Over the last four days, I wrote about the one great team that didn’t win it all on the six greatest dynasties in the NFL since World War II:
- 1990s Cowboys: Missing Links In The Dynasty Chain, Part IV
- 1970s Steelers: Missing Links In The Dynasty Chain, Part III
- 1960s Packers: Missing Links In The Dynasty Chain, Part II
- 1950s Browns, 1980s 49ers, modern Patriots: Missing Links In The Dynasty Chain, Part I
And while these dynasties never played each other, of course, there was some overlap among the quarterbacks.
Starr vs. Bradshaw
Otto Graham played from 1946 to 1955, while Bart Starr didn’t enter the NFL until 1956. But Starr had a long career, sticking around in Green Bay through 1971. And on December 6th, 1970, a very special game in NFL history took place: the only meeting with Starr and Terry Bradshaw. Even if it wasn’t quite Brady/Manning.
In 1970, Bradshaw was the first pick in the draft, and as a rookie, he was terrible, finishing 3.30 ANY/A below average. Starr was washed up by 1970: he ranked 21st out of 25 qualifying passers in ANY/A.
Starr was one month shy of his 37th birthday when the Packers took the field on an ugly day in Pittsburgh. Bradshaw had turned 22 years old a few months earlier. The game was played in 20 degree weather with snow and 20 miles-an-hour winds, which must have felt like a home game for Starr. The opposing quarterback was initially Terry Hanratty, who struggled throughout the first half, completing 5 of 14 passes for 33 yards with an interception. Bradshaw, who had been benched for Hanratty earlier in the year, came out in the second half with the Steelers trailing 6-3. Pittsburgh, after all, entered the game tied for first in the AFC Central, making this a critical December game for the team.
It did not go well. Bradshaw threw caution to the wind, along with most of his passes, as he went 3 for 20 with four interceptions. Yes, even in the snow, and the wind, and in 1970, you still need to complete more passes to your team than to the other team. Bradshaw did connect on an 87-yard touchdown pass to Dave Smith, but it was not enough. Starr was a workmanlike 14/32 for 235 yards with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
Bradshaw vs. Montana
Let’s fast forward juuuuust a bit. After that Bradshaw/Starr game, Starr retired, Bradshaw won four Super Bowls, yadda yadda yadda.
Joe Montana was drafted in 1979, and Bradshaw retired in 1983. There was not much overlap between these two dynasties — a great Pittsburgh team pounded the ’78 49ers the year before Walsh and Montana arrived — but there were two notables games. And the year after Bradshaw retired, the Steelers gave the 18-1 49ers their only blemish of the season: a come-from-behind, 20-17 win in Pittsburgh in October. (And as discussed earlier this week, Noll’s Steelers beat Walsh’s 49ers in 1987, too.)
More importantly, just months before Montana would win his first Super Bowl, the 49ers and Steelers met on November 1st, 1981. The Steelers were 5-3 and were 5-point favorites against the 6-2 but unproven 49ers. And while neither QB was in the prime of his career (Bradshaw had turned 33 two months earlier, Montana was 25) both were very good. Bradshaw finished 3rd in ANY/A in 1981, his last great season; Montana finished 6th in ANY/A, his first great year.
For the 49ers, Montana, Ronnie Lott, and Bill Walsh were beginning their journey to glory. The Steelers were an aging roster that still yielded 8 Hall of Famers on the sidelines (with Lynn Swann and Joe Greene missing the game due to injury) that day: Bradshaw, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster on offense, and Jack Ham, Mel Blount, and Jack Lambert. And, of course, Chuck Noll.
So what happened?
Joe Montana, a victim of two costly interceptions, led the decisive touchdown drive in the fourth quarter today as the San Francisco 49ers won their sixth straight game, by 17-14 over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After Pittsburgh’s sixth turnover, Montana took his team 43 yards in nine plays to regain the lead with 5 minutes 35 seconds remaining. Walt Easley ran 2 yards to cap the drive, set up after Carlton Williamson intercepted a Terry Bradshaw pass.
”He’s a tremendously resourceful quarterback,” Bill Walsh, the 49er coach, said of Montana. ”When he makes a mistake, he doesn’t get too upset. He played brilliantly.”
The Steelers had taken a 14-10 lead after three periods. Mel Blount returned a Montana interception 50 yards for one touchdown and Jack Lambert picked off another pass to set up the second Steeler score.
For Bradshaw, it would be by far his worst game of the season: it was better than his game against Starr, but he went 12/23 for 125 yards with a TD and 3 interceptions. Montana was 22/37 for 205 and a TD with 2 interceptions.
Montana vs. Aikman
Montana went on to win four Super Bowls, yadda yadda yadda, and then… on November 11, 1990, a 34-year-old Montana took an 8-0 49ers team into Dallas to face the 3-6 Cowboys. San Francisco was still at the height of their powers, obviously: they were the defending two-time Super Bowl champions, and finish the season 14-2. Dallas was just beginning to climb out of the cellar, and Troy Aikman was just beginning to turn the corner. Just shy of his 24th birthday, the loss would drop Aikman’s career record to 3-18. It would get a lot better, very quickly, from there.
Joe Montana completed 12 passes to Jerry Rice for 147 yards and a touchdown tonight, keeping alive the San Francisco 49ers hopes for a perfect season with a 24-6 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Montana, playing his first game in Texas Stadium, led the 49ers to their ninth consecutive victory this season to stay tied with the Giants as the only unbeaten teams in the league.
He completed 27 of 37 passes for 290 yards and capped the performance by scoring on a 4-yard run with 3:12 to play to put away the punchless Cowboys.
Dallas dropped to 3-7 as it lost to the 49ers for the sixth consecutive time.
San Francisco won its 17th consecutive game, including playoffs, and extended its regular-season record of 15 consecutive road victories.
Montana didn’t play in last year’s 31-14 victory and hadn’t made an appearance in the Dallas area since he guided Notre Dame to a 35-34 victory over Houston in the 1979 Cotton Bowl.
Aikman went 9 for 21 for just 96 yards, with 0 TDs and 1 interception. Emmitt Smith rushed 6 times for just 40 yards. Michael Irvin caught 1 pass for 10 yards. The triplets were not yet the triplets, while Montana and Jerry Rice (12/147/1) were in their primes. The next time the Cowboys and 49ers would meet would be in the 1992 NFC Championship Game, with Steve Young now at quarterback.
To recap: Graham never played Starr, Starr met Bradshaw just once (at a time where both players were far removed from their primes), Bradshaw and Montana faced off just once, and Montana and Aikman had just that sole matchup (though in many ways the ’80s 49ers dynasty stretched into the ’90s Cowboys dynasty, and those teams met a bunch — just not with Montana). Aikman retired in 2000, and Tom Brady three just three passes that year. As a result, that duo never met.
Fortunately, if you wanted to watch Bradshaw and the Steelers face Montana and the 49ers, you can. Most of the game is available here, with Vin Scully and Hank Stram broadcasting!