• Travis Rapp

From Joe to Jimmy: A History of the Quarterbacks Who Built the Quest for Six Part 1

Image Credit: NFL Photos


I spent my Younger days in Montana

In 1946, Frankie Albert was the first player to ever suit up at quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. He handed the franchise off to Y.A. Tittle in 1953, and the legend of the red and gold quarterback group was off and running.

In 1979, with the 82nd draft pick, the San Francisco 49ers drafted Joe Montana, the fourth quarterback taken behind Jack Thompson, Phil Simms, and Steve Fuller. For his rookie season, Montana would be the back-up behind third-year starter Steve DeBerg.

After Montana took over permanently in 1981 the top quarterback spot was held by either him or Steve Young for a couple of decades. Yes there were injuries. But we are talking about possibly the greatest back-to-back quarterback situation of all time. They combined to win five Super Bowls, played for three coaches, and won four Super Bowl MVPs. The statistics could go on forever. We know that it was a great time in San Francisco; Eddie DeBartolo was the happiest man on earth.

That doesn’t mean that they were the only two quarterbacks to occupy the depth chart over those 17 years. Many players came and went, having several different levels of success before coming to and after leaving San Francisco. These men held the clipboards, studied the film, and on occasion, threw an NFL pass.

This is the first of a three part piece looking at the 49ers back-up quarter back position throughout the years of stellar, and not so stellar, quarterback play, brining us from Joe Montana to Jimmy Garoppolo.

Joe Montana

Montana was not drafted as the immediate starter, like most third round draft picks. Although he backed up Steve DeBerg, he did play in all 16 games that season. In those 16 games he threw only 23 passes. Montana entered his second season as DeBerg’s backup as well, before taking over halfway through the season. Even as a rookie he was Joe Cool, bringing the 49ers back from a 35-7 halftime deficit against the winless New Orleans Saints to win 38-35 in overtime.

Once he captured that starting position, he kept it for a decade plus, with only a couple of players threatening his throne atop the fabled franchise.

Here are the men who played with him, attempted to supplant him, and benefited from playing with Montana.

Steve DeBerg

In 1978 Steve DeBerg became the first player to implement Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense. In 1979, arguably his best season of his career, he led the league in passing attempts and completions and was fifth in yards. He proceeded to lose the starting position to Montana in 1981. He was serviceable for the 49ers while on the team, and really, serviceable could sum up his career: always completing a good percentage of passes, but also completing too many of them to the opposing team.

He started nine games in 1980, winning his first three starts out the gate. Interceptions became the key issue as the team began to struggle. He proceeded to throw five interceptions against the Dallas Cowboys on October 12. The slow skid onto Interception Avenue opened the trolley doors for Montana, who finished the season as the starter and held onto that spot for the next ten seasons.

DeBerg was traded in 1981 to the Denver Broncos and reunited with Dan Reeves, with he was in Dallas with briefly as a rookie. In Denver DeBerg saw history repeat itself when the Broncos traded for John Elway in 1983 after he refused to sign with the Baltimore Colts. DeBerg ended up backing up Elway and Craig Morton in his three seasons with the Broncos. He did start five games, going 4-1, in 1983 helping propel the Broncos into the playoffs at the end of Elway’s rookie season.

In 1984 he was traded for a fourth-round pick again, this time to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Arriving a year before Steve Young (the connection with Steve DeBerg and the 49ers is constant and consistent) was drafted and three years before Vinny Testaverde was drafted. For the 1984 season, he started 13 games and appeared in all 16. He passed for 3,554 yards, the second most of his career. He was also the primary starter in 1985, starting 11 games and appearing in 11. After losing his starting job to Steve Young in 1986, He regained it for eight games in 1987.

The following season with Vinny Testaverde ready for Buccaneer fame, DeBerg was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he finished his career in 1993. His time in Kansas City saw him throw a lot of interceptions, but had himself an outstanding 1990 season where he threw for 3,444 yards with a passer rating of 96.3, third best in the league.

