In the face of criticism Young withdrew from the public eye. He was reluctant to be seen as Montana's eager heir apparent. As a result his generosity has gone largely unnoticed. Few are aware of his extensive charitable work with the Navajos in four western states, or that he has given thousands of dollars of assistance to a destitute family of Russian immigrants in Utah, or that he donates $2,500 for every 49er win to fund sports programs in the San Francisco public high schools.
Young started hearing trade rumors after that '91 season. Walsh, who had left the team in 1989, was considering returning to the 49er front office. In January '92 he accepted the Stanford coaching job instead, but not before he let it be known that he thought it was divisive to have all three quarterbacks around. Policy agreed, and, quietly, he put out feelers.
"Remember where we were in March 1992," Policy says. "The coaches said that Joe was throwing better than he had in years. And the prospect of Steve Young being an unhappy camper would have been a distraction to the team. We did explore the market, and we had some stupid, absurd offers."
One that was not absurd involved the Los Angeles Raiders, who offered a No. 1 draft choice, wide receiver Tim Brown and other considerations. On draft day, however, Raider boss Al Davis scaled back his offer, and Policy cut off talks with the Raiders. "I'm delighted," Policy says, "that a few other people in the league didn't recognize what kind of player Steve is." At the time the 49ers must not have realized it either.
Last season Young and new offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan engineered one of the most potent NFL offenses ever. San Francisco averaged 387.2 yards and 26.9 points a game running a Walsh-type attack. Young continued to run, but almost always by design. Nonetheless, despite his success, he was not firmly established at the 49er helm. In the second half of the Niners' final regular-season game, against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 28, Montana returned to the lineup for the first time in two years and completed 15 of 21 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns. Two weeks later a poll in the San Francisco Examiner showed that Montana remained the people's choice to lead the team.
And the fans were not the only ones rejecting Young. In midseason Rice had been asked to evaluate Young. "He's a great running quarterback," was the answer.
"Call me a quarterback, not a running quarterback," Young said when Rice's comment was relayed to him.
Young is a brilliant runner. In a 1988 game he sprinted, stumbled and smashed through eight Minnesota Vikings en route to a 49-yard touchdown. "On a show we did recently, we called that run the best in football over the last 25 years," says NFL Films president Steve Sabol.
In '91 Young averaged six rushing attempts per game. Last season that number fell to 4.8, but he averaged 7.1 yards per carry. Shanahan has taught Young that if he has to leave the pocket, to leave it with his head up, still looking for a target. "I don't think I have to put that running-quarterback image to bed anymore," Young says. "Now whenever I run, my feet are really helping the team."
The true measure of Young's value is how his opponents feel about him. "On Sunday morning when you have to play Young, you wake up with a sickening feeling and a headache," says Atlanta Falcon defensive end Tim Green. "I can honestly say those are the only times I've ever approached a game conceding that an opposing player's going to make big plays no matter what we do."