Two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history played for the San Francisco 49ers. Joe Montana and Steve Young set a precedent for excellence in San Francisco and the 49ers have been searching for their next iconic signal caller since they retired.
Jimmy Garoppolo is expected to be their successor as well as the franchise’s savior. The post-Jim Harbaugh/Colin Kaepernick 49ers were a directionless franchise before he was acquired from the New England Patriots last season.
Once Garoppolo became the starting quarterback, expectations for the franchise skyrocketed and less than a year later the 49ers could be a playoff contender. Can Garopplo be the gold standard the 49ers have been looking for?
When Montana was drafted in 1979 San Francisco was in dire need of a franchise quarterback. Steve DeBerg was the starter at the time but he threw too many interceptions in critical times of the game.
The organization was in shambles and desperately needed a turnaround. Along with head coach Bill Walsh, Montana led a revival of the moribund franchise.
Montana did not become the full-time starter until 1980, his second season. What cemented him in the lineup was overcoming a 28-point deficit against the New Orleans Saints late in that season.
At the time it was the largest comeback in NFL history but the significance goes beyond this fact. This victory signified Montana’s arrival in the NFL and ushered in a new era of 49ers football. The majority of his career was spent building a legacy in San Francisco.
Montana led the 49ers to their first Super Bowl in 1981 and thus cemented himself as a Bay Area legend by winning the first championship in San Francisco’s history.
He led the 49ers on a historic campaign in 1984 by going 15-1, the first team to win that many games in the regular season, and faced off against a red-hot Miami Dolphins team in the Super Bowl.
That team was led by Dan Marino who had just set league records for most touchdowns thrown and most yards passing in a single season. The game was billed as a battle of heavyweights with the edge going to Marino due to his incredible season.
Montana proved to have a better team surrounding him and decimated the Dolphins 38-16. While the first two championships are memorable, Montana’s best years lay ahead of him. However, he first had to battle through injury and a massive quarterback controversy.
Walsh traded for Young in 1987 and Montana immediately felt competition for his job. Montana was nearly unstoppable late in that season but was worn out when the playoffs began and the 49ers were upset by the Minnesota Vikings in the first round.
Montana struggled mightily in that game and Young was brought in to relieve him. Despite the loss, Young showed enough potential in that game to garner support for the starting quarterback position heading into the next season.
The 1988 season was filled with possibly the greatest quarterback controversy in NFL history. Between Montana’s nagging injuries and Young’s erratic play, it was a miracle the 49ers made the playoffs at all.
Fortunately, the franchise was loaded with Hall of Fame players such as Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott. These players, among others, led the team through the turmoil of the season. Eventually, Walsh decided to stick with Montana and the team rallied behind him on their run for a third Super Bowl title.
The season culminated in that Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals and was a defensive battle from the very beginning. The 49ers eventually found themselves facing a 16-13 deficit from their own eight-yard line with a little more than three minutes left in the game.
In a story recounted by 49er offensive lineman Harris Barton, Montana pointed out actor John Candy in the crowd before the start of the drive to keep the offense calm.
Montana was nearly flawless on the drive and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to receiver John Taylor with less than a minute remaining. It was in that moment that Montana became more than just a legend in San Francisco, he became immortal.
The 1989 season was possibly the best of Montana’s career when he won the first of two MVP awards. He completed a scintillating 70.2 percent of his passes for 3,521 yards along with 26 touchdowns.
He only threw eight interceptions and he helped the team coast to a 14-2 record. The 49ers breezed through the playoffs and made a mockery of the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. The 49ers won that game 55-10 and Montana threw a then Super Bowl record five touchdowns.
The 49ers entered the 1990’s looking unstoppable. Montana led the team to another 14-2 record and was awarded another league MVP.
This team, however, was prevented from winning a third straight Super Bowl by the New York Giants and the future of the franchise would never be the same.
The 49ers met the Giants in the NFC Championship game and it was a physical game from the start. Montana was blindsided by defensive end Leonard Marshall and was knocked out of the game. No one knew at the time but he would never start another game for the 49ers again.
The 49ers lost the game when running back Roger Craig fumbled and the Giants kicked the game-winning field goal to beat the 49ers 15-13.
Montana did not play for nearly two years and when he returned the team was fully under Young’s control. He was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs after the 1992 season and where he finished the final two years of his career. A new era had begun in San Francisco and a historic rivalry would soon be reborn.
