Super Bowl 2020: The messy saga of Joe Montana's San Francisco exit is the tie that binds 49ers and Chiefs
Joe Montana made the San Francisco 49ers winners in the Super Bowl era, leaving his mark as arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history by the time he retired. The final chapter in the incredible story of Montana did not end in San Francisco. Those final pages belonged to the Kansas City Chiefs, as Montana played his final two years in another uniform.
Montana’s Chiefs’ career was a sight to behold, especially since he helped take the franchise to a level they haven’t reached since the 1969 season. The two-year stint in Kansas City ended a Hall of Fame career for Montana, even if he couldn’t take the Chiefs to a Super Bowl championship.
How did Montana end up with Kansas City, ending a seemingly never ending drama in San Francisco? Montana’s final days with the 49ers resulted in an ugly breakup, completing one of the biggest offseason sagas in NFL history. With the 49ers and Chiefs set to battle in Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2, now is the perfect time to revisit the Montana saga.
What led to the breakup
Montana was the unquestioned starting quarterback for the 49ers for a decade, leading the franchise to four Super Bowl titles in that span. Injuries took their toll on Montana in the late 1980s, but he persevered. A back injury in 1986 nearly forced Montana to retire, but he returned to throw 31 touchdown passes (a career high) in just 13 games in 1987. Montana led the 49ers to back-to-back Super Bowls in 1888 and 1989, but there was some controversy along the way.
The 49ers traded for Steve Young during the 1987 season as the heir apparent to Montana. Young played well in the three games Montana missed and reports swirled the franchise was looking to move on from Montana, then 32. Over the next two seasons, Montana threw for 44 TDs and 18 INTs in the regular season and 19 TDs to just one pick in the postseason. At the conclusion of the 1989 season, Montana won Super Bowl MVP honors for the third time (the first quarterback to accomplish the feat).
Young played well as multiple injuries forced Montana to miss games, going 5-1 in his six starts with six touchdowns to three interceptions. The 49ers didn’t miss a beat under Young, who brought an added dimension to the offense with his running ability. San Francisco couldn’t move on from Montana in favor of Young, especially since he continued to lead the franchise to postseason success.
Montana’s final days with 49ers
Montana was a first-team All-Pro in 1990, throwing for a career-high 3,944 yards and 16 interceptions, but also had 26 touchdowns. The 49ers were vying for three straight Super Bowl titles, but fell to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game as Montana exited early with an injury.
Montana headed into the 1991 season as the 49ers starting quarterback, but was lost for the season after suffering a season-ending elbow injury in the preseason. The 49ers began the transition to Young as their starting quarterback, as Young led the league in yards per attempt and passer rating.
The elbow injury lasted into the 1992 season for Montana after the joint on his elbow flared up and he needed a third surgery. Young had his best season yet, winning NFL MVP and leading the league in completion percentage, touchdowns, touchdown percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating. The 49ers kept Montana on the shelf as they cruised to a 13-2 record and sealed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
49ers fans still wanted Montana to return, and he played in the meaningless final regular season game in 1992. He went 15 for 21 for 126 yards and two touchdowns in his final game with the team, leading some to believe the 49ers would go back to Montana for the playoffs. San Francisco stuck with Young and fell to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game.
Chiefs trade talks, deal reached
Fans didn’t want Montana to leave, but the quarterback could see the writing on the wall. San Francisco had officially moved on to Young and were set to get rid of Montana. 49ers ownership didn’t help matters as they started a public relations stunt to keep the 36-year-old Montana as their starting quarterback.
San Francisco made Montana the “designated starter” in an attempt to keep him, days after granting him permission to seek a trade. Montana turned down the Phoenix Cardinals in favor of the Kansas City Chiefs, but the 49ers nixed the trade to Kansas City. The 49ers actually wanted to accept the Cardinals offer, but Montana didn’t want to go there.
The 49ers committed to Young as the starter that February, then rumors spiraled they were actually dangling Young in trade talks in order to keep Montana. Then the franchise decided to allow Montana to move on before neglecting that offer, which is how the “designated starter” tag came into effect. Young also told the 49ers they either start him or trade him.
Montana declined the offer and reminded the 49ers they granted him permission to seek a trade. He was going to Kansas City.
The trade to Kansas City
Montana agreed to a three-year, $10 million deal with the Chiefs, taking $5 million less than what the Cardinals offered him. The 49ers agreed to send Montana, a 1993 third-round pick, and safety David Whitmore to the Chiefs for their first-round pick (No. 18 overall).
The 49ers then traded the No. 18 pick to the Cardinals for the No. 20 and a fifth-round pick (No. 116). San Francisco then traded down again, giving the New Orleans Saints the No. 20 pick in exchange for the No. 26 and a third-round pick (No. 81). The 49ers drafted Dana Stubblefield with the No. 26 pick, who made three Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro in 1997.
Montana’s days with Chiefs
Montana’s trade with the Chiefs allowed the franchise to sign running back Marcus Allen in June, putting the franchise in position to make a deep playoff run after three straight years of postseason disappointments.
The Chiefs tailored the offense to Montana, hiring offensive coordinator Paul Hackett (Montana’s former quarterbacks coach in San Francisco) and installed the West Coast offense. The Chiefs won their division for the first time in 22 years as Montana threw for 2,144 yards, 13 TDs and seven interceptions for an 87.4 passer rating at 37 years old.
Montana led the Chiefs to back-to-back come-from-behind wins in the playoffs, throwing a touchdown pass on fourth down to send the game to overtime (Chiefs won 27-24). The next week, the Chiefs scored 28 second half points to win a 28-20 thriller over the Houston Oilers. Kansas City fell in the AFC Championship Game to the Buffalo Bills, winning more postseason games in the 1993 season than the previous 24 seasons. Montana went to his final Pro Bowl in 1993.
The 1994 season was Montana’s final year in the NFL, guiding the Chiefs to a 9-7 record and finishing with 3,283 yards with 16 TDs, nine picks and and an 83.6 passer rating at age 38. Montana beat Young and the 49ers in a Week 2 showdown, then defeated John Elway and the Denver Broncos in a “Monday Night Football” showdown in Week 4. Montana led the Chiefs to the playoffs as Kansas City won its final two games to advance to the postseason. They fell to the Miami Dolphins in the wild-card round, which would be Montana’s final game.
Montana mended fences with the 49ers and retired in April of 1995 to a parade full of 49ers fans. The 49ers were coming off their fifth Super Bowl title (led by Young) and got to say goodbye to the greatest quarterback in their franchise’s history with a proper sendoff.
Montana went to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot while Young quarterbacked the 49ers until 1999. Young was inducted to the Hall of Fame on his first attempt in 2005, also retiring with the 49ers.
Montana ended the legacy of Super Bowl-winning and/or future Hall of Fame quarterbacks having poor endings with different teams in their mid-to-late 30s. Joe Namath sat the bench with the Los Angeles Rams and Johnny Unitas toiled in obscurity with the San Diego Chargers. The two-year run by Montana with the Chiefs showcased aging quarterbacks still had some good years left, paving the way for Brett Favre and Peyton Manning to take that step years later.