SEASON OF SEASONS
To call Joe Montana's numbers this season striking is to do them an injustice. Call them historic. The highest quarterback rating ever in the NFL belongs to Milt Plum, who finished with a 110.4 for the Browns in 1960, and the record for completion percentage belongs to Ken Anderson, who completed 70.6% of his throws in '82. With three weeks to go, Montana is on track to surpass both marks. His rating is 116.1, and he is completing 71.5% of his passes. Moreover, no quarterback has thrown five times as many touchdown passes as interceptions in a season, but with 22 touchdown throws and five interceptions Montana has a chance to do that, too (box, page 102).
What has gotten into him? After all, Montana, who missed the second half of the 49ers' 23-10 victory over the Falcons on Sunday with bruised ribs, could have quit after Super Bowl XXIII in January and been a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1994. How did he get better?
There are several factors, most of which center on San Francisco's new offensive coordinator, Mike Holmgren, who was promoted from quarterback coach when George Seifert replaced Bill Walsh as head coach in the off-season. With Walsh gone, Holmgren took over play designing and play calling. He made a number of changes.
First, he studied every Montana interception of the last few years. Holmgren found that a few were the result of screwy things like tipped passes. Some others were the result of Montana's forcing the ball, and Holmgren persuaded him to gamble less often this year. And a few interceptions happened every season on one intermediate pass play. Holmgren removed it from the play-book before the season.
Second, the 49ers shifted more receiving responsibility to fullback Tom Rathman and wideout John Taylor, who combined for 56 catches in 1988. They've caught 113 balls between them this year.
Finally, Montana is using fewer seven-step dropbacks than in recent years; mostly he has been throwing off a three-step drop, which means he's getting rid of the ball more quickly and throwing more high-percentage passes.
One mark of a great player is his willingness to be coached. Montana has always possessed that trait. "From the beginning, every time Bill Walsh or I said something, he sort of crawled right in your mouth with you," says Montana's first quarterback coach in San Francisco, Sam Wyche, now the head coach of the Bengals. "He listened to everything you had to say. He could take an observation and plug it in on the field on the next snap."
The first month of the Paul Tagliabue era ended on Dec. 3, and we've learned one thing about the new commissioner: He's not afraid to travel. He has met with the owners of the Seahawks, 49ers, Chargers, Rams and Raiders in California, and he has visited with other owners in Denver, Tampa, Washington, East Rutherford, N.J., Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. This week he is meeting with all 28 owners in three small-group sessions in Dallas. Tagliabue has also met with coaches in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Los Angeles and with game officials in Pittsburgh, East Rutherford and San Francisco.
A month ago, when SI asked Tagliabue how many players he knew, he said, "None. I just haven't had the occasion to." Since then, he has met with players in Pittsburgh, Tampa, East Rutherford and Philadelphia, and he has had dinner with the president of the NFL Players Association, Gene Upshaw. "I think it's important to know what the players think," says Tagliabue. "I didn't want to sit in New York and read what the players were thinking."
Who knows? All that talk could lead to progress in the stalled negotiations on a new collective-bargaining agreement between the owners and the players. Tagliabue says his first priority is to get both sides "unstuck and unglued."
THE DITKA WATCH
Network whispers persist that if Bears coach Mike Ditka decided to quit coaching after the season, he would be a hotter commodity as a prospective TV announcer than Bill Walsh was last spring. CBS loves his tough glibness. Ditka, however, says he wants to coach in 1990, the last year of his contract. After that? A broadcast job is a possibility, he says. But here's a mild surprise: Ditka says he wants to be an NFL owner.
"My romance would be to own my own club," he says. "Then I could hire the people I wanted and try to get the players that I wanted as a coach. That's my dream. The reality is probably not something I can touch. But if the opportunity arose, it would be something I'd think about. We'll see how actively I pursue it when I'm done coaching. It's something I've thought about for a long time."
Cowboy owner Jerry Jones has twice spoken with Viking president Mike Lynn about revising the deal that sent Herschel Walker to Minnesota. Dallas is trying to get Lynn to accept a draft pick or picks from the Cowboys in exchange for letting them keep the players they received from the Vikings (they still have linebackers Jesse Solomon and David Howard and cornerback Issiac Holt; running back Darrin Nelson was traded to San Diego and defensive end Alex Stewart has already been cut) as well as the trade's conditional draft choices. If Lynn sticks to the original deal and Dallas ends up cutting the players, then Minnesota would get nothing out of the trade other than Walker. Dallas has until Feb. 1 to choose either the player or the conditional draft pick paired with that player....
Here's a man who has confidence in his team. When Jim Hanifan took the job as interim coach of the Falcons last week, he asked management to put an asterisk beside his career coaching record in the future, because he doesn't think the last four games of 1989 should count against his record. No can do, Jimbo. You will enter the '90s with a career record of 39-54-1 if Atlanta blows its last three....
When the Falcons made Auburn pass rusher Aundray Bruce the first pick in the 1988 draft, the book on Bruce was that he had a bit of schnauzer in him. Former Atlanta coach Marion Campbell tried to get Bruce to concentrate on playing the run as well as the pass, but Bruce dogged it. The result was that he played neither the run nor the pass well. Campbell finally gave him a kick in the pants by benching him for most of Games 11 and 12. Under Hanifan, Bruce was back, starting against the 49ers on Sunday, and he had seven tackles, including one sack....
Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke is suing The Washingtonian magazine, writer Rudy Maxa and former Cooke chauffeur Harry Turner for a total of $30 million for defamation and libel. Turner collaborated with Maxa on a story about Turner's four years of driving Cooke around D.C. for the magazine's December issue. The article describes Cooke as a penny-pincher who filled his guest houses in Virginia with soap and towels swiped from fancy hotels, and it quotes Cooke as calling Raider boss Al Davis "the dumbest owner in football."...
The rights to Bo Jackson's autobiography—to be written with Dick Schaap—are the object of a bidding war involving several Manhattan publishing houses. A deal could be completed this week, and it will almost certainly yield the largest sum ever paid for a football player's book, with Jackson and Schaap sharing at least $350,000. However, if you consider Jackson a baseball player, he has got a way to go to catch the likes of Pete Rose, who shared more than $500,000 with his writer, Roger Kahn....
Boldest play of the week: The Players Association sent a letter to its members Nov. 22, informing them that dues—for a union that is planning to decertify itself—are being cut from $2,000 to $1,000.
job in this league." Young told him, "Have no fear. It won't be long." A decade later Reeves is gunning for his third Super Bowl appearance in four years.
Forty-niners at Rams. Figure this out: San Francisco is 7-1 in Anaheim Stadium since 1981 but is only 4-5 over the span against the Rams at Candlestick Park, including a 13-12 loss on Oct. 1. In that game, running back Tom Rathman fumbled late in the game and L.A. quarterback Jim Everett executed a 72-yard drive to set up the winning field goal. Everett's performance didn't impress the 49ers, though. "He had a good game," said corner back Eric Wright at the time. "So what? He didn't do anything to catch my eye."
Browns at Colts. With its 7-5-1 record, Cleveland is in a desperate fight to make the playoffs. The Browns have gone 0-2-1 in their past three games, against the Chiefs, Lions and Bengals. Now they finish with the Colts, Vikings and Oilers—strong teams all.