When Young was traded to the 49ers in 1987, it was widely believed that Montana’s days in San Francisco were numbered following a major back surgery the previous season.
The problem for Young was that 1987 Montana found a resurgence started to connecting with Rice and in the process affirmed his case for the Hall of Fame. Young toiled on the bench for four years and during that time he learned from the master.
Young studied Montana’s poise under pressure and prepared for the day when he could finally take over for one of the game’s greats. When Montana was knocked out of the 1990 NFC Championship game, Young was ready.
Things got off to a rocky start for Young when, despite a 10-6 record, the team failed to make the playoffs in 1991. Young collected his first MVP award in 1992 and led the team to a 14-2 record and an appearance in the NFC Championship game.
They faced the Dallas Cowboys and lost 30-20. The Cowboys would prove to be their nemesis for the next three years while the two teams battled for NFL supremacy.
Young led the 49ers to the NFC Championship game again in 1993 but were pummeled by the Cowboys 38-21. The 49ers were running out of answers for their rival and the pressure mounted on Young’s shoulders to win a Super Bowl. Replacing Montana was a tall task and 49ers fans were quickly losing patience with his replacement.
The 1994 season began with high expectations. In the second game of the season, the 49ers faced off against their former quarterback, Montana, and the Chiefs.
The 49ers offensive line was battling through injuries and provided little protection for Young. The 49ers were humbled against a dominant Chiefs pass rush and lost 24-17. Back in San Francisco, there were many people who were rooting for Montana despite the fact that he played for the opposing team.
Montana still held the city’s heart and Young was simply the capable backup in the eyes of much of the fan base. The only way for Young to win the support of the fans and solidify himself as the 49ers quarterback was to win the Super Bowl.
The rest of the season saw the 49ers come together for a championship run and they finished the regular season 13-3, clinching with home field advantage. They quickly disposed of the Chicago Bears 44-15 in the divisional round all the while looking ahead to the following week.
The Cowboys entered Candlestick Park for the NFC Championship game determined to win an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl. The 49ers refused to let this happen and caused numerous turnovers on the way to a quick 21-0 lead. The Cowboys tried to comeback but Young would not let that happen.
He threw a touchdown pass to Rice right before the half to take a commanding 31-14 lead. Young later barreled into the end zone for a decisive touchdown in the third quarter to send the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
When the game was over, Young reveled in the victory and ran around the field to thank the fans for not giving up on him or the team. He had finally won over the support of the fans.
The Super Bowl was simply a coronation as the 49ers and the Cowboys were by far the two most talented teams in the NFL. The San Diego Chargers stood no chance against the offensive juggernaut and were demolished 49-26.
Young broke Montana’s record for most touchdowns thrown in a Super Bowl with six. Young had finally managed to conquer the pressure of replacing Montana.
The rest of Young’s career was simply filling out a Hall of Fame resume. He finished his career with a 96.8 passer rating which is the highest among retired players. His 4,239 rushing yards is fourth all-time for quarterbacks.
Unfortunately, Young’s career ended with a concussion at the beginning of the 1999 season. While he was unable to end his career on his own terms, he left a legacy in San Francisco which will not soon be forgotten.
To ask anyone to uphold the standards set by two Hall of Fame quarterbacks is already quite the challenge. What makes this task tougher is the fact that the two quarterbacks are arguably the greatest right handed and left handed quarterbacks in league history. With a fan base used to a gold standard and expecting nothing less from the quarterback position, Garoppolo’s burden is almost impossible to bear.
He has shown flashes of the excellence the 49er fans expect such as the game-winning fourth-quarter drives against the Chicago Bears and the Tennesee Titans.
These drives resembled Montana who led 29 career fourth-quarter comebacks for the 49ers. Garoppolo has shown elite mobility outside the pocket similar to what Young did in his prime. He has also had an excellent role model to look up to, just like Young, in Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
While Garoppolo might never reach the same rushing totals as Young or as many comebacks as Montana, he has shown poise in the midst of adversity. This is the key to living up to the expectations in San Francisco. If he can show poise under all circumstances and be the leader the 49ers need, then he will have gained favor in the eyes of the 49er Faithful. Only time will tell if he can live up to the expectations.