Legendary NFL quarterback and four-time Super Bowl champ Joe Montana huddles with Post columnist Steve Serby to talk about his storied career and memorable NFL moments. His TV series “Joe Montana: Cool Under Pressure” is now streaming on Peacock.
Q: Who dubbed you Joe Cool?
A: They kept trying to give me nicknames forever. I don’t know how Joe Cool ended up being there. Some fan said I didn’t need a nickname, I need a real name. He sent me a placard in the mail … said David W. Gibson (laugh). He just made up a real name. He said your name is already a nickname with Montana being the last name.
Q: But Joe Cool is a good nickname.
A: Yeah, it’s better than David W. Gibson (laugh).
Q: How would you describe your mentality on the field?
A: Probably pretty much like I am right here. I tried never to change. I think one of the things I found is that, yeah there are times to be nervous, but in a lot of cases, the teammates are looking at you all the time constantly. And you send a message when you’re not the same person. That’s why I said it: “Look at John Candy,” that’s why I’d make fun of somebody in the huddle whether we’re winning or losing. … I just tried to be myself, period.
Q: Which one of the four was your sweetest Super Bowl win?
A: They all were so different. The way I look at it is the first one [XVI vs. the Bengals], like you can’t replace the first time you walk onto a Super Bowl field … that feeling of the yeas and the boos kind of met at the 50-yard line. And the game was close, but it wasn’t one of our better games of the year. The second one we played, basically a home game [Stanford Stadium] against the Dolphins and [Dan] Marino. That was a pretty sweet win for us. … If I had to pick one, it’s probably the one [Super Bowl XXIII rematch] against Cincinnati, when I throw a touchdown to win at the end of the game. As a quarterback, I did that a thousand times growing up in my backyard.
Q: That was the John Candy game.
A: Harris Barton was a people person, and still is, I think. Back then, when you go the Super Bowl you get there a week early, we’d practice and meetings, and then you were free for dinner. And we’d cone back for meetings post-dinner, Harris was like a little kid in a candy shop, telling you all the celebrities he’d seen. TV timeouts take forever in the Super Bowl. And we were just standing there and I just saw, he was kind of like framed between two guys’ shoulder pads. I just didn’t remember Harris saying that he saw John Candy during the week, so I pointed it out to him. He’s so uptight, he was like mumbling stuff to me (laugh) and I can’t even remember what he was saying, something about the Super Bowl, trying to win, and you’re looking at people. But he looked over and saw and he goes, “Yeah.” He appreciates today, I think, more than he did back then.
Q: Where was Candy?
A: He was standing on the sideline. I had met him a number of years before that. We had some private meetings ’cause he was trying to get me to go to Canada. … He owned the Argonauts for a while.
Q: Why was he on the visiting sideline?
A: I don’t know. I think he just had a field pass.
Q: What was the key to being clutch for you?
A: It’s kind of hard to say … in some ways it’s just preparation. I think the best way to explain it is like, I talk to kids and I’d say it’s like going in to take a test, right? When you go to take a test, you’re a lot more nervous when you know you’re not prepared. But if you’ve done all the work and all that, it doesn’t really matter. You’re confident going in, and you stay that way. It was pretty easy and I had pretty good teams. It makes your job a little bit easier (laugh).
Q: How did that ’86 Giants defense compare to the ’85 Bears defense?
A: Overall, the scheme and the players on the fronts, the defensive backs. … On the whole, I think were more talented than the Bears were. The Bears had some great players, don’t get me wrong. I just think which one don’t I want to play? I regret playing the Giants all the time.
Q: When you think of Lawrence Taylor, what do you think of?
A: Pain in the rear, ’cause you can’t do anything with him (laugh). He’s too big for your back, he’s too fast for your tackle. You almost have to bump him or double him, and you try to run away from him, he runs the play down from behind. He was one of those guys you just had to know where he was.
Q: Describe the Jim Burt hit that knocked you out of the game in a 49-3 loss to the Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs in the 1986 season.
A: It wasn’t a bad hit, it was just like my head hit the ground, and that was it. I just remember having a pain in my head. I don’t remember if I could see or not at first, but it wasn’t a bad hit at all … that turf just knocked me out.
Q: Describe he Leonard Marshall hit in a 15-13 NFC Championship game loss after the 1990 season, which essentially ended your 49ers career.
