Twenty years later, it still gnaws at Joe Montana.
It was just one game in a Hall of Fame career that saw Montana lead the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl titles, receive three Super Bowl MVP awards, two league MVP awards and become arguably the greatest quarterback to play the game.
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But that dank, bone-chilling January day in Buffalo still haunts Montana whenever he’s asked about the two magical seasons he spent with the Chiefs.
“We had an opportunity and blew it,” he said matter-of-factly, referring to the Chiefs’ 30-13 loss at Buffalo in the 1993 AFC championship game. “We actually blew it twice … the (second-to-) last regular-season game made us have to go to Buffalo instead of playing at home. That probably hurt us more than anything.”
The indelible image of that day is Montana, face down on the hard turf of Ralph Wilson Stadium, forced to leave the game because of a concussion suffered when he was sacked early in the second half. Playing in the Chiefs’ first AFC Championship Game since the 1970 merger was little consolation to someone accustomed to reaching Super Bowls.
“I’m not sure how satisfying it is when you
make it,” Montana said. “It hurts more when you almost make it than when you go home early. You know you’re out of it then. But when you almost get there …
“We had already beaten Buffalo once that year, but to have to go up there and play in those conditions. I think it was 50 degrees and sunny that day in Kansas City. We would have had a lot better shot.”
The Chiefs haven’t come that close since. In fact, they haven’t won a playoff game since after the 1993 season, when Montana, aided by a Derrick Thomas-led defense, beat Pittsburgh in overtime at home and ripped the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome, setting up the visit to Buffalo.
“Had he stayed healthy, we would have definitely won,” former Chiefs president/general manager Carl Peterson said of the game at Buffalo. “But like anything, you have to keep the quarterback upright.”
Ten months earlier, in April 1993, Peterson swung the trade that caused traffic to stop on the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars to come to a screeching halt in San Francisco.
The Chiefs, coming off a disheartening 17-0 playoff loss at San Diego, were abandoning Marty Schottenheimer’s smash-mouth game for the West Coast offense and needed an upgrade at quarterback. They hired former 49ers quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett as offensive coordinator, and he had worked with Montana for three seasons.
Meanwhile, the 49ers were embroiled in a quarterback controversy. Montana, 36 at the time, had been bothered by problems in his right elbow that required major surgery in August 1991, sidelining him for two years. In his stead, backup Steve Young blossomed as the NFL’s MVP in 1992 and led the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game.
Montana insisted he was healthy for 1993 and should be reinstated as the starter. San Francisco coach George Seifert and general manager Carmen Policy were not convinced.
Chiefs vice president for personnel Lynn Stiles, a former 49ers assistant under Bill Walsh, was a college roommate and close friend of Seifert’s, and in their conversations, Stiles learned that while San Francisco had two future Hall of Famers at quarterback, they couldn’t keep both.
“They weren’t going to give up Steve Young,” Peterson said. “Lynn said we can get Montana, even if he plays two years for us … and we started talking about Joe. Marty asked Paul Hackett, ‘What do you think about Joe Montana?’ and he got very excited.”
So Peterson offered a first-round draft pick to the 49ers for Montana and safety David Whitmore. That was the easy part. Then, Peterson had to convince Montana and his wife, Jennifer, to move their family from the Bay Area to the Midwest and agree to a new, three-year contract that would pay him $10 million.
Montana had other options. The Arizona Cardinals played host for a visit. But once he came to Kansas City, the Chiefs put on a full-court press, wining and dining the couple in the Country Club Plaza and showing Jennifer Montana the Johnson County neighborhoods where her children would attend school.
“They had a pretty good team already and really good organization,” Montana said. “Then you add Paul Hackett being there, and that made the transition a lot easier. The offense was pretty much what I had done for most of my career, so it was an easy learning process.
“The thing that stuck in me the most wasn’t that I was going somewhere else, but it was the reason I was going … I had felt I shouldn’t be (leaving) at that point in time. I could understand it if my play was down, but it wasn’t at that point. It was simply because they didn’t want to have a quarterback controversy.”
