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The Young 49ers
Rick Reilly
September 30, 1991
San Francisco needed a victory on Sunday, and so did Steve Young
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September 30, 1991

The Young 49ers

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

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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.

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