A: That doesn’t happen today. I think they should go back, just hit the quarterback, just don’t compress him in the ground. It wasn’t the hit … I would have probably gone off the field for a play or so, but I would have come back in the game. It’s when he compressed me in the ground where he got my chest and he broke my hand. We’re still in the air when he hit me, and as we’re going to the ground, he compressed me into the ground.
Q: How crushing was that loss? You were going for a threepeat.
A: We had some good battles with them, and it was tough sleddin’ as it was that day. … It was sad not to be able to go again with that team.
Q: What drove you?
A: Winning was what you expect, but the feeling of losing is what I think drives most players at that level. Usually, if you’re losing, the quarterback’s not playing well in a lot of cases, so a lot of it went on your shoulders that side of the ball too.
Q: Fear of failure?
Q: How often over the years have you watched “The Catch” by Dwight Clark in the 28-27 NFC Championship win over the Cowboys on the way to your first Super Bowl?
A: Oh, you don’t have a choice, you see it so many times (chuckle), it’s on everywhere you look. But I see it a bunch. Up until then, we had never really thrown the ball on that play to Dwight. He’s basically supposed to set a pick on the inside receiver, but the inside guy, Freddie [Solomon] slips down, and when he finally gets up, he’s covered. So I had to wait for Dwight. The craziest thing was Bill [Walsh, coach] had the intuition in training camp, he made us practice that. And, we both thought he was crazy, because we’d never ever thrown the ball to Dwight at all (chuckle) until then. Little did we know while we thought he was crazy how important the play would become in 49er history.
Q: What amazes you most about Tom Brady?
A: That he’s still playing (laugh). He just makes a team better, obviously, and he’s been so consistent about the way he’s played over the years, I think that’s the most impressive thing about him.
Q: Can you imagine the hype over a Brady-Bill Belichick Super Bowl?
A: (Laugh) Yeah, it’s been crazy. I got a lot of noise from saying that I thought [Mac Jones] fit the 49er system. Not that I don’t think Trey [Lance] is qualified, I just thought that the other guy fit what the 49ers do in a system.
Q: Is Eli Manning a Hall of Famer?
A: I think he gets in, for sure. … The things that guys that are in ahead of him, he’s done more than most. I don’t see any reason why he doesn’t get in.
Q: Should Phil Simms be in?
A: That’s another baffling thing to me, and why he’s not in there. … The way he played the game, and the success that he had. He was like [Marino] to me. Both guys, accurate throwers down the field especially. I just liked watching him play.
Q: What do you think of Justin Herbert.
A: Big, strong, stands in there, he can make all the throws.
Q: Josh Allen.
A: He’s got a lot of grit.
Q: Patrick Mahomes.
A: He’s fun to watch. You see someone like that come around every 40, 50 years (chuckle), whatever it might be. But he’s pretty special in the things that he can do.
Q: What made Jerry Rice great?
A: I can’t get a finger on it because you watch him and he doesn’t look like the fastest receiver. But the one thing he does, he’s very disciplined in his routes running and he makes it easy for the quarterback. If you let him get up on top of you, he’ll run right by you and you won’t catch him. He just had a knack of getting behind people. I always said if I’m playing the 49ers, and my safety, I will tell him, “If you get beat deep by Jerry Rice on a post, when you’re chasing him into the end zone, you just keep running, ’cause you’re done. Don’t let him get behind you. Go in the locker room, change clothes and get out of here.” I don’t know, he just had this knack of getting behind people no matter what. Even though they know what’s coming, he just somehow had that ability.
Q: How much tension or friction was there between you and Steve Young?
A: When you’re competing with someone, it doesn’t matter who it is … it’s hard enough getting yourself ready every week to try to help prepare somebody else at the same time.
Q: What do you think of the roughing the passer rule nowadays?
A: The quarterback should be able to take a hit. The compression thing is where they get hurt. And the reason we get compressed, we’re the only guy getting hit standing still most of the time. By guys that outweigh you by 150 pounds or more. If they take that part away from it, just like a normal tackle, take that compression which they have obviously, that’s what separates the quarterbacks, is can you stand in there and throw knowing you’re gonna get hit? Now that guy can’t hit you, so it’s a little bit different for them at that level.
Q: If you could pick the brain of any quarterback in NFL history, who would it be?
