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For the other 27 NFL teams, the news was like finding a shark in their swimming pools.

Joe Montana is thinking about playing quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers until he's 40.

Montana, already recognized by many as the greatest quarterback of all time, is 33. If he isn't kidding about playing until he's 40, that would take him to 1997, past the next two presidential elections, into the planning for the 21st century celebrations and, most ominously, through the next seven Super Bowls.

Montana already is mouthing the Niners' freshly-coined "word" for the 1990 season -- "Three-peat."

"Three in a row," muses Montana. "No team has ever done that before."

It was significant Montana went out of his way during a Monday morning press conference, honoring him as Super Bowl XXIV's most valuable player, to emphasize the role of coach George Seifert in pushing the 49ers to their second straight Super Bowl victory and fourth in the last decade.

"A lot of it had to do with George," said Montana. "He made enough changes so that we had to go back and read our playbooks. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough to make all the guys spend more time on preparation."

Those close to the 49ers, even strong allies of former coach Bill Walsh, admit Montana is more comfortable with Seifert, a much more low-key, self-effacing man than Walsh, who gloried in his reputation as a football genius.

"I had to go through a couple of mentally tough years," admits Montana.

The allusion was to those years when Walsh himself created a quarterback controversy amid the San Francisco team when he promoted Steve Young as a possible contender for the job in training camp.

Privately, Walsh suspected Montana was losing his courage, that he wasn't facing the defensive pass rush with the same resolve he once showed.

There were teams on the 49ers' schedule that agreed with him. Nevertheless, Montana resented the coach's loss of faith in him.

What neither Walsh nor anyone else knew was that Montana had a serious back problem. After Joe underwent disk surgery in mid-September 1986, he became a different player once again.

Two months after his operation, he returned to the lineup against the Cardinals. He passed for three touchdowns.

"You can see he's faster than he used to be," marveled Fritz Shurmur, the Los Angeles Rams' defensive coordinator who prepared for him twice a year. "He used to sort of slide away from the rush. Now he dances away from it."

The happy return did not diminish Montana's resentment toward Walsh.

Seifert, aware of Montana's feelings, went out of his way this season to designate Montana as the 49ers' starting quarterback early in the week, even after Joe had suffered minor injuries that might have put him in doubt.

Even before the Buffalo game in December, when Montana had injured ribs and obviously could have used the rest in a game that meant absolutely nothing to San Francisco, Seifert didn't designate Young as the starter until late in the week.

Seifert's purpose was to assure Montana he remained No. 1, no matter what.

It is one of the reasons -- along with the enormous money Montana is making these days -- that causes him to think of playing until the end of his fourth decade.

"There is one thing about this occupation," says Montana.

"Your goals can be the same from year to year. The object is to see how many times you can keep reaching them."

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