Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Drive for the Ages

Super Bowl XXIII is remembered for one thing — the magnificent game–winning touchdown drive engineered by quarterback Joe Montana in the closing minutes — even though it was noteworthy for other things, too.

San Francisco trailed Cincinnati by a field goal with a little more than three minutes to play. The 49ers had the ball at their own 8–yard line; Montana led the offense down the field and threw the winning touchdown pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds to play.

They called him "Joe Cool" during his playing career, and that really described his demeanor as he directed the 49ers on that game–winning drive.

Repeatedly that day, the Bengals' defenders made the plays they needed to make, but the 49ers won, anyway, 20–16, possibly securing Montana's induction into pro football's Hall of Fame. He entered the game already having won two Super Bowls. Four quarterbacks with at least two Super Bowl victories — Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach — had been chosen for the Hall of Fame, and other two–time winners would follow.

Nearly every quarterback who has started for at least two Super Bowl winners has wound up in the Hall of Fame (although Jim Plunkett has never been selected for induction in spite of being a two–time winner). A pretty convincing case can be made that Montana would be in the Hall of Fame, regardless of what happened 25 years ago today.

There was every reason to believe that Montana, who had been MVP in his first two Super Bowls along with being a five–time Pro Bowler, would be inducted, too. And he was, in his first year of eligibility. The stirring game–winning drive simply added to his remarkable resume.

Super Bowl XXIII had a little something for everyone. For Montana, it was a third Super Bowl victory as starting quarterback — and the only one of the four Super Bowls in which he played that he was not named the MVP. For Taylor, it was a game–winning reception.

And for future Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, it was the Most Valuable Player award. He caught 11 passes for a record 215 yards against the Bengals.

The game itself was a rematch of Super Bowl XVI, the third such rematch in Super Bowl history. The score was 3–3 at halftime, the first time a Super Bowl was tied at intermission.

San Francisco coach Bill Walsh retired after the game. So far, he is the only man to end his pro football coaching career with a Super Bowl victory.

But "The Drive" is what fans remember 25 years later.

On that final drive, Montana completed eight of nine pass attempts. He was calm and cool as he completed three to Rice for 51 yards, but he covered the last 10 on a pass to Taylor.

That last play was probably the most astonishing play of the drive. As I say, Rice caught 11 passes in that game, three of them on the final drive (a fourth pass was thrown his way on that drive as well). Mere words aren't sufficient to describe the brilliance of his performance. He was clearly the game's most valuable player.

With the ball resting on the Cincinnati 10, everyone in the stadium probably expected Montana to throw to Rice. I was watching the game on TV with my parents, and I know the three of us expected Montana to look for Rice.

But, instead, he threw to Taylor for only the fourth time in the game. And Taylor, who nearly fumbled away a punt earlier in the quarter, made his only reception of the day.

It was a brilliant piece of strategy from the mind of a truly brilliant strategist, Bill Walsh, and it was executed flawlessly by his field general, Joe Montana.

Rice was the logical target. Taylor had been a non–factor all day, but "Joe Cool," calmly and confidently, threw the ball to Taylor and joined the exclusive club of football players who have won more than two Super Bowls.

The Montana legend was really born 25 years ago tonight. He was already regarded as one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks; "The Drive" made it official.

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