To some, the San Francisco 49ers without Joe Montana might seem like the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger. Or maybe Santa Claus without his reindeer? Samson without his hair?
But to the New York Jets, 1-6 and falling, the prospect of facing the 49ers Sunday at Giants Stadium with Steve Young at quarterback is just as unappealing and perhaps a bit more baffling.Young is a backup who rarely goes backward, a relief pitcher who offers the beleaguered Jets defense no relief. He is a younger, perhaps stronger, definitely quicker mirror image of Montana.
Young stepped in when Montana sprained a knee with a minute left in the first half of last week's game against the New England Patriots. He threw a touchdown pass on his first play, added two more in the second half and turned a tenuous 10-7 Niners lead into a comfortable 37-20 victory. Young completed 11 of 12 passes for 188 yards. Imagine what he will do with a week's preparation under his belt.
"I try to take advantage of every shot I get," said Young, a sixth-year pro from Brigham Young who played two years for Tampa Bay after spending parts of two seasons with the Los Angeles Express of the USFL. "I feel like I've improved a lot without playing very much."
According to first-year coach George Seifert, much of Young's improvement occurred in training camp. "He's getting a much better feel for the offense," Seifert said. "I noticed that right away in summer camp. He has a better feel for where the receivers are."
Backing up Montana has been something of a thankless and frustrating task. When Young joined the 49ers in 1987, Montana was 31 and coming off a severe back injury suffered the previous season that required major surgery. But Montana rebounded to start 15 games in 1987 and win the first NFL passing title of his career.
Although Young replaced him in the NFC divisional playoff game the 49ers lost to Minnesota, Montana won the job back in 1988 and led the Niners to a 20-16 victory in the Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals. For Young, it's been one step forward and two steps back.
"I didn't think I would be in this situation very long at all," Young said. "It has turned out to be longer than I thought. It's not my favorite thing. I don't love it, but that's the way it is."
And the way it's likely to remain. Montana is expected to miss two games, but his contract was extended last year through the 1991 season. Hardly the retiring type, Joe Cool has said he is capable of playing another three or four years. In the meantime, Young, 27, says he is not counting the days until Montana takes to his rocking chair.
"Until he does, the question doesn't even enter my mind," said Young, who would not acknowledge desiring a trade. "I'll make that decision at the end of the year. I love it here. It's a great system for me."
The 49ers' offense allows Young to utilize both his arm and his legs. A speedy, slashing runner, Young even played some running back for the Express. With Roger Craig in the backfield and Jerry Rice at wide receiver, Young's presence in the backfield gives San Francisco yet another open-field running threat. And in the three games in which he has appeared, the left-handed Young has completed a remarkable 24 of 30 passes for 362 yards and five touchdowns.
"He's like having a third running back in the backfield," Jets defensive end Marty Lyons said. "And he's a tough guy. He isn't one of these guys who went to baseball school to learn how to slide. He knows where the yardage marker is and he'll get there and then some. It's always a challenge to play against him."
Cornerback Bobby Humphery, who faces the sickening possibility of watching Rice streak past him, said the infrequency of Young's appearances makes him tougher to defend against. "You can't put your finger on him because he's always coming in for relief," he said.
Despite the team's 6-1 record, however, the 49ers' offense has not been quite up to par this season. With former guard Jesse Sapolu playing center after the retirement of All-Pro center Randy Cross, and with a new pair of guards, Guy McIntyre and Bruce Collie, the 49ers' running game has been off, with Craig averaging just 3.6 yards per carry and fullback Tom Rathman just 3.8.
Many of their wins have been pulled out with late rallies - they have scored 96 points, half of their season's total, in the fourth quarter.
"That's been a mystery for everybody," Young said. "We've been hoping every week to break loose and get back to where we were last year. We're looking for that missing ingredient."
The name of which could be Steve Young.