The Buccaneers owned Young's NFL rights, having selected him in the supplemental draft in the summer of '84. When the USFL's '85 season ended in June, Young was so desperate to escape that he reportedly paid the league $1.2 million to get out of his contract, with the agreement that the USFL would still fund the monstrous annuity. He signed a six-year, $5.4 million deal with Tampa Bay. As it turned out the USFL never reopened for business.
Young and Tampa Bay were a bad match from the start. Conservative coach Leeman Bennett had no idea how to incorporate an imaginative, free-form talent like Young into his offensive system. Bennett wanted Young to be a drop-back passer, but the Bucs' protection was abysmal. Tampa Bay went 4-28 in Young's two seasons with the team.
"One time we were playing the Bears." recalls Young, "and one of our coaches looked me right in the eye and said, 'Look, Steve, I know everybody's kind of quit on you here. This is the kind of game where you could really get hurt. Be careful out there.' I couldn't believe it. How can you enter a game thinking like that?"
"What Steve needed for his career to go to the next level was to be exposed to some top NFL coaching," says Steve DeBerg, Tampa's other quarterback. "I told him the perfect place for him was San Francisco, with Bill Walsh."
The Bucs had the first choice in the 1987 draft. Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde was the clear top pick. Ray Perkins, who had succeeded Bennett, wanted Testaverde. So the Bucs granted Young his wish and dealt him to the 49ers at a time when his value was severely depressed and the whole world knew that Tampa Bay was going to select Testaverde. All that San Francisco had to give up was a second-and a fourth-round pick, plus a reported $1 million.
Young's Tampa Bay numbers: 11 touchdown throws, 21 interceptions, 53.3% completion rate. He still didn't appear to be marked for greatness.
Chapter 3: The San Francisco Years 1987-93
Walsh had watched Young with the Express and the Bucs, and he had watched him again on a scouting trip to BYU in the spring of '87. Young, who had enrolled in law school by then, would occasionally work out with the Cougar receivers. "Sid Gillman was telling me this was the finest quarterback athlete he'd ever seen." Walsh says. "Tampa couldn't protect the passer, plus they were running a dated offense. So Steve looked bad there. What scouts saw when they watched Steve with Tampa was a lefthanded, inaccurate quarterback; it fulfilled their old wives' talc about how lefthanded quarterbacks couldn't be good in the NFL. 1 set about a quiet campaign to get him." The deal was made on April 24. 1987.
Montana was injured in the first game of the '86 season and missed the next two months with a back injury. But beginning in '87 he turned into an iron man. Young got only 10 starts from '87 through '90, and that drove him crazy. After the '90 season Steinberg urged him to fight for a trade. Young weighed it, but he finally concluded, This is the perfect system for me. It's the perfect city. I've put in four years waiting, and I don't want to leave just when my chance might be coming.
Walsh, forever a Young fan, would occasionally yank Montana from games, even when Montana was not injured. These forced exits—and the mistaken belief that Young was lobbying for more playing time behind Montana's back—made Montana resent his understudy. Yet to this day Young will not criticize Montana, as painful as the star's treatment of him must have been. Young's treatment by others wasn't much better. In 1991, on his way to leading the league in passing, Young was criticized by fans and the Bay Area press for not playing well late in games, for not winning the big ones and for running too much. Jerry Rice complained that Young was not throwing to him often enough. When Young suffered a knee injury in the ninth game of the season, Steve Bono stepped in and played splendidly. There was a loud call for Bono to pass Young on the depth chart.