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Original Issue

The Old Montana Mystique

The Oilers were the NFL's hottest team—until they ran into the Chiefs and the NFL's savviest quarterback

Joe Montana's right elbow looked as though an orthopedic surgeon had gotten playful and during some now-forgotten operation implanted a baseball. His left hand was swollen to the size of a small canned ham, albeit a purplish one. His ribs ached so much that from his point of view it was almost a toss-up: Should he breathe or not? And still these overly large men kept knocking him down, falling on him, cracking him right in the face just as they had bragged they would. And, also, his team was losing 10-0 and....

Haven't we all seen this movie before?

Only about a thousand times. Even the Houston Oilers, with that cute little halftime lead over Montana's Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at the Astrodome, couldn't help but browse through mental film from the NFL archives, the comeback section. Montana could be lying in state and these Oilers, as cocky as they might be, would still want to poke him with a stick. "10-0," said Oiler defensive end William Fuller, recalling an anxious intermission. "With Joe Montana? That's too close."

Of course, as the Oilers have proved, no lead of theirs is big enough in a playoff game. Their destiny is, apparently, to be the best team in the NFL never to win a division championship. And in some cases—last season's overtime loss to the Buffalo Bills in the wild-card round, in which Houston squandered a 25-point halftime lead, comes to mind—the failure has been spectacular.

But surely this year, with defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan's new blitzing defense that specialized in the routine demoralization of opposing quarterbacks, even a Montana should be held in no more awe than a pile of socks. All the same, said Oiler cornerback Cris Dishman, "I hated to see him with the ball in the second half and the game close."

Montana, that 37-year-old bag of bones, drove the Chiefs 71 yards in their first possession of the second half, lofting a seven-yard scoring pass to Keith Cash, his tight end, to end the drive. In the end zone Cash looked up to see a large poster featuring Ryan's distinctive face. Cash spiked the ball smack in the middle of that mug. If the Oilers thought 10-0 was too close, how did they like 10-7?

In the fourth quarter, after K.C. had spotted Houston a field goal that increased the Oilers' lead to 13-7, Montana passed for two more touchdowns and handed off to Marcus Allen for another. When Montana was finished, the Chiefs had won 28-20 to advance to this weekend's AFC title game in Buffalo, and he had added a bit more to his legend. Montana-led teams have now come from behind in the fourth quarter to win 29 games—four of those in the postseason.

You saw all this happen, and even so, you had a hard time explaining it. Just how did this happen? "I don't know." said Fuller. "He kept getting back up."

There is more to Montana than that, as there is more to the Chiefs than Montana. Overlooked in the comeback was the Kansas City defense, neither as famous nor as accomplished as Ryan's fierce creation in Houston. Yet it was the Chief defense that racked up nine sacks of Oiler quarterback Warren Moon and caused him to fumble five times (he lost two). It was the Chief defense that held tailback Gary Brown to a mere 17 yards rushing—108 less than he had averaged in his eight starts during the regular season.

"All we heard about was their defense," said Kansas City defensive end Neil Smith. Well, if the Chief defensive unit had a self-promoter like Ryan in charge, someone willing to take a poke at a fellow coach on the sideline, it would have its own nickname by now. With all those takeaways, it would be called the Kansas City Thiefs or something like that.

But aside from Montana and Allen, almost everything about the Chiefs has been overlooked this year. Nobody really took K.C. seriously until it beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 in overtime in the first round of the playoffs and improved its overall record to 12-5. Sure, Allen had a wonderful year, scoring 15 touchdowns and being named to the Pro Bowl at age 33. But all those young receivers—Jim Barnett, J.J. Birden, Willie Davis and Fred Jones—would do better to call themselves the No-Name Gang instead of their chosen sobriquet, the Young Guns. Even Montana, good as he was, was considered increasingly fragile. He missed four full regular-season games, including the meeting between these two teams on Sept. 12, which he sat out with a sore wrist. Kansas City lost that one 30-0.

