American Football: Vintage Young eclipses youth

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The Independent Online
THE 1998 American football season promised to be one dominated by the exploits of a new breed of exciting young quarterbacks. Instead, a month into the current campaign, the old guard are holding firm with a vengeance.

Steve Young, the San Francisco 49ers' inappropriately named playmaker, will celebrate his 37th birthday in a matter of days, but just like Denver's John Elway, Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins and the Seattle Seahawks' Warren Moon, he shows no signs of slowing down.

On Sunday, Young tore the Atlanta Falcons to pieces, the 49ers winning 31-20, a scoreline that masks the fact that the 49ers scored on their first five possessions and simply looked in a different class to their previously unbeaten rivals.

Young completed 28 of his 39 pass attempts for 387 yards and three touchdowns, and could have had a lot more if the 49ers elected to press home their superiority in the second half.

In three games to date this season, Young has thrown for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns each time, the first such streak of his 14- year career. At this rate, he will surpass the numbers he achieved in 1992, when he was named the league's most valuable player.

"I can't imagine ever being more comfortable than I was in 1992, but over the years you do get smarter," he said. "You have a much better handle on the full orchestra, the trombones, everything."

A naturally modest man, Young is not the type to blow his own trumpet, yet the fact that San Francisco have generated more than 500 yards of offense every game this season is a tribute to his mastery of the game.

He is also assisted by Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver ever to play the game. Last season, Rice's career hung in the balance as he shattered his right knee in the first game of the campaign, only to rush his return and fracture the same kneecap.

Now, after a summer of rehabilitation, the only man in history to catch 1,000 passes looks close to his best. On Sunday, he was simply too good for the Falcons, catching touchdown passes of 66 and 26 yards from Young. The two have combined for a total of 78 touchdowns, one short of the record held by Marino and Mark Clayton, the prolific partnership who thrived in Miami for much of the 1980s.

A hamstring injury has slowed John Elway over the past two weeks, so he decided to sit it out as his Denver Broncos visited the hapless Washington Redskins. It proved to be the correct decision, his replacement, Bubby Brister, throwing two touchdowns, and the running back Terrell Davis gaining 119 yards on the ground as the Broncos prevailed 38-16.

If San Francisco and Denver look the best of the bunch after the early skirmishes, the Green Bay Packers cannot be discounted while their quarterback, Brett Favre, continues to produce. Favre makes mistakes, as shown by his three interceptions against the Carolina Panthers, but he also makes plays. His five touchdown passes ensured a hard-earned 37-30 victory in Charlotte, and confirmed once again that Favre is one of that rare breed of players with the ability to determine a game's outcome.

As for the new boys, their travails continue. Peyton Manning threw three more interceptions as the Indianapolis Colts lost in overtime to the New Orleans Saints.

Meanwhile, things go from bad to worse for Ryan Leaf. The young San Diego quarterback must have thought he had hit rock bottom when completing just one of 15 pass attempts last week. He was wrong: against the New York Giants, Leaf literally threw the game away, giving up four interceptions before being replaced by his exasperated coach, Kevin Gilbride.

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