The 57 Greatest Moments in Joe Montana's Illustrious NFL Career

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJune 11, 2013

31 Jul 1988: Quarterback Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers stands on the sidelines during the American Bowl against the Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium in London, England. The Dolphins won the game 27-21.
Simon Bruty/Getty Images

On June 11, 1956, the world was given Joe Montana.

More than two decades later, Montana was given to the National Football League.

So on the 57th birthday of the Pro Football Hall of Famer, we’re taking a look at 57 of his most enduring moments and ranking them accordingly. In other words, not all 57 moments will be in chronological order, although some will certainly fall into place.

We’re talking Montana's NFL career here, so if you’re looking for birthday parties, prom pictures and great moments with the Fighting Irish, you are in the wrong place. Sorry.

There’s little doubt that “Joe Cool” ranks as one of the greatest quarterbacks and/or players in the league’s 93-year history. From game-winning drives to amazing comebacks to memorable quarters, Montana proved to be quite an obstacle for opposing defenses.

So let’s reminisce a little and head down memory lane. And in case you’re looking for a few surprises or curve balls, we can assure you that there is certainly a “catch” to all of this.

57. Start with the obvious because nothing would have happened without this, professional football wise. In the third round of the 1979 NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers select Joe Montana, quarterback, Notre Dame. Montana was the 82nd player selected that year.

56. In Week 3 of the 1979 season in his rookie year with San Francisco, Montana’s first pass attempt and completion proved to be less than conventional. He connected on an eight-yard pass to fullback Phil Francis off a fake field goal attempt vs. the Los Angeles Rams.

55. The 49ers were on their way to a 38-28 home loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 12 of 1979. But in reserve duty, No. 16 would throw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Bob Bruer in the fourth quarter, the first scoring toss of Montana’s pro career.

54. In his first NFL start, Montana completes just 5-of-12 passes for 36 yards and doesn’t finish the game in what proves to be a 13-10 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Week 14 of 1979 at Busch Stadium.

53. All good things must come to an end. Montana replaces Steve DeBerg in what would prove to be a 48-26 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5 of 1980. Montana throws for 253 yards and two scores but throws his first NFL interception (to the Rams’ Rod Perry).

52. Fun with the number 49 but certainly not a highlight for Joe. In what proved to be a 49-3 loss to the eventual Super Bowl XXI champion New York Giants in the 1986 divisional playoffs. Montana was leveled in the second quarter by nose tackle Jim Burt and his pass was picked off by linebacker Lawrence Taylor and returned 34 yards for a score.

51. When you think of Montana and the Dallas Cowboys, the obvious comes to mind; as in the epic 1981 NFC title game (more on that later). Earlier that season, Bill Walsh’s team served notice that his 49ers were for real courtesy of a 45-14 win over Tom Landry’s Cowboys (Week 6). Montana completed 19-of-29 passes for 279 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the unexpected rout.

50. Certainly not a highlight but nonetheless memorable. Montana started all nine games during the 1982 strike-shortened season. The defending Super Bowl champions finished 3-6 and missed the playoffs, going 0-5 at home.

49. The two-time defending Super Bowl champion Niners were looking to three-peat. And a 28-10 victory over the Washington Redskins in the 1990 divisional playoffs proved to be a good start. Montana overcame one interception by completing 22-of-31 passes for 274 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

48. It eventually proved to be a miserable day for Montana and his Chiefs. “Joe Cool” was ice cold, completing only 9-of-23 passes for 125 yards and an interception vs. the Buffalo Bills in the 1993 AFC title game. And early in the third quarter in what proved to be a 30-13 loss, Montana would be done for the afternoon.

47. A win is a win. In the 1983 divisional playoffs, the host 49ers owned a 14-3 lead over the Detroit Lions in the second quarter. With less than five minutes to play, the men from the Motor City were up on top, 23-17. Montana orchestrated a 70-yard drive and gave his club the lead just over three minutes later. But the 24-23 win wasn’t secure until Lions’ kicker Eddie Murray missed a 43-yard field goal in the closing seconds.

