American Football / First down for NFL '92: Young guns to call the shots: A quarterback in his prime is determined to come out of the huddle at San Francisco. Matt Tench reports on the 49ers playmaker and assesses the Super Bowl challengers

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The Independent Online
STEVE YOUNG has had to get used to the paradoxes of his profession. These include that as the top-rated quarterback in the National Football League last year he was booed from the field by his own fans. That he is paid dollars 2.5m a year and still feels underrated. Most pertinently, that his role in the season which starts on Sunday depends on the health of somebody else's elbow.

The explanation for much of this comes with the identity of the somebody. Joe Montana has been the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers for more than a decade and is widely regarded as being the best player the position has ever produced. Others may throw further and harder, run faster or improvise more freely, but when it comes to concocting a game-winning drive Montana has always been an Extraordinary Joe.

Steve Young is Montana's back-up, and like understudying Olivier it is a job waiting to go wrong. You hang around on the sidelines yearning for an opportunity, then when one does the comparisons cling to you like an unwelcome smell. Young may win, but he did not do it like Joe did. If he loses, well Joe would never have lost that one.

When Young joined the 49ers, in 1987, it was never supposed to be like this. After a stunningly successful time in college and in the now defunct rival professional league the USFL, he was languishing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Bill Walsh, then the 49ers head coach, was seeking a high-calibre quarterback. Montana had won two Super Bowls but was in hospital with a serious back problem. There was talk that he would never come back, certainly his career seemed in decline. Walsh was seeking a replacement.

Young hesitated. Then Walsh, arguably the best offensive mind in the game, visited him.

'You're my quarterback,' Walsh said.

'Where do I sign?' Young replied.

Young arrived just in time to watch Montana embark on a remarkable comeback. He made an apparently effortless transition from the treatment table to the huddle, and was soon leading the 49ers with all the panache of old. As Young watched from the sidelines Montana won two more Super Bowls and wrapped up his place in the sport's Hall of Fame.

For Young there could be only frustration. More capable than many starting quarterbacks in the league Montana allowed him few opportunities. When he did, Young displayed a remarkable running ability that even Montana could not match (a note left by a Chicago assistant coach suggested they regarded him as the fastest 49er behind running back Dexter Carter).

Money had long ceased to be an issue. After Young's remarkable exploits at Brigham Young University - he is the great-great-great grandson of Brigham Young, the founder of the Mormon religion - he was wooed by both the USFL and NFL, the rivalry providing him with a mind-boggling contract with the Los Angeles Express worth dollars 40m over 43 years.

In any case the 49ers paid him very well. 'All I want to do is play,' he said at one point. 'It's all I ever wanted.' That was denied him. However well Young did, Montana would get the call.

Then, last year, Young got a break. Montana suffered a serious elbow problem in training camp which kept him out for the season. Walsh got his chance.

Unfortunately after years of offensive excellence the 49ers were in decline. The running back Roger Craig was never satisfactorily replaced and opponents were able to plan for an aerial onslaught. With Young at the helm the team lost five of its first nine games. The new quarterback was held responsible.

For the most part this was unfair. Young was passing well, often guided his side into big leads, and it was hardly his fault that he was the team's best rusher. There were a couple of bad games, though, and that was all that was needed. Montana was usually on the sidelines in his jeans and sweatshirt, and as the team struggled he offered the fans a constant reminder of better times.

Midway through the season Young was injured and the 49ers' third-string quarterback, Steve Bono, stepped in. He guided the team to five victories, albeit over largely indifferent opposition.

A season of conflicting indicators came to a close when Young returned against Chicago and orchestrated a 52-12 thrashing. His rating of 101.8 made him (statistically) the league's best quarterback, yet the team failed to reach the play-offs for the first time in eight years and Young played in most of the defeats.

The inquests began and many argued the 49ers should trade one of their three quarterbacks to strengthen the team in other areas. Young was the most likely candidate and the Los Angeles Raiders expressed an interest. Young did not want to leave. 'His nightmare,' his agent, Leigh Steinberg, said, 'is that he would leave San Francisco and Joe Montana would suddenly retire.'

'This is the team, the offense, of which I feel I can be the best quarterback,' he said in London recently. 'Sometimes patience can be a virtue. We'll see. Patience might be a four-letter word.'

There was no trade and Montana, Young and Bono all showed up in training camp. Young caused a stir by arguing that he should be starting quarterback whatever happened, most expected Montana to get the call.

Then, as the exhibition season began last month, came the news that Montana's recovery was behind schedule. The elbow was still sore. Young and Bono shared time during the exhibition (pre-season) games and Young will certainly start against the New York Giants on Sunday.

An unhappy Montana, who is 36 in November, was placed on injured reserve this week and is unlikely to be back for at least a month. He is talking about leaving. There have to be doubts as to whether he will ever be the force he was - though Young could be forgiven a hollow laugh on hearing that one.

Still it looks as though Steve Young will get another shot. If so there are good reasons to believe he will do better this time. The 49ers ended last season as well as anybody and with a sound defense and an excellent passing offense the only real question mark remains over the running game. Young, at 31, is ready. 'This season is not make or break, but it's an important one because I'm in my prime and I need to use it,' he said.

Recently Sid Gillman, who coached Young in the USFL and is regarded as one of the shrewdest judges of quarterbacks in the game, observed: 'Steve Young is a Super Bowl quarterback. There's nothing he can't do on a football field. But you probably won't get to see it.'

Maybe, after all, we will.

(Photograph omitted)