Steve Young heard footsteps. Been hearing them for two years. How was he not supposed to flinch?
The footsteps did not suit up, did not even practice, yet every day in the papers there were reports of progress. MONTANA THROWS WELL Or MONTANA TO THROW TOMORROW read the little updates in the San Francisco Chronicle. One day the San Jose Mercury News actually reported, "It is not known whether Montana threw Thursday." This was the most talked-about game of catch since the Kennedys played touch.
When Young didn't drive his team to the playoffs last year, well, Montana would've gotten them there. And when Young threw an interception in the final minutes of a 34-31 loss to the Buffalo Bills in the second game of this season, well, Montana never would've done that. And last week, as the 7-2 49ers got ready to rumble with the 7-2 New Orleans Saints for the lead of the NFC West, well, everyone would have felt a whole lot better if Montana were running things.
The footsteps were getting so loud they were rattling the practice-field gates. The throwing hadn't gone this well since training camp. Two years Montana had been rehabbing his elbow. What was the holdup? When will you be ready to play at an NFL level? Montana was asked. "Last week," he said with a grin.
Hadn't anyone noticed that Young was on pace to break Montana's league record for highest quarterback rating in a season? Or that, with Young and new offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan in command, San Francisco was averaging 406 yards a game? Everybody was probably right. No way Young could compare to the footsteps. If anything, he was playing better.
So why did the footsteps keep getting louder? "Joe was one of the greatest who ever played," Young said last Thursday, "and now he's watching me. There's a part of me that says, Jeez, Joe, I want to play well. What do you think?"
It is like borrowing your big brother's car. You can wash the car. You can wax the car. You can take it to the prom. But you know and your brother knows that it is not your car.
And so, as he has done every week this season, Young took his brother's car and revved it up. Early on against the Saints, though, it looked as if he'd wrecked it. With Young throwing an interception that led to a New Orleans touchdown, and with Saint running back Dalton Hilliard doing most of the work, New Orleans led 20-7 as the fourth quarter began. Never mind that San Francisco's lone touchdown had come on a courageous dive into the end zone by Young.
It appeared that the curse Voodoo Charlie had put on the Niners back in the swamps of Louisiana was mighty powerful stuff. When Young overthrew Jerry Rice on second down and got sacked on third, and Mike Cofer's 32-yard field goal try bounced off the left upright on fourth, the scoreboard looked like a voodoo billboard: 13 minutes left, 13 points behind.
It was just about then—to Young's undying gratitude—that the New Orleans coaches misplaced their brains. Instead of trying to chew up some clock by running the ball as they had most of the day, the Saints started making like Air Coryell. Quarterback Bobby Hebert threw three straight passes, two of which were incomplete, and New Orleans punted. Took only 1:06. Very thoughtful.
Finding his rhythm, Young hooked up with tight end Brent Jones for a 20-yard gain, but poor Jones had his ribs crushed on the tackle and had to come out. No problem. On the next play Young found Jones's sub, Jamie (Spiderman) Williams. Spidey caught two in a row, in fact, and was all set to keep going when a grimacing Jones returned to the huddle, personally reinserting himself into the game. "He John Wayned it there," Young said later.
Truer grit you'll rarely see; Jones's ribs hurt so much he couldn't even take a full breath. Didn't matter; tight end was the specialty of the drive. Two plays later, on a play called Texas, Young hit Jones cutting across the middle with a perfect pass for a 14-yard touchdown. Jones gave the ball a very emphatic spike. Big mistake. "That hurt," Jones would recall later with a wince. Now the score was 20-14, and 10:16 still remained.
Naturally the Saints did the smart thing. They threw three more passes. Two of them fell incomplete, and New Orleans punted. All that took only 1:20.
The Niners nudged the ball only 11 yards on their next possession, but the Saints could nudge it back just 19, and then it was truth time for Young. Four minutes left. Seventy-four yards to go for redemption. He'd lost the big Buffalo game. This was bigger. The fourth-largest football crowd in Candlestick Park history was roaring for satisfaction. As Young would explain later, "It was like [former 49er center] Randy Cross said one time: 'They put the wine coolers away and brought out the good stuff.' " No, this was the hard stuff. Lose this one and the footsteps would be hurting Young's ears.
As long as it was going to be tough, why not make it real tough? Calling the plays himself, running mostly without a huddle, trying to drive an exhausted team and hardly able to hear himself worry, Young faced three third-and-desperate situations. Twice, quick passes to Jerry Rice bailed him out. The third time, Young did a crazy thing. He called his own number.
"The whole huddle," Young said, "just kind of went, Jeez, here we go again. The quarterback's gonna run the ball. Watch out." But run it he did, making haste for the corner and getting the first down with yardage to spare. Sorry, but no way Montana makes that play.
After two carries by tailback Ricky Watters picked up 14 yards and gave San Francisco first-and-goal at the eight, Young went to the only place one could expect to find John Wayne—Texas. Jones, running the same pattern he had scored on earlier, simply cut sooner and was as open as Abilene in the end zone. Young found him.
Jubilation reigned. Jones made another painful spike. A nervous Cofer kicked the extra point. Young had brought the Niners back, to a one-point lead.
But the Saints were not out of it. After the kickoff they needed to go about 40 yards in about 40 seconds to get within Morten Andersen's generous kicking range. Not unthinkable. John Elway gets it done and still has time to go get sandwiches. Naturally the New Orleans coaches stopped coaching dumb at this point. They coached dumber.
On the first play Hebert passed to Torrance Small for an eight-yard gain, and then—and then!—nobody called timeout. Three timeouts remaining, and they didn't call one. The Saints ran around for a while, looked at each other blankly, tried to get lined up and finally snapped the ball again with 19 seconds showing on the clock—the play had taken 27 seconds. Perhaps the Saints thought the big 3 next to TIMEOUTS on the scoreboard meant they had used all three of their timeouts.
When somebody asked New Orleans coach Jim Mora about his, ahem, time management, he said, "It was fine, other than [not] calling time after that first play."
How was your trip on the "Titanic"? It was fine, other than hitting that iceberg.
What happened on that timeout, Bobby? "I don't control that," Hebert said. "I just do what I'm told. I call timeout when I'm told. I wasn't told."
All was ignominy for the Saints from then on: two incompletions, a holding penalty and, with one second left, not a Hail Mary but a screen pass to Hilliard, who lateraled the ball to 290-pound tackle Richard Cooper, who did not continue lateraling it in the grand tradition but tried to leg it all the way to the end zone himself. And that is the way it ended for the Saints, with one of the league's best kickers on the sideline, three timeouts on the scoreboard and the football in the hands of a helmeted behemoth shoved out of bounds 36 yards short of glory.
Inside the 49er locker room joy ruled. "Where were you during that last drive, boss?" Young playfully asked the 49ers' frantically passionate owner, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. "On the window ledge?"
Walking to his locker, Young got the kind of looks usually known only inside Montana state lines. "That last drive," said San Francisco guard Guy McIntyre. "He was just as calm as Joe ever was."
The footsteps had quieted. The team was Young's. Longtime San Francisco Examiner columnist Art Spander began the questioning to Young by saying, "I know you don't want to be compared with Montana...."
"Then don't. Art." Young interrupted with a smile. "Then just don't."
And you know what? He didn't.