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The Young 49ers

San Francisco needed a victory on Sunday, and so did Steve Young

The only problem with replacing God is the Sundays. Sundays are murder. Sundays, they all want miracles. What complaint hasn't been heard? He doesn't see the blind side of the field the way Joe did. He doesn't put the ball where Joe put it, right on the lifelines. Joe never made anybody break stride—ever. This guy, he throws too hard. He's nothing like Joe in the clutch, no sir.

It's true, of course. Steve Young has not been able to fix his one glaring fault, that of not being Joe Montana. He is stuck having to make do with being Steve Young, which, you would think, isn't such a bad thing for the San Francisco 49ers. Young, for instance, is leading the NFL in passing. He has completed 67.2% of his passes, throwing for eight touchdowns and only two interceptions. So how come the citizens of San Francisco would like to sec him go bungee jumping without a bungee cord?

Replacing Montana as the Niner quarterback is a lot like trying to be better than your wife's late husband—anything you do, he would have done better. Still, Young wanted the chance. Hadn't former 49er coach Bill Walsh called him one of the best six or seven quarterbacks in the league, even though mostly all Young ever did was run a clipboard? Must've been a complicated clipboard, because the 49ers paid him a bundle to handle it. But what good was potential if John Barrymore hardly ever caught a cold?

Young had been out of the spotlight since his record-setting passing days at BYU in 1983. In two seasons with the L.A. Express of the USFL and two more with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he distinguished himself more as a scrambler than as a passer. However, the 49ers thought he would make a swell backup to Montana, and they traded for him in '87.

Finally, this preseason, after four years of waiting in the wings, after making only 10 starts whenever Montana needed a week here or a week there to let a bad bruise or a sprained joint heal, Young got his big break. Soreness in Montana's throwing elbow was diagnosed as a torn tendon, and he went on injured reserve at the start of the regular season. That roster move guaranteed Young a minimum of four weeks in the starring role. Lucky him.

Since then, Young has taken media abuse, fan abuse, receiver abuse and some very pointed abuse from Montana himself. It didn't help that San Francisco got off to a 1-2 start. No matter that Young's 49ers were without safety Ronnie Lott, running back Roger Craig, linebacker Matt Millen and tackle Bubba Paris (all now playing for other teams), and starting corner-back Darryl Pollard and starting tight end Brent Jones (both out with injuries). And no matter that the available running backs had averaged, geez, almost 67 yards a game in the first three games. Did anybody care that Montana had started 1-2 in 1981 and '82?

No. Young became a central complaint center—he took the blame for everything. Two games into the season, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Glenn Dickey wrote that the 49ers' attempt to turn Young into a Montana clone wasn't going to work. "Young has particular trouble with the pass in the flat," Dickey wrote. "Even when he completes the pass, the receiver usually is in no position to run with the ball."

During the telecast of San Francisco's loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3, CBS showed how the lefthanded Young wasn't seeing the right side of the field by keeping track of the number of times Young failed to spot open receivers there. Later that day the Niners were watching the Indianapolis Colt-Los Angeles Raider game while their plane was parked on the runway in Minneapolis. During the halftime show, NBC's Will McDonough, in a recap of the 49er-Viking game, said, "I think the big thing they [the Niners] miss is Montana. He's the guy that makes the difference in a game like this." A clammy hush came over the plane, and moments later the flight-safety videotape popped onto the screen. Young was left with a pit in his stomach.

The next week Jack Youngblood, a former All-Pro defensive end who's now an analyst for Los Angeles Ram games on L.A. radio station KMPC, said that Young is a quarterback who "will lose you more games than he'll win you." The life of a temp is hell.

San Francisco fans got into the act by booing Young when the offense started slowly in the San Diego game. And the "Who's better, Montana or Young?" debate has been argued by fans on Bay Area sports talk shows for weeks.

Even 49er wideout Jerry Rice hinted that things weren't going well with the new guy. He complained that Young had not thrown to him enough in a season-opening loss to the New York Giants. A week later Rice told The Washington Post, "I miss Joe out there."

However, the unkindest cut of all came from Montana. "Steve is on a big push for himself," Montana told The Washington Post. "And any time you have a competition, there is always that certain amount of animosity toward each other. I can say we have only a working relationship. That's all it is. After that, he's on my team, but as far as I'm concerned, he's part of the opposition. He wants what I have."

