When we last saw Joe Montana, he was walking disconsolately off the field at Candlestick Park. The favored San Francisco 49ers were in the process of getting mugged 36-24 by the Minnesota Vikings in the semifinals of last seasons's NFC playoffs, and 49er coach Bill Walsh had done the unthinkable—he had benched Montana. Replacing him midway through the third quarter was Steve Young, whose performance is the only pleasant memory San Francisco fans have of those playoffs.
Before that defeat, Montana had been a hero of almost mythic proportions in the Bay Area and a future Hall of Fame quarterback as far as the rest of America was concerned. He had led the 49ers to Super Bowl wins in 1982 and '85, and last year he was the league's top-rated signal caller. Now he faced a challenge from Young, who was fleeter, stronger and hungry for Montana's notices. Even his name mocked the myth: Young is what Montana will never be again.
Indeed, as a new season approached, the 32-year-old Montana was putting a nice geriatric spin on the issue. An exhibition game with the Los Angeles Raiders at Candlestick Park was a day away, and Montana, looking firm and fit at the Niners' Rocklin, Calif., training site, was saying, " Y.A. Tittle told me that when you're young, they love you. When you're in the middle, they hate you." He paused and considered that he might be in the middle. "But," he went on, "when you're old, they love you again."
In Saturday's 24-10 victory over the Raiders, Montana played young and was loved as if he were old. He made the Raiders look like something from an Al Davis nightmare, completing 12 of 14 passes for 166 yards before giving way to Young late in the second quarter. Montana showed the Raiders everything. He split the middle seam with a bullet to All-Pro wideout Jerry Rice, who turned the play into a 53-yard gain. And, as if to clear up any doubts about the strength of his arm, Montana then threw two out patterns to Rice—two shots that traveled some 30 yards in the air—for eight-and 10-yard gains. What's more, Montana held firm in the pocket, cleverly looked off safeties and stepped up and hummed it, baby.
"I think I played all right," said Montana nonchalantly. But he was quick to elaborate on the "eight or nine" pounds of muscle he had added to his upper body in the off-season, and the running, aerobics and shadow boxing he had suffered through at the behest of his personal conditioning coach, Ben Parks. "I needed somebody to push me," he said.
Young, 26, was not as pleased as Montana. He completed five of nine passes for 91 yards. He showed off his lefty wing with a 19-yard out to Dokie Williams and a 39-yard bullet down the middle to tight end John Frank. He said all the right things for the cameras, but as he left he said, "Wait [to play]?" He shook his head. No.
Guard Randy Cross chuckled. Cross, his hair now shot with gray, was a member of the Montana's original Super Bowl offense. He is also Young's roommate during camp. Leave it to the old war-horse to clear the air.
"We're lucky," said Cross. "We've got two great quarterbacks. Joe worked so hard in the off-season. I think he felt the doubt from other people, so now he's in the best shape of his life." Cross looked over at Montana, who doesn't seem to have aged a day since 1981, even though he has had two concussions, back surgery and other assorted lumps that come with nine campaigns in the NFL.
"If Joe's right, then it's an alleged controversy," continued Cross. "He looked right tonight. Steve's attitude is consistent. He knows he can play."
Indeed, Young proved that to the 49ers last year. He had been a bonus baby in the USFL in 1984 with the L.A. Express, and then he spent lost seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1985 and '86. Last year Young stepped in for Montana, who was hurt for most of the final three weeks of the regular season. He threw for 10 TDs and 490 yards and led the 49ers to wins over the Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons and L.A. Rams. But when the playoffs began, Montana was named the starter.