SAN FRANCISCO -- Joe Montana, whose attempt to come back from an elbow ailment failed to survive even a week of throwing, is almost certain to require surgery that would put him out for the season, sources close to the San Francisco 49ers said last night.
Because of his age, 35, and the normal risks associated with an operation, it is possible Montana would be unable to make a comeback in 1992, and surgery could finish his career.
The career of former Pittsburgh Steelers great Terry Bradshaw ended at 35 in 1983 following surgery for a similar problem.
Montana, suffering from a slightly torn tendon near his right elbow, was in only his fourth session of playing catch with Jerry Attaway, the 49ers' conditioning coach, when severe pain recurred on Saturday as he attempted to throw passes in the range of 30-to-35 yards.
He had to quit throwing, was ruled out of returning to the active roster for next Sunday's game against Atlanta by coach George Seifert, and "surgery is now a very strong possibility," said a source close to the 49ers, who asked that he not be identified.
The elbow flareup was a disappointment to team officials, who were encouraged earlier in the week when, after two days of light throwing, Montana said the pain was nowhere near as severe as he felt in August.
"We got lulled into a sense of euphoria," said 49ers president Carmen Policy. "Maybe he did feel as good as he said he did, [but] Joe's situation was not as positive as we'd have liked it to be after Saturday."
On Saturday, the pain was similar to what Montana experienced in August, when he was placed on the injured reserve list and ordered to rest his arm completely for an extended period in the hope that the torn tendon would heal itself.
It turned out to be six weeks before Montana threw a football again.
He resumed throwing short passes, in the 15-to-25-yard range at something less than full velocity, last Monday and Tuesday. By Wednesday, a day on which he did not throw, minor pain had returned, and by Thursday his elbow was swollen.
Montana threw again Thursday, and took Friday off. On Saturday, he planned to step up the pace to about 90 percent effort, and it was during this session that he had to stop throwing.
Montana could not be reached for comment last night. Ed DeBartolo Jr., the 49ers' owner, said from his home in Youngstown, Ohio, that a decision on surgery would be up to Montana and Dr. Michael Dillingham, the 49ers' orthopedic surgeon.