DeBerg came out of retirement in 1998 at the age of 44 to play backup quarterback for Dan Reeves. He became the oldest player to start a game at quarterback when Chris Chandler became unavailable later that season. He was less than stellar, going 9 – 20 for 117 yards and an interception before being removed for the much anticipated Tony Graziani. Later that year he became the oldest player to be on a Super Bowl roster when the Falcons played in Super Bowl XXXIII.

In 1998, Steve DeBerg retired for good from the game of football. He was the only player besides Steve Young to ever have a chance of dethroning Montana from the top of the 49ers depth chart, doing so for a season and a half. 1998 happened to be the same season that would mark the end of Steve Young’s career, fully closing this chapter of 49ers quarterback history.

Guy Benjamin

Benjamin joined the 49ers in 1981 after Steve DeBerg was traded away. He had been drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the second round of 1978 out of Stanford, where he played for Bill Walsh. At Miami he backed up Bob Griese and then Don Strock. He then headed to New Orleans to back up Archie Manning before joining the 49ers to back up Joe Montana.

Benjamin spent three seasons backing up Montana, before retiring after the 1983 season. In his three years, he played in 10 total games and attempted 39 passes, completing 23 of them for 282 total yards and two touchdowns. He never started a game, but he did earn a Super Bowl ring his first season with the team.

His NFL career was all of six seasons, with fewer yards (439) than a good Warren Moon game. After leaving the NFL he became the director of Athletes United for Peace, which is an organization founded by athletes who boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He moved from minor league football team to minor league football team as a coach and offensive coordinator, spreading Bill Walsh’s way to Hawaii. Although he never cracked a starting lineup, he was hand picked by Bill Walsh twice (once and Stanford and then with the 49ers) which means he had to have some pretty good talent. After backing up three NFL quarterback legends, I would bet that he has some incredible stories to tell his friends.

Matt Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh spent the 1983-85 seasons backing up Montana, earning a Super Bowl ring in 1984. The New England Patriots had drafted him in 1978, where he started 15 games over his first four seasons in the NFL. His sixteenth start came in 1984 when he started for an injured (bruised ribs) Montana against the Philadelphia Eagles. The 49ers were 3-0 at that point, and Cavanaugh kept the team moving towards that second Super Bowl win with 252 yards and three touchdowns, one each to Roger Craig, Freddie Solomon, and Dwight Clark, on 17-of34 completions to attempts. He was aided by a great defensive showing, and a 113 yards rushing performance by Wendell Tyler.

He started another game the next season, ending his 49ers career with a 2-0 record before being traded to the Eagles, where he spent the next four seasons as a backup quarterback. He then moved on to the New York Giants in 1990, where he was lucky enough to earn another Super Bowl ring, before retiring after the 1991 season after a career that included 19 starts and 119 appearances in the league over twelve seasons with a 71.7 passer rating.

Cavanaugh, a serviceable NFL backup, has made his biggest contributions in the league as a coach. After retiring he returned to the University of Pittsburg as the chief recruiter. He then held the roles of Offensive Coach/Offensive Coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals (1994-95), San Francisco 49ers (1996), Chicago Bears (1997-98), Baltimore Ravens (1999-2004), and the University of Pittsburg (2005-2008). He then returned to the NFL with the New York Jets as an assistant coach/quarterback coach, where he would stay until 2012. In 2012 he moved back to the Bears as their quarterback’s coach for Marc Trestman. In 2015 he headed to the Washington Redskins to be their quarterback coach, until last season, when he was promoted to offensive coordinator for the Redskins.

This season he is directing none other than Alex Smith’s offense. The connection to the 49ers never truly left him, as he has moved around Bill Walsh/George Seifert’s coaching tree. He is lucky enough to own three Super Bowl rings (1984, 1990, and 2000), earning two as a backup quarterback and one as an offensive coordinator. He won a national title at Pittsburg playing with Tony Dorsett in 1976, and even pitched Tom Brady as a third-round draft pick to Ozzie Newsome. The team pulled the trigger on Chris Redman instead, and Cavanaugh gets to say I told you so for the rest of his life.

