It’s Alumni Week, but it might as well be rivalry week.
That’s how esteemed 49ers legends Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott feel about San Francisco’s upcoming game against the New York Giants this Sunday at Candlestick Park.
The 35th meeting between this year’s current NFC West and East division leaders will be followed closely by both Montana and Lott for a number of reasons.
“There’s going to be a lot of meaning there, whether they realize it or not,” Montana said. “There have been a lot of tough games, a lot of meaningful games, just like this one is going to be.”
Both Hall of Famers visited team headquarters on Tuesday and shared feelings on the success of the 2011 49ers, the rivalry against the Giants and the upcoming induction of Roger Craig and R.C. Owens into the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame.
Montana and Lott were both key in the 49ers-Giants rivalry in the late 80s and early 90s.
“That was probably one of our toughest games,” recalled Montana, who was 2-3 as a starter against the Giants in the playoffs from 1981-90. “Back then, they had a pretty good defense and a pretty good front-seven. They pounded the ball out sort of like the 49ers are now, which we didn’t do, but this Sunday is going to be a fun game to watch.”
Lott is equally enthused about the upcoming showdown between the 7-1 San Francisco 49ers and 6-2 New York Giants. The hard-hitting former 49ers defensive back sees the same consistency and toughness from this year’s team that he saw in the 49ers teams he played with.
“What’s amazing to me is not just the consistent football, but now you’re seeing tough football,” said Lott, a member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team and 1980s All-Decade team along with Montana. “You’re seeing aggressive football. You’re also seeing that determination of understanding, when you do make a tackle; you’re not allowing someone to get that extra yard.”
Lott, who intercepted 63 passes, was named to 10 Pro Bowls and won four Super Bowls (XVI, XIX, XXIII and XXIV), especially appreciates the tough-minded team the 49ers have become under new coach Jim Harbaugh.
“People are fighting for inches,” Lott said with his signature expression of intensity. “When you see people fighting for inches, it tells you the mentality of what this team’s all about. I follow it. And not only do I follow it since I’ve left, I follow it because you know they have a purpose right now. And that purpose is pretty good.”
The 49ers defense, something Lott knows all about, leads the NFL allowing the fewest points (14.8) and rushing yards (70.8). The unit has yet to allow a single rushing touchdown and has gone 30-straight games without allowing an individual 100-yard rusher.
Stats aside, Lott has been impressed with the hard-hitting nature of the 49ers defense, specifically safety
“Watching Dashon bring what he’s been able to bring, it’s been fabulous,” Lott said. “That intensity permeates throughout the team. You start to see other guys emulate what he’s trying to do.
“He’s done a wonderful job of not only setting the tempo, but he’s getting people out of their seats. He’s got me out of my seat a number of times.”
Montana, whose expertise falls on the other end of the spectrum, sees great improvements on the 49ers offense. In his mind, having Harbaugh’s West Coast offensive system in place has only benefitted the team’s 7-1 start.
“It’s getting the right people in the right places,” Montana further explained.
The player everyone seems to talk about is
In the legendary quarterback’s mind, the talent around Smith as well as the decision-making has paid huge dividends.
Smith is currently ranked sixth in the NFL with a 97.3 quarterback rating and has thrown 10 touchdown passes to just two interceptions.
Besides Smith’s maturity, Montana sees the people around the quarterback all chipping in to make the 49ers offense excel.
“The one beauty about the offense is whenever you get in trouble with this offense it was always about going back to the basics,” Montana said. “With the lack of time, I’m sure it’s about all they’ve put in, and they’re slowly adding stuff. That foundation is what makes this offense go.
“As soon as everyone understands that, they’ve got serious talent on the outside, able to catch balls and make big plays. And the running game, obviously that speaks for itself.”
Montana admitted he was surprised to see the team take off so fast under Harbaugh and his staff, who had a shortened offseason to install their schemes, but was quick to mention that they’re “fun to watch.”
Watching the offense never gets old to Montana, more so now that he’s seeing Smith surrounded by so many talented players on the perimeter, on the line and in the backfield.
“When I watched film before on the team and Alex, when he hits that back foot and he’s able to take a hitch or two and get rid of the ball on time,” Montana said, “he’s such a better quarterback.”
But Montana also recalls watching tape of Smith having nowhere to go with the football on crucial downs. Receivers weren’t open and there weren’t places to dump the ball off. Now he sees Smith trusting the play-makers around him and excelling in an offensive system that has answers for opposing defenses.
“He was stuck in a bad spot,” Montana admitted. “Here, with this offense, once you understand I can throw the ball, I have some great receivers and tight ends that I can get the ball to and can make plays for me, eventually they’re going to make a guy miss, I don’t have to force things. And on top of that you throw the running game in there, then it makes the job a lot easier on the quarterback.”
Also making things easier is the environment in which Smith has been playing these last three months. The family-oriented atmosphere instituted by Harbaugh has been well-received. It’s even being noticed by legends like Montana.
“It teaches you that it takes individual efforts, but it’s not an individual sport. You have to be able to learn and trust the guys next to you. The only way to do that is to be like a family. It’s like your brothers are out there next to you. We’re all going to make mistakes, but we stick together, we play together. We can overcome a lot of mistakes. The other guys are paid to do what we’re doing, too. But it’s who can make the least amount of mistakes.”
So when players on the current team celebrated in the success of their teammates last week in a 19-11 win over the Washington Redskins, Montana could appreciate the collective energy.
It took him back to watching his defenses compete against the game’s great offenses of his era.
“That’s the way it should be. There was nothing more fun that to watch our defense play against guys like (Dan) Marino or (John) Elway,” Montana added. “That was the fun part, because our guys were the best. Getting up and rooting for them, and they were the same way when we were on the field. Yeah, everybody has to take a break and talk to their coach, but as soon as you were done, everyone was back up watching the rest of the team play. That’s what it’s about.”
Current players, coaches, and even alumni, will have a lot invested in Sunday’s meeting with the New York Giants, too.
At halftime, the 49ers will induct two legends into the 49ers Hall of Fame, two men who are near and dear to Montana and Lott.
Lott roomed with Craig on the road and credits him for showing his teammates how to condition themselves to handle the rigors of professional football. Lott also learned first-hand how much football meant to Craig.
“I have the utmost respect for him. Not because of what he did on the football field, but what he did off the field,” Lott said. “Everybody talks about the game of football and what they want in life, Roger was one of those guys who’d go out and earn it.
“He earned every yard. He earned the red blazer that he’s going to get and he’ll soon earn the right to get that yellow jacket. Nobody has done it better than him and he’s just one of the exceptional 49ers to come along in a period when there were some pretty exceptional people.”
Equally as impactful on the 49ers history, legends like Lott know all about the importance of R.C. Owens on the team’s history.
The wide receiver, who played for the 49ers from 1957-61 and worked in the front office for 20-plus seasons, represents the class of the organization better than anyone else.
“I’ve watched R.C. continuing to be a part of this organization, continuing to be a part of something great, continuing something he started when he first put on that uniform,” Lott added. “He’s always done something great in his life, whether it was the first time he made the “Alley Oop” catch or was the first time he was involved in the community. He represents this organization better than any athlete who’s ever put on this uniform. He has gone around and been one of the greatest ambassadors to this organization. He is just an exceptional person.”
Montana, fellow member of the 49ers Hall of Fame like Lott, appreciates both men’s contributions to the proud franchise.
“I think it’s been long overdue,” Montana said. “I think both of them made statements in their own eras. They’re both great additions.”