Steve Young heard footsteps. Been hearing them for two years. How was he not supposed to flinch?
The footsteps did not suit up, did not even practice, yet every day in the papers there were reports of progress. MONTANA THROWS WELL Or MONTANA TO THROW TOMORROW read the little updates in the San Francisco Chronicle. One day the San Jose Mercury News actually reported, "It is not known whether Montana threw Thursday." This was the most talked-about game of catch since the Kennedys played touch.
When Young didn't drive his team to the playoffs last year, well, Montana would've gotten them there. And when Young threw an interception in the final minutes of a 34-31 loss to the Buffalo Bills in the second game of this season, well, Montana never would've done that. And last week, as the 7-2 49ers got ready to rumble with the 7-2 New Orleans Saints for the lead of the NFC West, well, everyone would have felt a whole lot better if Montana were running things.
The footsteps were getting so loud they were rattling the practice-field gates. The throwing hadn't gone this well since training camp. Two years Montana had been rehabbing his elbow. What was the holdup? When will you be ready to play at an NFL level? Montana was asked. "Last week," he said with a grin.
Hadn't anyone noticed that Young was on pace to break Montana's league record for highest quarterback rating in a season? Or that, with Young and new offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan in command, San Francisco was averaging 406 yards a game? Everybody was probably right. No way Young could compare to the footsteps. If anything, he was playing better.
So why did the footsteps keep getting louder? "Joe was one of the greatest who ever played," Young said last Thursday, "and now he's watching me. There's a part of me that says, Jeez, Joe, I want to play well. What do you think?"
It is like borrowing your big brother's car. You can wash the car. You can wax the car. You can take it to the prom. But you know and your brother knows that it is not your car.
And so, as he has done every week this season, Young took his brother's car and revved it up. Early on against the Saints, though, it looked as if he'd wrecked it. With Young throwing an interception that led to a New Orleans touchdown, and with Saint running back Dalton Hilliard doing most of the work, New Orleans led 20-7 as the fourth quarter began. Never mind that San Francisco's lone touchdown had come on a courageous dive into the end zone by Young.
It appeared that the curse Voodoo Charlie had put on the Niners back in the swamps of Louisiana was mighty powerful stuff. When Young overthrew Jerry Rice on second down and got sacked on third, and Mike Cofer's 32-yard field goal try bounced off the left upright on fourth, the scoreboard looked like a voodoo billboard: 13 minutes left, 13 points behind.
It was just about then—to Young's undying gratitude—that the New Orleans coaches misplaced their brains. Instead of trying to chew up some clock by running the ball as they had most of the day, the Saints started making like Air Coryell. Quarterback Bobby Hebert threw three straight passes, two of which were incomplete, and New Orleans punted. Took only 1:06. Very thoughtful.