46. It proved to be a losing effort for Montana and the Niners but it was a classic game. In a shootout vs. Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, Montana completed 31-of-46 throws for 356 yards and three touchdowns but was picked off twice. But the San Diego Chargers signal-caller was masterful, throwing for 444 yards and five touchdowns as the Bolts outlasted the 49ers, 41-37, on a Saturday afternoon in 1982 at San Francisco.

45. Montana throws a career-high 31 touchdown passes during the 1987 strike-interrupted season with the 49ers. The teams finished 13-2 that season and Montana participated in two of the team’s three “replacement” games that season.

44. On the opening Sunday of 1994, Montana and the Chiefs invaded the Superdome and Joe felt right at home in a place he had played annually while with the 49ers, as well as the venue where he and San Francisco won Super Bowl XXXIV. How comfortable? Montana threw for 315 yards and two scores in a 30-17 win over the New Orleans Saints. It marked the 15th time in 17 meetings that Montana had defeated the Saints, the most win vs. any team in the league by the Hall of Fame quarterback.

43. The bad news is that Montana throws a career-high four interceptions in a Week 10 contest vs. the Cincinnati Bengals in 1984. The good news is that he also throws a pair of touchdown passes in a 23-17 win.

42. On a Monday night at Anaheim vs. the Rams (Week 15 of 1990), Montana connected on a 60-yard touchdown toss to wideout Jerry Rice in the second quarter. It was the final time the Hall of Fame duo would combine for a score in the regular season. In six seasons, Rice caught 55 touchdown passes from Montana, the most by one player when it came to this more than ordinary Joe.

41. Montana didn’t throw a touchdown pass in a 17-10 win over the visiting New York Giants in 1981. But this Week 13 clash between the clubs saw Joe throw for 234 yards and run 20 yards for a touchdown as the 49ers clinched the NFC West with three games to play. But they would see the Giants again…soon.

40. After missing the entire 1991 season and nearly all of the 1992 campaign, Montana would finally make an appearance in the final contest of the ’92 season. In what proved to be his final game with the 49ers, he completed 15-of-21 passes for 126 yards and a pair of scores in a 24-6 Monday night win over the visiting Detroit Lions. Montana’s last touchdown pass for the team that drafted him was an eight-yard toss to running back Amp Lee with 1:15 to play.

39. In the 1981 NFC divisional playoffs vs. the visiting New York Giants, Montana came up big in his very first NFL postseason game. He completed 20-of-31 passes for 304 yards and a pair of scores in the team’s 38-24 victory.

38. Montana was regarded as one of the game’s best performers in the clutch. Including postseason with the 49ers and Chiefs, he put together a total of 31 fourth-quarter comebacks and 33 game-winning drives during his career. The last of those game-winning drives came in Week 12 of 1994, when Montana led his Chiefs on an eight play, 61-yards touchdown march in the fourth quarter. Kansas City edged Bill Belichick’s Browns, 20-13, in a clash between two playoff-bound clubs.

37. Fittingly, Montana’s last regular-season start came on the west coast. In Week 17 of 1994, the Chiefs defeated the Raiders at Los Angeles, 19-9. On a side note, it was also the Raiders’ last game in Los Angeles. The team returned to Oakland in 1995.

36. Back to Montana’s final regular season game (Part I). Joe’s final touchdown pass proved to be a 47-yarder to Kansas City’s Willie Davis in the fourth quarter of the team’s win over the Raiders.

35. Back to Montana’s final regular season game (Part II). Joe’s final completion went to Chiefs wide receiver J.J. Birden, who caught a 13-yard pass late in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Raiders.

34. One more time Montana’s final regular season game (Part III). Raiders’ linebacker Greg Beikert dropped Montana for a 10-yard loss on the Chiefs second possession of the game, the final time “Joe Cool” was actually sacked in a regular or postseason game.

33. As it turned out, Montana did not throw an interception in his final four regular-season appearances. But in Week 11 of 1994, the Chiefs fell at home to the San Diego Chargers, 14-13. Montana was picked off twice, first by safety Stanley Richard and later by cornerback Darren Carrington, the final interception thrown by Joe in a regular-seson game.

