Joe Montana, who led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl victories, may wind up making it difficult for them to win a fifth by simply standing on the sidelines.
Montana's return to the practice squad last week was a media event with seven television crews and at least 26 writers recording every pass.
When it was over, he was asked if he thought he could play today against the Philadelphia Eagles.
"Yeah, sure I could," he said.
He won't because the 49ers aren't activating him and Steve Young is entrenched as the No. 1 quarterback.
For now, Montana has to accept a role as no more than Young's backup.
"At this point, I don't have a choice. Steve's playing well. . . . I haven't played in a year and a half [two years in January], so they're not going to take a chance of throwing me in unless they have to," he said.
Let's turn the clock ahead to the playoffs. Montana may well be active by then. But how will Young play when he knows the fans will be yelling for Montana every time Young throws an incomplete pass? And could Montana step in and play well after a two-year layoff?
Nobody knows, but it's obvious Young is sensitive about playing in Montana's shadow.
He was annoyed last week when CBS announcer John Madden was pointing out during the game against the Los Angeles Rams that Young was overthrowing wide-open Jerry Rice on slant patterns, the kind Montana throws so well.
"It makes you wonder where that came from. I have no idea why Madden did it. Draw your own conclusions," Young said.
Because CBS ran a clip of Montana throwing to Madden last week, Young obviously was suggesting that Madden was backing Montana.
What really happened was that CBS officials wanted Madden to press Montana to agree to an interview. Madden passed. Madden likes to steer clear of controversy.
Meanwhile, when Montana was asked after his workout if he planned to talk to Young, he said: "Does anybody else say anything to the person they're competing with for another job? I don't think so. It's the same thing. Everybody knows it's there. That's what this game is about -- competing. And you have to accept that."
The strain in the Montana-Young relationship dates to 1988, when former coach Bill Walsh pulled Montana for Young a few times, saying Montana was "fatigued." The joke was that Montana was tired of Walsh, although he rallied after a 6-5 start to win another Super Bowl.
Young tried to defuse things last week. "We're going to work very well together," he said.
At least, they will as long as Young plays well. If he slumps, things could get a bit sticky.
Waiting for the judge
Federal Judge David Doty left both sides hanging last week when he didn't hand down his decision in the free-agency case, which was expected right before or after Thanksgiving.
As usual in this case, there were two versions of what happened. One was that the delay was caused because his clerk was ill. The other was that he was giving the two sides more time to try to make a deal. That's a futile hope. Last week, the two sides couldn't even get together for a meeting after the owners did or didn't -- again, depending on which version you follow -- say they were going to come up with a new proposal and then couldn't put one together.
It wouldn't make any difference if the owners did make a new proposal. The two sides are too far apart.
The one surprising development is that Al Davis, the Los Angeles Raiders owner, has become a strong opponent of free agency. In the past, he was always cited as an owner who would sign the best players if the NFL got free agency. But his team isn't that profitable now that he isn't drawing big crowds in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
In any case, the next move is up to Doty. In effect, this delay has cut down on the time the owners will have to appeal his ruling before player contracts expire on Feb. 1. The judge's ruling is expected to favor the players because he freed four holdouts, including Keith Jackson, in September. But the owners are counting on an appellate court's overturning the judge if he does free all the players with four or more years of experience.
Supporting the coach
Owner Art Modell of the Cleveland Browns has supported the controversial move his coach, Bill Belichick, made last week. He pulled quarterback Mike Tomczak, in the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings with a 13-3 lead after he'd been intercepted twice.
Minnesota quickly scored two touchdowns, the second when defensive back Audray McMillan ran a tipped pass thrown by Todd Philcox 25 yards for a touchdown.
The Vikings won, 17-13, and NBC announcer Don Criqui said the decision could represent a turning point in Belichick's career.
"Those guys up there [in the TV booth] are under pressure and shoot from the hip," Modell said. "A turning point in Bill's career? so outlandish, it doesn't even warrant a comment from me."