Comparisons are inevitable when talk turns to football. Such is the case with San Francisco 49ers legend Joe Montana and current New England Patriots QB Tom Brady. With no less than seven Super Bowl rings between them, these two signal-callers are certainly worth comparing. And that’s just what happened when I crossed paths recently with a longtime 49ers fan named Janie. A perky football enthusiast from the Buckeye State, she knew all about former team owner Eddie DeBartolo and how he earned his money through developing shopping malls in the Midwest. But it was her knowledge and admiration for old No. 16 – not to mention her infatuation with Jerry Rice – that caught my attention.
Montana, as most football aficionados know, was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2000 and is ranked among the greatest quarterbacks ever. He won four Super Bowls for the Niners and earned three SB MVP awards (the most ever) along the way. But it was his knack for finding receivers in blanketed coverage that pushed Montana into another stratosphere. After all, who will ever forget “The Catch” – the game-tying touchdown pass he launched to wide receiver Dwight Clarke with 51 seconds remaining in the 1981 NFC title game against the Cowboys? Being chased out of the pocket by no less than three Dallas defenders, including 6-foot-9-inch Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Montana escaped to his right and just before running out of real estate jumped and deliver a bullet to the back of the end zone. Clarke, at six-feet-four, needed every inch of his outstretched frame and a 24-inch vertical leap to make the reception now known simply as “The Catch.” It launched San Francisco to its first Super Bowl appearance and ignited the start of Montana’s legacy in Frisco.
Brady, meanwhile, has been no less impressive during his first 13 season in the pros. In fact, it was Brady’s magic almost out of the gate that put New England, team owner Robert Kraft and head coach Bill Belichick into the upper echelon of NFL organizations. In his first five seasons, Brady led the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles. In 2007, he had a season to remember after throwing for a league record 50 touchdowns and leading New England to a perfect 16-0 regular-season record. The Patriots record-breaking season, however, came to an abrupt halt in Super Bowl 42 as the seemingly unstoppable Pats were stopped dead in their tracks by the wild-card-winning New York Giants, 17-14.
Getting back to comparisons, the roads traveled by these standout field generals were not always paved. Montana, a native of New Eagle, Pennsylvania, was a standout QB at the University of Notre Dame and even led the Irish to the 1977 National title. But after being drafted 82nd overall in the 1979 NFL Draft by San Francisco (the fourth QB taken), Joe Cool found himself No. 3 on the depth chart in the city made famous by earthquakes and Rice-A-Roni.
Brady, on the other hand, played his college ball at the University of Michigan, a stint in which he led the Wolverines to Bowl victories against both Arkansas in ’98 and Alabama in ‘99. He was taken in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft by the New England with the 199th overall pick. At the start of the 2000 season, he found himself as the team’s fourth-string quarterback behind starter Drew Bledsoe and backups John Friesz and Michael Bishop.
It was in their respective sophomore seasons in the pros where both players found out just how good they could be. In 1980, Montana was San Fran’s second-string quarterback behind starter Steve DeBerg. Midway through the season, Montana became the 49ers starter. The team finished with a 13-3 regular-season record on their way to eventually winning the organization’s first Super Bowl title by defeating the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals, 26-21. Montana, after running for one touchdown and throwing for another, was named the game’s MVP. He finished with 157 yards in the air.
Brady was also thrust into action during his second season in the pros, albeit under a different set of circumstances. In Week 2 of the ’01 campaign, playing against the rival New York Jets, Patriots starter Drew Bledsoe went down with a ruptured blood vessel in his chest cavity following a hard sideline tackle by linebacker Mo Lewis. Brady, with just one pass completion for six yards the year before, was suddenly asked to run New England’s offense. After splitting his first two games as a starter, he found his stride in Week 5. Trailing the visiting San Diego Chargers 26-16 in the fourth quarter, Brady staged two scoring drives to force overtime and eventually set up the game-winning field goal. The Patriots finished the season 12-4 on their way to winning the franchise’s first Vince Lombardi Trophy with an emotional 20-17 win over the highly favored St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl 36. With the game tied 17-17 and just 1:21 left, Brady marched the Patriots from their own 15 to the Rams’ 31-yard-line to set up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal as time expired. Brady, who completed 16 of 27 passes for 145 yards and one touchdown, was named MVP. It was a Cinderella ending to a frantic beginning.
The comparisons keep coming, from game-winning, fourth-quarter drives to pinpoint passing under the most difficult of circumstances. Whatever the obstacles, Montana and Brady overcame them and turned themselves and their organizations into models to follow for the rest of the NFL. What’s more, Brady was born in San Mateo, California, just 13 miles from Candlestick Park, where Montana made most his magic. He also came into this world in 1977, the same year Joe Cool won the national title with the Irish.
Like the continuing quest of Tiger Woods to one day match and eventually eclipse Jack Nicklaus’s all-time mark of 18 majors, Brady continues to battle for one more ring to get closer to Montana’s all-time elite status. With apologies to Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw (four rings), as well as Green Bay’s Bart Starr, Cowboys Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, Oakland’s Jim Plunkett, Denver’s John Elway and New York Giants QB Eli Manning (all with two Super Bowl rings apiece), Montana is at the top of football’s magic mountain. As for Janie, the bubbly brunette, we talked some more about football, DeBartolo, our fathers, our kids, and even our dogs. I hope I see her again sometime, perhaps over a salty margarita or maybe an organically brewed cup of coffee. But whatever happens, and wherever life leads us, we’ll always have Joe Montana between us.
Terry Melia, the former longtime public relations manager for The Upper Deck Company, is a freelance sportswriter living in San Diego.