32. It proved to be all for naught but it was a great effort. Trailing the defending Super Bowl champion Redskins in Washington, 21-0, in the fourth quarter of the 1983 NFC championship game, Montana awoke. He would throw for 347 yards by game’s end (one interception) but all three of his touchdown passes came in the fourth quarter, forging a tie with Joe Gibbs’ team. The Redskins would prevail, 24-21, on a late Mark Moseley field goal in a game not absent of controversy.

31. It took two seasons and five tries, but Montana finally got his first regular-season win as a starter in the NFL. The 49ers defeated the New England Patriots, 21-17, at San Francisco in Week 14 of 1980. Montana would throw for only 123 yards but three of his 14 completions were for scores.

30. In a very physical NFC title game in 1990, Montana was walloped from behind by New York Giants defensive end Leonard Marshall in the fourth quarter. The Niners quarterback was done for the afternoon and as it turned out, so were the 49ers chances for a three-peat. Bill Parcells’ team would prevail, 15-13, thanks to five field goals by Matt Bahr, including the game-winner on the final play of the game.

29. On a frigid day at Soldier Field, Montana was hot in the 1988 NFC title game vs. the Chicago Bears. He threw for 288 yards and three touchdowns as his club, which had lost earlier that season on the same field (10-9), stomped the Bears, 28-3, and advanced to Super Bowl XXIII.

28. Montana throws two touchdown passes in a 27-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins in the 1994 AFC Wild Card Playoffs. It extends his NFL record of postseason touchdown passes to 45, a mark that still stands today. The loss also proves to be the final game of Montana’s career.

27. Back to the 1994 playoff loss at Miami (Part I). The final touchdown pass thrown by Joe Montana was to Chiefs’ fullback Kimble Anders, a play that covered 57 yards. The score gave Kansas City a 14-7 first-quarter lead over the Dolphins.

26. Back to the 1994 playoff loss at Miami…again (Part II). Who caught Joe Montana’s final pass in the NFL? It was Chiefs’ wide receiver Willie Davis, a nine-yard completion in the closing seconds of the loss to Miami.

25. We return to the wild card loss to the Dolphins (Part III). The final interception of Montana’s career came in the early stages of the fourth quarter of that contest. Dolphins’ cornerback J.B. Brown picked off Montana and returned the ball 24 yards to stop a Kansas City drive.

24. On April 20, 1993, the 49ers trade Montana (along with safety David Whitmore and a third-round draft choice in 1994) to the Kansas City Chiefs for a first-round draft choice in 1993.

23. In his first game with his new team, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Joe Montana connected on 14-of-21 passes for 246 yards and three scores in a 27-3 win at Tampa.

22. The defending Super Bowl champion 49ers found themselves down, 16-13, at Tampa Bay with less than four minutes to play. But it was a four-yard touchdown run by Montana with 40 seconds remaining that rescued the Niners, 20-16, in Week 2 of 1989.

21. The defending Super Bowl champion 49ers marched through the 1989 postseason with a vengeance, outscoring the Minnesota Vikings, Los Angeles Rams and Denver Broncos by a combined 126-26 score. In the three wins, Montana was nearly flawless. He completed 65-of-83 passes (78.3 percent) for 800 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

20. In Week 2 of 1988 vs. the New York Giants at the Meadowlands, Montana erased a 17-13 deficit via a 78-yard touchdown pass to wideout Jerry Rice with 42 seconds to play as the 49ers rallied for a 20-17 victory.

19. Montana wins league Most Valuable Player honors in 1989. The Niners signal-caller completed 70.2 percent of his passes for 3,521 yards and 26 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. San Francisco would go on to win Super Bowl XXIV.

18. For the second straight year, Montana was the NFL’s MVP. The San Francisco quarterback threw for a career-high 3,944 yards in 1990. Montana also threw 26 touchdown passes for the second straight season but also served up a career-high 16 interceptions.

17. Montana leads the Chiefs to the 1993 AFC Championship Game. It marks the seventh time the quarterback has led his team to the conference title contest. The Chiefs would fall, 30-13, to the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, New York.

16. 49ers fullback Earl Cooper caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Montana in the second quarter of Super Bowl XVI, the first of Joe’s 11 touchdown passes in his four Super Bowl appearances.

