March 7 (UPI) -- It was late in the 1990 season, just after he had won his fourth Super Bowl and third Super Bowl MVP, that Joe Montana signed his last contract with the 49ers.
It made him the highest paid player in the NFL.
If you look back on it now with the perspective of current riches, however, the numbers are laughable.
Montana's last deal in San Francisco averaged $3.25 million a year. No one could possibly have guessed or predicted that would someday be average backup money. But the Washington Redskins have guaranteed Kirk Cousins nearly $24 million for the 2017 season, which was nearly the entire 49ers payroll in 1990, Montana's last year as the team's starter.
Half the teams in the NFL still are searching for the right quarterback but that doesn't stop them from throwing huge piles of money at only moderately accomplished players.
Yes, we have Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees and a few others to watch and enjoy, players who clearly have established themselves as greats in the modern game and perhaps for all time, but too many teams are just hoping to find a quarterback by heaving a pile of money at someone.
Maybe, however, more teams will be getting smart, trying to mimic the Patriots, who do not overpay, who are willing to cut the cord with players a year early rather than a year late, a time-honored way of keeping an organization in the forefront of the game.
Miami, a division rival of the Patriots, says it's on board with that plan.
It's hardly an original concept.
A late, great baseball executive named Branch Rickey is credited with the concept of turning over a roster before players were done -- early rather than late -- to keep a team fresh. Something Bill Belichick clearly has done with the Patriots.
"Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late," Rickey once said.
Rickey once ran the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the people who run that city's NFL team wouldn't hesitate to agree he had it right. One reason the Steelers' dynasty ended prematurely after the '70s was that the Steelers hung on to too many aging stars too long and didn't freshen their roster. They were perhaps seduced by the ease of a pre-salary cap era in which they could keep a team together as long as they wanted.
Now, teams in many cases are forced to clean out their roster simply to manage the salary cap, but there is reason to believe the Patriots would be operating the way they are with or without the restraints of the cap.
In the NFL today, it's frequently not a trade, just a roster shedding to save money on the salary cap, a concept that never was even a shred of thought in Rickey's day more than a half-century ago. But it's just as valid now, and particularly in the salary cap era, just as important. Somehow, it doesn't seem like the Patriots were hurt last year after jettisoning long-time starters like Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins from their defense.
What makes this pertinent now is that maybe other teams are starting to catch on. It may be just a one-off rather than a trend, but Miami coach Adam Gase declared last week that, with his team absorbing the six-year, $114 million contract it gave defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, it was done with huge free agent signings.
"Obviously, we don't want to be big spenders," Gase said at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. "We're moving away from that thing."
Money is important, of course, but talent judgment is more important in the NFL. And fitting the pieces of a roster together.
Naturally, finding a quarterback remains the most important of all, and this is a tough year for teams to look for one since there seem to be major question marks surrounding all the top prospects. The problem for those QB-needy teams, like Cleveland, San Francisco, Chicago and others, is that there's not exactly a flood of veterans on the market who could inspire hope.
But then, again, that's almost always how it is.
Through the free agent era, few quarterbacks have changed teams and succeeded big, and three who did had extenuating circumstances: Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees all changed teams and wound up in the Super Bowl. But all three were coming off significant injuries.
They were the exceptions.
The list of quarterbacks who changed teams in free agency and were busts is a lot longer - including Jake Delhomme, Jeff George, Scott Mitchell, Kerry Collins, Neil O'Donnell, Elvis Grbac, Jeff Garcia and Matt Flynn, and soon you might be able to add Brock Osweiler and, if he leaves the Bears, Jay Cutler.
So what is a quarterback-needy team to do in a year like this when the pickings in the draft are supposedly poor? If they're smart, they'll build the rest of their team and keep their options open going forward. If they're dumb, they'll throw a pile of cash at an undeserving quarterback in an attempt to fire up their fan base -- and then, a year from now, they'll be back in the same spot.
--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.