Jeff Kemp

Traded by the Los Angeles Rams to the 49ers along with two fourth round draft picks for the 66th pick in the 1986 draft, Kemp ended up starting six games in 1986 due to Montana injuries. The son of NFL quarterback and politician Jack Kemp, Walsh sent Cavanaugh out of the building in Kemp’s favor according to a 1986 LA Times article because Walsh felt, “Kemp is more accurate than Cavanaugh and more mobile.”

Kemp had started for the Rams in 1984, his only season as their starter and had posted a 9-4 record, with two of those losses coming at the hands of the 15-1 Super Bowl winning 49ers. He ended up starting six games for the 49ers in 1986, going 3-2-1 with 1,554 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions for a respectable 85.7 quarterback rating.

Kemp played for Walsh and the 49ers for the one year before finishing his career with the Seattle Seahawks and retiring in 1991 after the Seahawks traded him the Eagles mid-season.

Mike Moroski

Drafted in the sixth round of the 1979 draft by the Atlanta Falcons out of U.C. Davis, Moroski spent his final season, 1986, as Montana’s backup. He had spent his first six seasons as a backup quarterback for the Falcons, his seventh with the Houston Oilers as a backup quarterback, before moving to the west coast and the 49ers.

In his one season as Montana’s backup, he attempted 73 passes completing 42 of them for 493 yards and two touchdowns (one to Jerry Rice) while starting two games for an injured Montana and Kemp. Moroski was tabbed as the backup after Cavanaugh was traded to the Eagles on draft day before the 1986 season. In the two games he started for the 49ers, he went 1-1.

Moroski, like Cavanaugh, has given more to the game from the sidelines than he did on the field. He is currently in his fifth season as head coach for the College of Idaho. He spent the years of 1993-2010 as the offensive coordinator at his alma mater, earning National Assistant Coach of the Year honors in 2001.

Bob Gagliano

This quarterback reentered the league in 1987 at the age of 29 after being out for four seasons, becoming the 49ers’ third string quarterback behind Montana and Young. Gagliano was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1982 and served as their backup for two years. He then moved on to the USFL’s Denver Gold.

In 1987 he ended up starting one game for the 49ers due to the players’ strike that year. He also entered the field twice as a reserve and ended the season with 229 yards on 16 of 29 passes with 1 TD and 1 INT. He won his only start. After playing for the 49ers he bounced around the NFLL, playing for the Houston Oilers and Indianapolis Colts in 1988, the Detroit Lions in 1989-90 and then the San Diego Chargers from 1991-92.

Gagliano was never a full time starter in the NFL, starting only 17 games over his career.

Steve Young

The Heisman runner up opted to play in the USFL instead of the NFL coming out of college. In his rookie year he became the first professional quarterback to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 more. There is the already well-known story of him lining up at tailback because they ran out of running backs. His infamous 40-year contract and of course lots of fun video footage of the two years he spent in the folding league.

He was then drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the first overall draft pick in the USFL and CFL supplemental draft. He spent two years there, going 3-16 in games he started and was not very accurate. Young was never fully embraced by the Bucs organization, and Bill Walsh handpicked him to be Joe Montana’s back up, and eventual replacement. After the Bucs drafted Vinny Testaverde first overall in 1987, they traded him to Walsh and the 49ers.

As Montana’s backup, Young shone through many times. There was the 1988 revenge game against the Minnesota Vikings. Before that, his four-touchdown game against the Chicago Bears in 1987. He started ten games over the four seasons he backed up Montana. In that time he threw for 23 touchdowns against 6 interceptions after throwing 11 touchdowns and 21 interceptions with the Bucs. Bill Walsh was right, Young could shine under the right tutelage and in a healthy environment.

Young took over the full time starting duties in 1991 due to Montana’s elbow injury and the rest is history. He became one of the storied 49er quarterbacks, winning their fifth Super Bowl while throwing an incredible six touchdowns. He won League MVP twice (1992, 1994) and retired with the highest QB rating at that time (96.8).

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon!


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