15. This is probably more of a John Taylor moment than Montana’s, but someone had to throw the ball. Down 17-0 to the Rams in this Week 14 Monday night matchup (1989), the Niners quarterback would overcome a pair of interceptions and finish the evening with 458 yards through the air. Montana would throw three touchdown passes, including a pair of short tosses than Taylor turned into 92- and 95-yard scores in San Francisco’s 30-27 win.

14. Montana’s first playoff game with the Chiefs was memorable indeed and included some late heroics by Joe. The Pittsburgh Steelers were protecting a 24-17 fourth-quarter lead but a blocked punt and return set up Kansas City inside the 10-yard line. On fourth down and seven, Montana found wide receiver Tim Barnett in the end zone and the PAT sent the game into overtime. On the Chiefs’ second drive of the extra session, Montana led his team on an 11 play, 66-yard march and Nick Lowery kicked a 32-yard field goal to win it, 27-24.

13. In Week 6 of the 1990 season, Montana threw a career-high six touchdown passes, five to wide receiver Jerry Rice, in the 49ers’ 45-35 win over the Atlanta Falcons at Fulton County Stadium.

12. Denver was a four-letter word when it came to head coach Marty Schottenheimer, who was 0-7 in the Mile High City (including playoffs) with both the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs. But he found the missing ingredient in Montana. On a Monday night in 1994 (Week 7), the Chiefs trailed 28-24 with 1:29 to play when Broncos quarterback John Elway ran four yards for a touchdown. But Montana was undaunted, driving his club 75 yards and his five-yard touchdown pass to Willie Davis with eight seconds to play had Schottenheimer breathing easier, 31-28.

11. The Hall of Fame quarterback and the 49ers won a second Super Bowl when Montana attempted 35 passes and completed 24 for 331 yards and three touchdowns in the 38-16 win over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX. Montana also ran for 59 yards and a score in the victory and was named the game’s MVP.

10. The San Francisco 49ers and quarterback Steve Young invaded Arrowhead Stadium in Week 2 of 1994. And revenge was sweet for Montana, who completed 19-of-31 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-17 victory over his former employers.

9. Trailing the Eagles, 21-10, in the third quarter at Philadelphia, Montana works his magic. In a game in which he would be sacked eight times, he throws four touchdown passes in the final quarter and leads the 49ers to a 38-28 victory.

8. Do you remember? Montana threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice on the final play of the game to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-26, in Week 2 of 1987. The Bengals failed to run out the clock, setting up Montana’s heroics.

7. In Week 14 of 1980. Montana would rally the 49ers from a 35-7 deficit for a 38-35 overtime win over the New Orleans Saints, the greatest comeback in NFL regular-season history. It would be a sign of things to come one year later.

6. The San Francisco 49ers won their first NFL championship behind Montana. The third-year pro threw for 157 yards and a score and ran for 18 yards and a touchdown in a 26-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.

5. With a 55-10 win over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV, Montana becomes the second starting quarterback to win four Super Bowls (joining the Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw) and the first player to be named Super Bowl MVP three times. Montana throws five touchdown passes (three to Jerry Rice seen on the right) in the 45-point victory. In four Super Bowl appearances, all wins with the 49ers, Montana threw a total of 11 touchdown passes. More significantly, he never threw an interception in any of those four contests.

4. After 16 NFL seasons, 14 with the 49ers and the final two with the Chiefs, Montana announces his retirement on April 18, 1995. He led San Francisco to four Super Bowl titles in a nine-year span from 1981-89. He also led Kansas City to their last postseason win, a 28-20 triumph over the Houston Oilers at the Astrodome in the 1993 AFC divisional playoffs.

3. Montana is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000. His 273 touchdown passes still ranks 11th in NFL history and his 45 postseason touchdown tosses remain a league record.

2. Trailing 16-13, Montana drives the 49ers in the closing minutes of Super Bowl XXIII and throws a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver John Taylor with 34 seconds to play, the game winning score in the team’s 20-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

And No. 1...

It’s the play that put this Montana on the map (sort of speak). Down 27-21 to the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC title game, he drives his team 89 yards in 13 plays in the final minutes and his six-yard touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone is simply known as “The Catch.”


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