Why Steve Young Became a 49er
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 08, 2005

STEVE YOUNG became a 49er because, in part, Bill Walsh made a rare mis-evaluation of a quarterback.

In 1987, Walsh thought the Rams young quarterback, Jim Everett, was going to be a star – and he would be playing in the same division as the 49ers. In the NFL, the first priority is to win your division because, if you can’t do that, the odds are overwhelmingly against you going deep in the playofffs.

Meanwhile, Walsh was very concerned about the health of his quarterback, Joe Montana, who had already had back surgery which sidelined him for half of the 1986 season. Montana always looked frail (for a football player) and Walsh thought his career would be shortened by his vulnerability to injury.

So, he had to get a young quarterback of his own. Young was in disfavor among NFL people at the time because he had played for the Los Angeles Express of the USFL, which was so short of players at one point that he had to play running back, and for the sadsack Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had no plan and no hope.

Young had set an NCAA record for passing percentage at BYU, but NFL coaches and scouts disregarded that, looking only at what had happened in Young’s short pro career. Their verdict: He was a great athlete but not an NFL quarterback.

More than anything else, Walsh’s success with the 49ers came because he didn’t accept the NFL group think. That showed most obviously in his selection of Jerry Rice – and his choice of quarterbacks. Nobody else in the NFL had thought much of Montana’s future, and now, nobody thought anything of Young’s.

Walsh, though, had seen tape of Young in college and, as Ira Miller reported in The Chronicle last week, went to Utah to work out Young. That convinced him that Young could be a good NFL quarterback, though it would take some work.

At that time, I was writing in The Chronicle that the 49ers should trade for Young. I had seen Young briefly in the USFL, but my opinion was based on conversations I had with Sid Gillman, often regarded as the father of the modern passing game in the NFL and who had coached Young with the Express, and Walsh. When both men praised Young, that was good enough for me.

So, Walsh engineered a trade for Young, yielding second- and fourth-round draft choices and $1 million. Owner Eddie DeBartolo gulped when Walsh told him about the money. “Do we really need this guy that much?” he asked. Walsh assured him that they did, and the trade was made.

WHEN HE CAME to the 49ers, Young had retrogressed from his college days, having picked up bad habits, especially at Tampa Bay.

He was overwhelmed by the complexity of Walsh’s offense, though he liked the concept. “At Tampa Bay, I was just told to ‘Go out there and make something happen,’” he told me after an early 49er practice. He was still operating that way with the 49ers. Instead of going through all the progressions on a play, he’d look at a couple of receivers and then take the ball down and run.

He was successful at that, of course, because he was an excellent runner. In a sense, he was born 30 years too late because he would have been an outstanding single wing tailback, a position which required both running and passing skills.

Eventually, he refined his skills and became a record-setting passer while still making use of his running skills. Indeed, the single play that remains in my memory is not a pass but that remarkable 49-yard touchdown run he made to beat the Minnesota Vikings in 1988, when he seemed about to be sacked but escaped and weaved his way down the field, bouncing off tacklers, until he collapsed into the end zone.

And, despite the oft-voiced concerns that he would get hurt while running the ball, the injury that ended his career came when he was in the pocket and blindsided, after Lawrence Phillips had missed a block.

YOUNG THOUGHT when he came to the 49ers that he would soon be taking over for Montana, and that was what Walsh thought, too.

It almost happened in midseason 1988. Montana missed two games because of a combination of a back injury and influenza, which gave Young his opportunity. The run mentioned above won the first game he started, and the 49ers were leading the Arizona Cardinals in the fourth quarter of a game in Tempe when Walsh got overly ocnservative and the 49ers had to punt on their last possession. The Cardinals drove down the field and scored in the closing seconds to win, 24-23.

Walsh has since told me that, if the 49ers had won that game, he would have kept Young as the starter. When they lost, the clamoring for Montana was overwhelming, so he returned to the starting lineup. Montana played poorly in his first game back, a 9-3 loss to the Raiders but then went on to play 2 ½ seasons at his highest level, winning two more Super Bowls and assuring election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

So, Young sat until the 1991 season, when Montana was injured and missed the next two seasons, except for the last quarter of the last game in 1992. In the offseason, he was traded (at his own request) to the Kansas City Chiefs.

hat trade was monumentally upsetting to many 49er fans, but it was absolutely the best decision for everybody. Montana was the better quarterback for his career (the best I've seen) but Young was much better at that stage of his career. Montana had some success at Kansas City, but the 49ers won a Super Bowl the following season, as Young set a game record with six touchdown passes, and Young kept them in the race for the postseason until his career-ending concussion in 1999.

Jim Everett? He developed “happy feet” and never did live up to his potential with the Rams, but unknowingly, he did the 49ers a big favor.

NOTE: My timing on asking you to hit the Google ads was terrible, because of the steroids ads that were posted. Not my choice, of course. A Google computer scans the site for content and then puts up ads to match content. Unfortunately, I had written twice about steroids, once in a full column and again in a column on Barry Bonds. I’ll try to avoid that subject for awhile, so maybe the ads for 49ers and Giants merchandise will re-appear.

TOMORROW: My take on Larry Krueger, political correctness and team mascots.

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