threw for 3,521 yards and 26 touchdowns, with only 8 interceptions, giving him what was then the highest single-season passer rating in NFL history, a mark subsequently broken by Young in 1994.
He also rushed for 227 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, and earned the NFL Most Valuable Player Award. In a memorable comeback win in week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles, Montana threw four touchdown passes in the 4th quarter.
He finished with 428 yards passing and five touchdown passes in the victory. The 49ers were successful in the playoffs, easily beating the Minnesota Vikings 41–13 and the Los Angeles Rams 30-3.
Montana threw for a total of 503 yards and 6 touchdowns in those 2 games, without a single interception.
Then, in Super Bowl XXIV, Montana became the first player (and to date, the only player) ever to win Super Bowl MVP honors for a third time, throwing for 297 yards and a then Super Bowl record five touchdowns, while also rushing for 15 yards as the 49ers defeated the Denver Broncos 55-10, the most lopsided score in Super Bowl history.
In 1990, Montana once again led the 49ers to the best record (14–2) in the NFL. He was named by Sports Illustrated as Sportsman of the Year.
A highlight from the season was a rematch with the Atlanta Falcons. Intent on blitzing Montana most of the game, Atlanta's defense allowed Montana to throw for a career-best 476 yards (49ers single-game record) and six touchdown passes, five of them to Jerry Rice.
He would end up throwing for 3,944 yards and 26 touchdowns while also throwing a career high 16 interceptions.
Injured after getting hit by Leonard Marshall during the NFC Championship Game in January 1991, Montana missed the entire 1991 season and most of the 1992 season with an elbow injury (he did appear in a Monday Night Football game vs. Detroit Lions at the end of the '92 season, and was very effective).
However, by this point, Young had replaced him as the starting quarterback.