Here are three guesses why Montana did it. He's either a) still gun-shy from the 1988 preseason, when Walsh threw open the quarterback job; b) reacting to the so-called guarantee of more playing time that current 49er coach George Seifert reportedly gave Young this year as an incentive to re-sign with San Francisco; or c) a man who is a football deity on the outside but still the seventh-string Notre Dame freshman on the inside, trying to look taller so the coach will notice him.

Still, Young has not bitten back. In fact, since taking over as starter, Young has said almost nothing you would want to commit to Bic and pad. That is especially odd, because Young used to be a regular on the All-Interview and Hale-Fellow-Well-Met Team. He is a great-great-great grandson of Brigham Young himself and has been speaking in public since he was eight. His gift of gab is such that he is attending law school in the off-season in hopes of becoming a prosecutor. For all of that, he is wonderfully sufferable.

Though he is a millionaire, he does not seem to have the foggiest idea what to do with all the money. He drives a five-year-old Jeep, seems to shop from the back of Boys' Life magazines and does not own a home in the Bay Area. Instead, he bunks in a room at guard Harris Barton's house in Palo Alto. And in the off-season, when Young's at home in Provo, Utah, he can usually be found eating dinner at Joe's Spic and Span, which has a fire marshall's occupancy limit of 20.

Suddenly, though, he seemed to be having about as much fun as a toll collector on the New Jersey Turnpike. Says offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, "I'd like him to enjoy it a little more. He's waited a long time for this."

Says Young, exasperated, "Hey, everybody wants me to laugh. I'm thinking, Hey, I gotta work."

His first three weeks as the starter were nothing but work. He opened up in Super Bowl XXV½ against the Giants at the Meadowlands, drove the Niners to the go-ahead touchdown with 13:37 left and ended up losing 16-14. Afterward, he was criticized for not being himself, for not running enough and not putting many points on the board. In fact, he was staying in the pocket as he had been told, running an offense that had been designed around Montana. And hardly anybody mentioned that in Montana's last two games against the Giants the Niners scored 20 points—total.

The next week Young destroyed the Chargers 34-14 while putting up his gaudiest numbers as a pro: 26 completions in 38 attempts and a good par 4's worth of yardage (348). But he seemed sluggish that first half, didn't he?

Against the Vikings, Young threw two touchdown passes, but the 49ers lost 17-14. Three times San Francisco moved inside the Minnesota 20-yard line and got zilch. Boy, this guy can't get it done in the clutch, can he?

What it all meant was that Sunday's game against the Rams—a team that also was 1-2 but had licked San Francisco in their last three regular-season meetings at Candlestick Park—was large. Young knew that if he started 1-3 and Montana came back to play the next week against the Raiders, as had been rumored, he always would be the kid who borrowed Dad's car and wrecked it.

For most of the first half, Young must have wondered why he ever wanted this job in the first place. He twice moved the 49ers inside the Ram 20, and all he got was a field goal. You could almost hear the columnists typing, In the 49ers' last five chances inside the opponent's 20, Steve Young has come away with exactly three points. Do we lynch him or hang him?

Then, with Los Angeles leading 10-3 and only 41 seconds remaining in the half, with acres of green to go and maybe a very nice career going right down the tubes, Young decided to have his finest moment of the day. In 23 seconds he took the Niners 65 yards for a touchdown, a drive of perfect spirals, gorgeous catches—including a 12-yarder for the score by John Taylor—and exhausted Rams. From there, Young was not tense, only terrific. He threw a 62-yard TD pass to Rice in the fourth quarter, and the Niners won 27-10.

Young's day: 21 for 31, 288 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, one clutch-as-hell drive. Oh, yeah, 11 completions were to the right and 10 to the left. "That felt good," said Young with an extra-large sigh. Did the 49ers finally feel less like a rental team to him and more like his own? "It was my team this week," Young said, "and that's good enough for me."

When it will be Montana's team again nobody can say. He won't play until at least Oct. 13, when San Francisco will face the Falcons in Atlanta. The 49ers had hoped he would be throwing at practice by last week, but the only throwing Montana has done of late is with one of his kid's Velcro balls. Privately, San Francisco coaches and executives figure they'll be lucky if he can play half the year.

So for now at least, Young will have to do. And guess what, he's not doing half bad. After Sunday's game, Seifert was in the dressing room when somebody walked up and asked him if that 23-second drive at the end of the first half reminded him of classic Montana. "No," he said. "It reminded me of classic Steve Young."



Montana watched the man he called the "opposition" lead the Niners past L.A.


[See caption above.]



The Rams went ahead on this Robert Delpino TD plunge, but Young soon rallied the Niners.



Every 49er quarterback's favorite receiver, Rice took Young's 62-yard TD pass in stride.