Still, faced with the public-relations backlash of losing a San Francisco institution, 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. made one last-ditch appeal to keep his quarterback, but the Chiefs and Montana had struck a deal.
“They always had offers,” Montana said of the 49ers, his team of 14 years, “but none that would give me an opportunity to compete for the job. I felt I deserved to get it back, but hey, they made a decision, and then I had to make one.”
Montana’s decision led to another future Hall of Famer, running back Marcus Allen, signing with the Chiefs in the first year of unrestricted free agency.
“We made the trade for Joe,” Peterson said, “and I got a call from Marcus, and he said, ‘That clinches it for me, I’m going to sign with you for two reasons.’ One was he always wanted to play with Joe … and two, he wanted to play against (Raiders owner) Al Davis twice a year.”
The arrival of two former Super Bowl MVPs turned Chiefs games into a national phenomenon. The Chiefs had made the playoffs in each of the previous three seasons and were already playing to packed houses at Arrowhead Stadium.
But with Montana and Allen, the demand for tickets and the waiting list for season tickets mushroomed, and merchandise sales — in one of the smallest markets in the NFL — vaulted near the top of the league alongside teams such as Dallas, Pittsburgh and Green Bay. National publications and television networks, even in the pre-Internet age, swarmed Chiefs practices.
Montana, on a team with big personalities such as Thomas, Neil Smith, Kevin Ross, Albert Lewis, Tim Grunhard and Allen, was the rock star. The others sang backup.
Even a can’t-miss billboard leading into River Falls, Wis., where the Chiefs conducted training camp, proclaimed: “Welcome Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs.”
Montana had a weakness for Steve’s Pizza in River Falls, and fans would hang out around the hole-in-the-wall restaurant hoping to filch one of Montana’s empty beer cans as a souvenir.
“It was like being with the Beatles,” said kicker Nick Lowery, who had been with the Chiefs for 13 years before Montana arrived. “There was a lot of effort to have extra security around him, but it was sort of exciting because we never had that before.
“There was something about Joe. What he brought to the team could not be equaled in terms of track record and swagger. It wasn’t cowboy swagger, but it was the confident, quiet Joe Montana swagger … a guy who was so comfortable within himself. He brought the glue to the whole team. Looking down the sideline and seeing a guy who had been to Super Bowls, it changes your team confidence when you’ve had years of mediocrity. “
Montana felt at ease with all the attention his presence brought to Kansas City.
“I never saw a guy who had that much popularity, that much fame, but also had a great demeanor,” Peterson said. “He would come out after games and sign autographs until it was time to leave, and then would have to cut it off and fight his way to get to the bus, but he didn’t anger anybody doing that.
“I never saw fans, parents, kids … upset if they didn’t get his autograph … Joe had a way of diffusing people in spite of his popularity.”
It didn’t take long for Montana to prove to himself, to the Chiefs and to the rest of the league that he was healthy and recovered from the elbow surgery.
In the 1993 regular-season opener at Tampa Bay, he completed his first nine passes and finished 14 of 21 for 246 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-3 victory. He would be voted AFC offensive player of the week after his first game as a Chief.
Though Montana banged up his wrist in that game and would miss the following week’s 30-0 loss at Houston, both he and Kansas City would be ready for his Arrowhead debut in week three. A crowd of 78,453 packed the stadium for “Monday Night Football” against John Elway and the Denver Broncos.
The Chiefs won 15-7 on five field goals by Lowery, and even Joe Cool was a bit overwhelmed with what he saw.
“The fans there were a lot crazier than I ever remembered,” Montana said. “The first time I heard the whole stadium at the end of the national anthem go ‘Chiefs!’ (it) sent a chill through you. Marty tried to tell me about it, but it really didn’t capture what it felt like the first time.”
With Montana at quarterback, the Chiefs finished 11-5 and won their first AFC title since 1971. He completed 60.7 percent of his passes, and was a maestro conducting the West Coast offense even though he did not have an elite receiver. It didn’t matter when Montana had the ball in his hands.
“Sitting next to him on the plane,” Lowery said, “Joe said something I had never heard before or since. He said, ‘At this time in my career, when I get to the line of scrimmage, it’s so natural for me to read the defense. I know before I even snap the ball where I’m going to go with it,’ which is almost impossible for most quarterbacks to do.
