49ers quarterbacks reach into team's past at minicamp

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SANTA CLARA — Watch their feet. And then think of Joe Montana. Let that iconic name travel through your brain.

The 49ers quarterbacks all use Joe Montana’s exact footwork when they drop back from center. That’s right, Joe Montana’s. This is radically new, if it weren’t so old. They studied Montana’s clips and replicated his movements step for step during minicamp and OTAs. It was what they tried to learn. Montana 101.

They reached into their team’s glorious past.

Almost no one in the NFL uses Montana’s footwork anymore. It’s old school and outdated. But it worked for him and it can work for the 49ers’ young quarterbacks, too.

“You always want to learn from the best,” 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens said this week during minicamp. “Joe was one of the quickest at getting out from under center. That’s one thing we thought we could improve on. It has really helped. Joe was the best at it. We watch the best.”

Here’s what Montana did:

He crouched under center with his feet parallel to each other. When the center snapped the ball, Montana slowly fell backward, like a scuba diver rolling off the side of a boat into the Pacific Ocean. Just before Montana lost his balance, he pulled his left foot back six inches, planted it in the grass, caught himself, pivoted and scooted away from the line of scrimmage.

The left-foot drop step was extinct until the 49ers revived it this offseason. This is a major development in 49ers football, perhaps in all of football.

“Traditionally in the West Coast Offense, that’s how Bill Walsh and Paul Hackett taught it,” said new 49ers quarterbacks coach Shane Day. “I’m trained in that offense. From 2007 to 2009, the first time I was here, that’s how I was trained as a quarterbacks coach. And so, when we first got the quarterbacks together for meetings this offseason, we showed them some film of Joe Montana. I actually took it off the game footage, the TV copies from when he played, and sliced up certain techniques and fundamentals.”

Under the previous quarterbacks coach, Rich Scangarello, Mullens and C.J. Beathard used a parallel stance like Montana, but with no drop step. The center would snap the ball, and Mullens or Beathard immediately would press his left foot into the ground, pivot and side-step away. Sometimes, the center or a guard would step on Mullens’ or Beathard’s left foot, and they would fall down.

The drop step should fix this issue.

“It’s definitely Shane’s thing that he brought to us,” C.J. Beathard said. “It’s so we can get out from under center quicker and kind of fall back without getting stepped on by an offensive lineman.”

Interestingly enough, Jimmy Garoppolo has used Montana’s drop step since entering the NFL in 2014.

Garoppolo didn’t know the drop step was Montana’s.

“I got it from Tom Brady when we were in New England,” Garoppolo said. “I saw him doing it. In college, I was never under center taking drops, so I just copied what he did. The guy is pretty successful, so I thought it would help me.”

Brady no longer uses the drop step. Instead, he uses a “staggered stance,” meaning he lines up his left foot behind his right foot before the play when he’s under center. He doesn’t have to take a step back with his left foot during the play, because it’s already back. Brady’s left foot starts where Montana’s left foot ended up. This is the evolution of the drop step, and it’s what most quarterbacks do these days.

“I’ve taught the staggered stance with other coaches,” Day said. “A lot of times what happens with a staggered stance is a false step. The quarterback leans forward initially and steps toward the line of scrimmage with his left foot, and then he might get stepped on by an offensive lineman. Both stances and styles can work — you just have to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each style, and then get lots of reps to offset those weaknesses.”

During practices this offseason, the 49ers quarterbacks would spend time between drills rehearsing the drop step, programming it into their muscle memory. Making it second nature.

“Anytime you’re trying to change mechanics, it’s really hard,” Beathard said. “Don’t think about it during a live situation, because that will just mess up your game. You have to practice it so much that it just happens naturally.”

By adopting Montana’s footwork, the 49ers have created continuity between the present and their past, a prestigious past which is slowly fading from memory. Montana is 63. He hasn’t thrown a pass since 1994. The 49ers quarterbacks never even saw him play. He was before their time.

“I had seen his highlights,” Beathard said. “But when you dissect the tape, it’s like, wow. Great feet. So nimble. This guy was the greatest to ever do it.”

Now, Montana’s influence is back on the field and in the 49ers building and in the 49ers huddle. Every drop step the 49ers quarterbacks take in 2019 is an homage to him. If we didn’t know better, we might think No. 16 himself is the one under center.

“It’s kind of eerie,” Garoppolo said.

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