A: Bart Starr’s probably. I’d be curious to see what it was like playing for [Vince] Lombardi. And even Otto Graham, you go back and look at the things that he accomplished, and watching what they went through back then was total insanity.
Q: Could you have played for Lombardi?
A: I hope so (laugh).
Q: Could you have played for Bill Parcells?
A: (Laugh) You know what’s so funny, we have this conversation all the time, he and I. He’s one of those guys if you could come back and play for somebody, you’d want to play for. And [Simms] goes, “Oh no, no, no. You don’t know what you’re talking about (laugh).” He goes, “I love him to death, but he was not easy to play for.” I don’t know, it would be fun, I’m sure. He reminds me a lot of like Bill Walsh in a lot of ways, ’cause it seemed like he has that dry sense of humor, and when you come off the field like you hear him saying something, instead of yelling at you, it was like, “God, what the hell kind off pass was that?” I threw an interception in the end zone one game, and this was the last time I went straight to Bill, I used to come off the field and go right to Bill first and then to the phones. And he looked at me, and just quietly said: “What do you call that?” And I said, “I think they call that an interception, Coach.” And he said, “Do me a favor, try not to let that happen again, would ya (laugh).”
Q: How do you think Simms would have done playing for Bill Walsh?
A: Bill’s easy to play for. I think the one thing you just have to understand what his offense was about, and what he was trying to accomplish with it. From the beginning, when we started, we didn’t have a big running game. We didn’t have Roger Craig or Wendell Tyler at the time. I just saw a stat and it’s amazing to me, with Tom Brady, he has like over 200 passes that are under 2.7 yards or something like that, and that’s by far like 50 more than any other quarterback. Everybody used to say, “You’re dinking and dunking.” Well, we weren’t really, we were just using the passing game as a running game. … And then the game changed a little bit when Mike Holmgren got there. He started pushing the ball down the field a little bit more, but then we had John Taylor and Jerry Rice and Brent Jones, so it made a little more sense.
Q: Simms would have had success with Bill Walsh.
A: Oh yeah, for sure.
Q: Describe the chicken soup game at Notre Dame, the 1979 Cotton Bowl against Houston when you were the Comeback Kid.
A: It was an ugly, ugly day. It’s probably one of the coldest days I played in. It was windy, it had a rainstorm when we got there, the field was covered with ice, and they had melted most of it, and there was a golf cart going back and forth, I was trying to figure out what they were doing. The pieces of ice they couldn’t get off the field they were throwing rock salt on it, and so (chuckle) just tore you up by the end of the day. Only two touchdowns were scored against the wind, and one was a punt that was blocked and run back for a touchdown. I normally don’t go from the field when it’s cold right to the heaters ’cause you just get colder when you get away from it, but it was so cold, it was fourth down, I ran right to the heater, back and forth, back and forth. By halftime, when we went inside, my temperature had dropped, I got hypothermia so they kept me in the locker room — “OK, we have coffee, tea, we have beef bouillon and chicken bouillon, what do you want?” I took chicken (laugh). And that helped bring my temperature back up.
Q: What is your biggest regret?
A: I loved playing in Kansas City, great organization, great great fans … it’s just I wish I’d never had to leave San Francisco. I never thought I would, I thought I’d end my career there. You look around, how does Jerry Rice go somewhere else, you know (chuckle)? How do you let him go somewhere? Ronnie [Lott] ended up somewhere else, and now guys are changing teams all the time. Yeah, I just wish that I could have finished there.
Q: Boyhood idol?
A: When I was growing up, [Joe] Namath was playing and successful. I grew up south of Pittsburgh, and watching where [Terry] Bradshaw started and where he ended up winning four Super Bowls and watching him take the Steelers to that, I looked up to them at that time.
Q: You were happy with your “Cool Under Pressure” docuseries?
A: It was fun to do. Brings back good memories and bad memories (laugh), injuries and all those things.
Q: What is the biggest surprise viewers will have?
A: Two surprises. My kids’ stuff, when they talk about some of their memories, and I think the footage from when I was young.
Q: Any big controversy?
A: Yeah, but I can’t tell ya (smile).
Q: What are you most proud of about your career?
A: I don’t know … it’s just that people think of you as a winner. I never really look at it as that. I look at it, I always say playing a stupid game for so many years (chuckle), and if you can do anything that you love for an occupation, then people understand what it was about.