“When you add Marcus Allen, you had two guys who brought a level of professionalism and focus and passion to practice. Marcus would take the handoff, and he’d run 80 yards; he wouldn’t run 20 yards and stop. And Joe … I don’t remember seeing a bad pass in practice. And he took that into the games … every pass was on target.”
Montana was even better in the playoffs. In the 1993 first-round game against Pittsburgh, the Chiefs faced fourth-and-goal from the Steelers 7 with 1:48 to play in regulation when Montana, eluding the rush by Bill Cowher’s defense, found wide receiver Tim Barnett in the back of the end zone, sending the game into overtime. The Chiefs won 27-24 on Lowery’s 32-yard field goal.
“Tim was probably the third or fourth read,” Peterson said, “but Joe always had that ability to slide a couple steps to his right or to his left. He had a great clock in his head about when the pocket was collapsing, and he’d buy himself another half second and get the ball away.”
In the game at Houston the following week, Montana threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns, including one to tight end Keith Cash, who punctuated the 28-20 victory by spiking the ball against a poster of the Oilers’ bombastic defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan.
“It was always a tough place to play against one of his defenses,” Montana said of Ryan. “They like to come after you and beat you up and hit you late … you have to hang in there. We started to get some chances and everything fell into place.”
Despite the disappointment in the 1993 AFC Championship Game, Montana returned for a second season and led the Chiefs to a 9-7 record and wild-card berth. Before missing December losses against Denver and Miami because of a foot injury, Montana turned in two of his most memorable games as a Chief.
In week two, Montana faced his former 49ers teammates and protégé, Young, in a showdown at Arrowhead Stadium. Montana completed 19 of 31 passes for two touchdowns, including a 1-yard, tackle-eligible flip to Joe Valerio, in a 24-17 victory in front of 79,907, still the second-largest crowd ever at Arrowhead.
“It was like playing your brother or your best friend,” Montana said, not hiding his feelings that are bitter to this day, “and you always want to beat them worse than anybody.”
Montana also engineered the Monday Night Miracle at Denver, when he one-upped Schottenheimer nemesis John Elway. Elway had just given the Broncos a 28-24 lead with a 4-yard touchdown run with 1:29 to play, apparently dooming Schottenheimer to his eighth straight loss at Denver and the Chiefs to a third-straight loss that season.
But Montana, first overcoming a holding penalty, drove the Chiefs 75 yards in nine plays, capped by an outstretched grab for 5 yards at the pylon by Willie Davis with 8 seconds left for a 31-28 win, prompting “Monday Night Football” analyst Dan Dierdorf to exclaim: “Lord, I can die and go to heaven because now I’ve seen everything!”
The Chiefs had to go on the road for their 1994 playoff opener, and Montana completed 26 of 37 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns against another western Pennsylvania quarterback, Miami’s Dan Marino. But Montana threw an uncharacteristic interception in the end zone late in the game, and the Chiefs lost 27-17.
Though he had one year left on his contract, it was pretty well accepted that Montana’s time as a Chief was over following the 1994 season.
“Joe said, ‘I think I can play another year, but I think I want to play with my kids,’” Peterson recalled. “I said, ‘Joe, you’ve retired in your mind. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your two years.’”
In those two years, Montana invested in the community. He formed a beer distributorship, Big Sky Distributors, and he returned to town on business several times a year before divesting the company.
And he still feels an attachment and a gratitude to Kansas City and the Chiefs. He was not like Joe Namath finishing his career with the Rams or Johnny Unitas playing out the string in San Diego.
Montana was 17-8 as a starter, still the best winning percentage by a Chiefs quarterback.
“When things aren’t going well and someone gives you an opportunity, it’s always a special place, and it always will be,” he said of Kansas City. “I love getting back there on occasion, seeing how different it is and visiting the old neighborhood.
“It was a lot of fun, being able to go out and prove to anyone who thought it was time for me to go that I could still play.”
And yet …
“I still think we deserved to get to the Super Bowl that year.”