The dust barely had settled on last season's Super Bowl most valuable player award when the question first appeared: What's wrong with Joe Montana?
That Montana, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, threw three interceptions in a 19-6 victory over Seattle on Monday night didn't exactly wipe the question off the season's chalkboard.
"He looked as erratic as he did in college -- really streaky," one league scout said of Montana's showing against the Seahawks. "But he also had a few big plays running the ball. He's just so difficult to play against because of his running ability."
It has been a curious, controversial season for Montana, who will face the Washington Redskins on Sunday at RFK Stadium. He has been remarkable on the one hand, remarkably inconsistent on the other.
Montana has matched his career ratio so far this season by throwing twice as many touchdown passes as interceptions (18 to 9), and he is completing nearly 60 percent of his passes, which is down about four percent. He threw for 429 yards and five touchdowns in a 20-point victory over Atlanta.
Yet Montana also completed fewer than half of his passes in losses to New Orleans and Denver. He threw for only 97 yards in a loss to Detroit, when he was weakened by flu.
And throwing three interceptions in the first half against Seattle on Monday night, he hardly seemed like the league's all-time career passing leader, which is precisely where the league's complex quarterback rating system places him, one spot ahead of Roger Staubach.
"Joe has had some brilliant games this year, like that Atlanta game," Paul Hackett, 49ers quarterback coach, said this week. "Then he's had some games where he's just been average.
"He went 112 straight passes without an interception (until Monday night). He threw only one in 224 throws. Then he throws three in one game.
"We're talking about a man who has set the standards for quarterback play. If you looked at him and compared him to other quarterbacks, you'd see Joe is second in the conference in passing (behind Chicago's Jim McMahon) and that he is second in the league to Ken O'Brien (of the Jets) in interception avoidance. But we've all become used to what is the finest quarterbacking around."
When the 49ers (7-5) lost four of their first seven games, it was said that Montana's concentration was being affected adversely by the birth of his first child.
San Francisco safety Ronnie Lott was appalled that one writer suggested Montana's wife could have picked a better time to give birth.
"I didn't know love worked that way," Lott said.
Two weeks ago, just after Montana had completed only 17 of 40 passes in a 17-16 loss to Denver on a Monday night, Coach Bill Walsh decided to bring into the open persisting rumors that Montana was being affected by drug use.
"Absurd," Walsh said. The next day, Montana told reporters, "I told (Walsh) anytime he wanted, or the players, or Eddie (DeBartolo Jr., team owner), the people I feel I would owe anything to -- I would take any test they want."
Hackett said of Montana, 29 and in his seventh professional season, "I think those (off-field) factors have been added things that he has had to deal with that he didn't have to deal with last season. But to say that's the reason his fine edge is down a little, that's not fair."
Hackett said that the 49ers are in a "transition period" with their receivers this season now that rookie Jerry Rice has replaced Freddie Solomon.
He said, too, that Montana has faced more linebacker blitzes this season from defenses that use a four-man line and are willing to leave their cornerbacks in risky man-to-man coverage. This is a tactic regularly used by the Chicago Bears in their "46 defense" alignment.
Because of these blitzes, Hackett says, Montana has thrown deep slightly more often this year. "That's why the completion percentage is down a little," Hackett says, "and why we're a little up in the average gain per completion.
"Joe has done a great job getting the ball off (against blitzes), whether it's waiting until the last second -- that's one of (Miami's) Dan Marino's greatest traits -- or whether he makes a last-second flip to (running back) Roger Craig.
"I think one reason Joe has dealt so well with the blitz in the past is his ability to escape. That's what has made teams nervous about blitzing us in the past."
Montana hasn't exactly been without pressure in the passing pocket this season. The 49ers, who yielded just 27 sacks during their 15-1 magic carpet ride through the 1984 regular season, have permitted 30 sacks already this season.
"We all have to remember," Hackett said, "that we are not last year's team. Last year, we could do no wrong offensively. In the Denver game on Monday night -- we would have won that going away last year."
Perhaps it would also be a good thing to remember that Montana has won two Super Bowl most valuable player awards and that only two other players have done that -- Green Bay's Bart Starr and Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw.
"We're dealing with a truly great competitor," Hackett said, "a man whose track record is unparalleled in big-game performances."