Joe Montana finally admitted it on Sunday, minutes after the conclusion of his first regular season in Kansas City. He felt the heat this fall. The pressure got to him. The iceman melteth. Sort of.
This wasn't supposed to happen, of course. Not to the best pressure quarterback most of us have ever seen, the quarterback with the 14-5 postseason record and the 4-0 Super Bowl record. But after the Chiefs beat the Seahawks 34-24, ending an 11-5 season that wasn't the cake-walk fans had hoped for when Montana arrived last April, the 37-year-old quarterback paused while munching a postgame cheeseburger to talk about how tough the year really was.
"I was, well, all right," he said. "I was O.K. at times, not very good at other times. I had my ups and downs. I think, especially late in the season, I started getting caught up in the expectations people had for me. I'd never done that before. But people expected me to be perfect. I found myself playing games and thinking, I've got to be perfect. I can't make mistakes. Mentally, the pressure got to me."
Appearing in 11 games, the most he had played in since 1990, Montana completed 60.7% of his throws. His 87.4 rating was second in the AFC to that of Denver's John Elway. But there was something missing in his game—a fluidity, a consistency, maybe, or the lack of a radar fix on his receivers, the sort he had with Jerry Rice and John Taylor back in San Francisco. He was bothered by the pulled hamstring that sidelined him for much of four games. And it hurt just as much that the injury forced him to miss 30 midseason practices. The Chiefs were installing a new Montana-style, short-passing offense that they couldn't practice or use efficiently when the man it was designed for was not there. The Chief offense still isn't in a groove: The 1992 team outscored the '93 version by 20 points. "I tell the offense we need to have five terrific drives a game," offensive coordinator Paul Hackett said. "We had two of those today."
Hackett noticed some of the tension in Montana alter the Chiefs' dismal 30-10 loss at Minnesota on Dec. 26. And so on Sunday, before Montana went out to face Seattle, Hackett sidled up to him and said, "Hey, just go out there and throw the s.o.b. today."
After Montana's efficient 18-of-28, 210-yard day, Hackett reflected on what it must be like to be Joe Montana. "What Joe felt with Rice when they went to the line of scrimmage has to be built here, and it can't be built in a day," he said. "It's going to take time. I hate to say it, but it's like our offense is teasing people, showing great things every once in a while but not consistently."
In the playoffs, teams don't have time. They have pressure. "The reason Joe and Marcus [Allen] came here is for the big games," cornerback Albert Lewis said. "They've raised our expectations for the postseason. I know I'm more confident with them here." But as the regular season has shown, just having Montana on the roster doesn't put a lock on the Super Bowl.
There's some history in the Kevin Gilbride—Buddy Ryan feud, which flared up on Sunday night with the astounding sight on national television of Ryan, Houston's defensive coordinator, throwing a punch at Gilbride, his offensive counterpart, near the end of the first half of the Oilers-Jets game. Ryan, who coached the Eagles from 1986 to '91, and Gilbride don't speak to each other, the result of Ryan's season-long criticism of the Oilers' wide-open offense. Gilbride has grown to detest the irascible Ryan, but his bitterness extends to Oiler management, which refused to allow him to talk with South Carolina last month about that school's head-coaching job, even though South Carolina was reportedly willing to let him finish his Oiler duties this season. "Kevin's been miserable this year," a source close to Gilbride said. "First they don't let him take the South Carolina job. And Buddy's made his life awful." With his impulsive right hook, Ryan might have killed any chance he had of landing another top job. What owner wants to hire a head coach who throws punches on the sidelines?
Very quietly, kid quarterback Rick Mirer grew up in his first season in Seattle. Mirer became the first quarterback since the Bills' Joe Ferguson in 1973 to start every game of his rookie season. He broke virtually every record for a rookie quarterback, including attempts (486), completions (274) and yards (2,833). One of the reasons Mirer succeeded was that he tried not to think of himself as a rookie. Last Saturday, before facing the Chiefs in Kansas City, he was watching a TV promo touting his matchup with Montana and was asked if he felt a little overwhelmed at being billed beside the great veteran. "I'm not in too much awe of my situation," Mirer said. "I can't be in awe of Joe because then I'll always be the kid. It's like this: I don't want to be judged against the other rookies. I want to be judged against every other quarterback, because that's what I am."
Four days before Emmitt Smith went out to try for his third straight rushing title, he called Bear safety Mark Carrier. His message: You guys have to stop Jerome Bettis for me. As it happened, Smith, with a 35-yard edge over the Rams' Bettis as each entered his final game of the regular season, didn't get much help from the Bear defense—but then he didn't need it either. Bettis ran for 146 yards, but Smith still won the title by cruising for 168 yards against the Giants, in spite of a painfully separated right shoulder (page 34). Smith took the title with 1,486 yards and became the first man to win a rushing crown while missing two of his team's games.
