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.
August 14, 1988
"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.
The decision couldn't have been easy on Young. "Before games, Steve's bouncing off walls," says Cross. "He actually wants to hit somebody. I've never seen enthusiasm like that. He's realistic about the situation, but that doesn't make it easier for him. He can't accept it. If he ever accepted it, it wouldn't be him."
Standing as witness to this duel is Walsh. "Steve is especially fast, has a strong arm and is even in every other category with Joe," says Walsh. "I think I can divorce emotion from the decision, though. We would only make a change if there was no likelihood that it would change back. Joe does certain things like no other quarterback."
"Joe reads," says 49er free safety Ronnie Lott. "That's the difference. I mean, he can execute. He can find something when something's not there. I go by what our receivers say, and they still say Joe."
"I think Joe was really fired up for this one," said Rice after the game. "You don't want to challenge Joe."
But Young will challenge anything and anybody. He didn't mind replacing Jim McMahon at BYU, and that was right after McMahon had set some 71 NCAA records. "You just play," says Young. "You show respect to the people who deserve it. But when I get my chance, when I play, that's mine."
Montana can appreciate the passion of a good quarterback in the prime of athletic life. But that doesn't mean he likes being challenged. "You could understand all this if I'd had a bad year," says Montana. It was Walsh who first suggested that a quarterback controversy existed. "Montana, just to remind all of you, was All-Pro last year," Walsh said early last week. "He's at the top of his game and has total command of our system. Steve, in turn, is a brilliant athlete. Whatever develops, Steve knows that at some point he will inherit the job or take the job competitively."
Such talk could do nothing but spur Montana. One local columnist even suggested a Montana trade, a notion that made cappuccino cups clatter in coffeehouses from North Beach to Santa Cruz. Not to worry. Walsh could no more trade Montana than he could the Golden Gate Bridge.
Montana has a healthy—even haughty—outlook on the mere notion of this young upstart taking away his job. "We're friends, Steve and I," says Montana. "But out on the practice field, if he doesn't hate me as much as I hate him, then there's something wrong."
"Joe goes out of his way to be helpful," said Young, "especially when it comes to stuff outside football." He thought a minute and added, "I'd like to think both of us will take the 49ers to the Super Bowl. When your stars are the hardest workers on your team, it helps, doesn't it?"
Young runs a 4.5 40 on his slow days, and there is a perception among many, apparently including Walsh, that he is too inclined to lean on this particular skill, busting out of the pocket too much. "Steve could probably gain five yards every time," says Walsh. "But then what would happen to our offense?"
"I don't run just to run," says Young. "It just flows sometimes. In those three games I started last season, I didn't run from the pocket a single time. So I don't think it's as much of a factor as people might say or think or believe it is."
While the Niners are suffering the problems of an embarrassment of riches at quarterback, the Raiders are trying to find one dependable arm to get the ball to a bevy of receivers. "They traded for Willie Gault. So what?" says Lott, referring to L.A.'s recent acquisition of Gault from Chicago. "They had receivers, and Gault isn't All-Pro or anything. I've yet to see him run a pattern over the middle. I think the Raiders are desperate."
Desperate or not, the Raiders' new coach, Mike Shanahan, can now boast one of the finest groups of receivers this side of AT&T, including Gault, James Lofton, Todd Christensen and rookie Tim Brown. But pass catchers must have something to receive. Against San Francisco, Gault hauled in a 43-yard reception from Raider starter Steve Beuerlein on his inevitable go route, but all the Raiders got out of that drive was a 21-yard field goal from Chris Bahr. The only other L.A. score was on a keeper by backup quarterback Vince Evans with 3:39 remaining, but the 49ers were emptying the bench by then.
"When you have two quarterbacks like the Niners do," said Raider linebacker Rod Martin, "you've got problems you can live with. Joe Montana is still Joe Montana, unfortunately for us. I just wish we could have a quarterback controversy like that."
Walsh, who is well aware of the ravages of the 16-game schedule, appreciates the luxury of his dilemma. "Steve will play a lot this year," he said, "more than any backup quarterback has ever played for us. It might be difficult for other teams to prepare for us now."
Montana took it all in with a grain of salt. "John Madden told me that I'm in a tough position," he said. "He said a team's most popular player is the backup quarterback. I'd just like to play-start—for another five years or so."
Does Montana have any advice for Young in the meantime? "Yeah," said Joe. "Break a leg." He smiled when he said it. At least it looked like a smile.