Houston was the hot team going into the playoffs. After a 1-4 start, partly the residue of that fold against Buffalo in the playoffs last year, the Oilers regrouped and won 11 in a row. And throughout the season they were the most newsworthy bunch in the NFL. Something either cartoonish or tragic seemed to happen every week. It wasn't just Ryan and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride going at it on the sideline on Jan. 2 in a difference of opinion over their systems—Buddy's 46 defense versus Gilbride's run-and-shoot offense, which Ryan derisively refers to as the chuck-and-duck. There was an early-season benching of Moon in favor of Cody Carlson that lasted part of one game. There was Daddygate, when tackle David Williams missed a game to be with his wife and new baby. And there was the suicide of defensive end Jeff Alm, who shot himself after killing his best friend in a car accident. The Oilers' tolerance for turmoil was immense. "You'd be surprised how little of it we took seriously," said defensive end Sean Jones. "Even with that 1-4 start, morale was never a problem."

The winning streak—which featured a rejuvenated Moon and Brown, an NFL minimum-wage replacement at running back for the injured Lorenzo White—seemed to augur that the end of Houston's postseason frustration was at hand. These Oilers could win, and they had to win. They knew that because owner Bud Adams had told them so in an especially silly preseason meeting. "That edict shook players up," said Jones. "He assumed we had the intelligence of a squash."

Adams's address aside, there was a genuine urgency to the Oilers' season. Moon was 37 and would not see many more playoffs. Coach Jack Pardee was nearly fired during the 1-4 stretch by the trigger-happy Adams. Ryan and Gilbride, no matter how well their respective systems worked, would not likely be back together. For that matter, the run-and-shoot offense was losing support, and abandoning it would mean sweeping personnel changes. The idea that this was the last chance for one of the NFL's most perennially talented teams—seven straight playoff appearances—persisted through each of the 11 victories.

And surely there would have been more, except for Montana. The Oilers were properly respectful of him going into the game. After all, many of them had been victimized in those comebacks; even Ryan had had to stand transfixed in his Philadelphia Eagle and Chicago Bear days while Montana marched the San Francisco 49ers relentlessly downfield in the waning minutes.

And while the Oilers were cautious, the Chiefs were confident. Kansas City defensive lineman Dan Saleaumua dismissed that 30-0 game, Houston's lone victory during its early-season travails. "We're doing the same exact thing," he said. "The only difference now is that Joe's playing."

But what can such a mess of scarred cartilage and tangled tendons add to an offense? The word throughout the league is that Montana can no longer go deep. He has great vision, can pick defenses apart, but he can't hurt you long. "That is what he is on film," said Chief offensive coordinator Paul Hackett mysteriously. "But it's not true."

On Sunday, Montana did indeed underthrow receivers several times, was intercepted twice and reminded nobody of John Elway. Yet he went deep often enough to put a scare into Houston. In fact, K.C. center Tim Grunhard believed the game's turning point came in the first half when the Chiefs' offense was a model of futility on an incomplete pass from Montana that traveled 50 yards in the air. Willie Davis, five yards ahead of his coverage, did his impression of Times Square at New Year's—dropping a ball while everybody waited—blowing a sure touchdown. "It was heartbreaking," said Grunhard, "but it opened the defense up."

In any Montana comeback the most striking element is his supernatural calm. "He's not caught up in unimportant things," said Hackett. "It's always protection, routes and defense. When he walks into a huddle, no one's anxious because Joe's not anxious. It's his trademark."

How discombobulated was Montana after Davis's drop? "I was embarrassed," said Davis. "I mean, it was a TD pass. But Joe came up to me and said, 'I missed two throws, you dropped one pass, keep going.' " In the fourth quarter, with the Chiefs leading 14-13, Montana sent Davis into the end zone, where he was covered perfectly by Dishman. Davis reached behind him for the ball—Dishman never saw it—to score an 18-yard touchdown.

The outcome of the game was such that even the Oilers were forced to pay homage. How could they not appreciate Montana's performance, knowing just how good he had to be to beat them. "We played darn good for a long time," said Ryan, "but Joe Montana kept getting up. Like he always does."



Davis (84) atoned for a miscue by beating Dishman; after his TD, Cash sent Ryan an in-your-face message.



Saleaumua (97) and the unsung Kansas City defense forced Moon to fumble five times.



Allen had 74 yards on 14 carries, including a glorious TD jaunt much appreciated by Montana.