Smith got the news of his achievement on the Cowboys' flight home from New Jersey. Coach Jimmy Johnson was watching the Raider-Bronco game on his handheld TV when late in the game the announcers mentioned that Smith had won the title. Johnson took to the plane's public-address system and said, "I think we all ought to congratulate Emmitt on winning his third straight rushing title." As his teammates cheered, Smith, with his injured shoulder throbbing, beamed from the back of the plane.
Wise Up, Jimmy
Last week, in the midst of the Cowboys' preparations for their biggest game of the year, against the Giants, coach Jimmy Johnson told ESPN that the notion of building up a franchise from scratch appeals to him and that he might have some interest in the Jacksonville coaching job. Johnson's comments were horribly timed; coaches always rail about distractions at this time of year, and this is a huge distraction. It is also possible that his ill-timed comments could affect his chances for the job. Put yourself in Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver's shoes: You want Johnson, then on the eve of a big game you listen as he talks about how nice it would be to have another job. Is this the guy you want controlling your team for a decade?
The Envelope, Please
If it's players of the year you want, flip ahead to Dr. Z's All-Pro team (page 67). Here we're honoring those who injected fun and, yes, weirdness, into the season.
•The Learned Opinion Award. To Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Hours before the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys took the field in Washington to open their season, Thomas, a big Dallas fan, presided over the team's chapel service. Thomas told the Cowboys that they had reached the point at which their opponents would be inspired to play them, and they would have to be ready for the greatest challenge of their lives. Suitably pumped, the Cowboys were creamed by the Redskins 35-16.
•The Casey Stengel Memorial Award. To New England coach Bill Parcells. After the Patriots lost to Houston on Oct. 17, Parcells said, "Concentration-wise, we're having trouble crossing the line mentally from a toughness standpoint." Parcells got a head start on winning the award in training camp when he said, "I'm not a bus-station kind of guy, but there are a few players I'm not sure want to be here. They've got a brook-trout kind of look."
•The Hawkeye Pierce Award. Runner-up: Pittsburgh running back Merril Hoge. He missed two days of training camp in August with swollen feet, suffered in an attack by a swarm of yellow jackets.
Winner: Miami wideout Mike Williams. In July, on his daily bike ride near the Dolphin camp with his 120-pound rottweiler, Dokie, leashed to his left hand, Williams crashed to the pavement when Dokie took off after an intriguing scent. Williams missed four weeks with a broken left hand. Dokie was fine.
•The History Is Bunk Award. To Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson. When asked if he planned on seeing the sights in London, where the Cowboys faced Detroit in the preseason, Johnson replied, "If I want to see where I have ancestral roots, it wouldn't do any good. Those ancestors are dead now, right?"
The End Zone
Yes, indeed, Deion Sanders is a two-way guy. In early December the Brave outfielder-Falcon cornerback and receiver said, "I have a lot of joy playing this game. This is the game I love. I truly love the game of football." A couple of weeks later, he had this to say: "Maybe it's time I put all my focus on baseball and give that everything I've got so that I really have a great season." Go figure.
Montana (19) and Allen have had solid seasons, but the Chief offense has yet to gel.
Green is one who will profit from the Fox contract.
Free for All
Thanks to Rupert Murdoch, teams will have more money to spend on player salaries in 1994, which means that the top fire agents will attract livelier bidding during the off-season than anyone had expected. The four-year, $1.6 billion purchase of the NFC television package by Murdoch's Fox Network will raise the salary cap by some $4 million per team—which is crucial because while the best things in life are free, the fellows listed below will cost some very big money. The best fire agents by position:
WR Anthony Miller, San Diego Michael Haynes, Atlanta
TE Eric Green, Pittsburgh
T Howard Ballard, Buffalo Andy Heck,* Seattle
G Chris Hinton,* Atlanta Nate Newton, Dallas
C Courtney Hall, San Diego
QB Scott Mitchell, Miami
RB Lewis Tillman, Giants
FB Tom Rathman, San Francisco
DE Sean Jones, Houston Clyde Simmons, Philadelphia
DT Dan Saleaumua, Kansas City Jimmie Jones, Dallas
OLB Seth Joyner, Philadelphia Ken Harvey, Phoenix
MLB Chris Spielman, Detroit
CB Nate Odomes, Buffalo Cris Dishman, Houston
S Bubba McDowell, Houston Greg Jackson, Giants
K Pete Stoyanovich, Miami, P Sean Landeta, Rams
Special Teams Steve Tasker, Buffalo; Darion Connor, Atlanta
Jack-of-all-trades Deion Sanders, Atlanta
*Transition players. The current team can retain these players by matching any offer they get on the open market.