The San Francisco 49ers, one of the NFL's most successful teams for nearly 20 years, plugged another winning quarterback into the same old offensive system Sunday.

He is Jeff Garcia, who was brought to San Francisco by new General Manager Bill Walsh, the 1979-89 coach of the 49ers.

In the 1980s, Walsh's first winner, Joe Montana, after two seasons as a backup, led the 49ers to four Super Bowl championships.

In the 1990s, the next Walsh choice, Steve Young, after four seasons as a backup, has become the only quarterback since Sammy Baugh to win six NFL passing titles.

Against undefeated Tennessee in Sunday's game of the week, Garcia, in his first year as a backup, began faster than either of his predecessors, running for a touchdown and throwing for two as the 49ers won, 24-22.

It has become fashionable lately to call Montana the greatest quarterback of all time, an overstatement considering Young's record, Sammy Baugh's and others'.

Montana should be more properly identified as the NFL's first great modern champion.

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The West Coast Offense Does It

It is the 49ers' system--Walsh's West Coast Offense--that has made them and the NFL what they are. The system, with its emphasis on passing, has spread throughout the league and has been used by all the recent Super Bowl winners.

When Walsh introduced it in the early 1980s, Montana was the only West Coast Offense quarterback. That gave him two advantages that neither Young, Garcia, Jake Plummer, nor any other 1999 quarterback has:

• He was playing against stone-age defenses that couldn't adjust to what the 49ers were doing.

• He was compared to quarterbacks who were still playing for old-fashioned offensive teams that emphasized running plays.

It takes great quarterbacks to make the West Coast work.

Clearly, Joe Montana was the first.

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Defenses Tougher Now

Charles Haley, the defensive veteran who has been brought back to the 49ers to pressure opposing passers, was asked the other day to compare Montana as a youthful quarterback to Plummer, the young Arizona QB who has led the NFL in interceptions all year.

Haley rightly pointed out that Montana threw fewer interceptions.