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IT'S TIME FOR MONTANA TO PASS TORCH TO YOUNG

The 49ers are Steve Young's team now, although to say there was a passing of the torch would be a downright fabrication. Rather, the torch was wrenched from Joe Montana, who can't fathom why it shouldn't be in his grasp forever.

He is not taking this transition well, Montana. There is a refusal to accept he is no longer San Francisco's starting quarterback, and an equal refusal to accept Young, a teammate but hardly a friend, as that starter. But that is what we would expect of Montana.For years he has disproved reality.

Ninety yards from a touchdown, two minutes remaining? The rest of us would concede, at least subconsciously. Not Joe Montana. A career-threatening back injury? Suggestions he retire? Not Joe Montana.

In his mind nothing is impossible. Except perhaps acknowledging his own mortality and Steve Young's ascendency.

Who knows where this NFL season, only days in the future, will lead? Perhaps before it is done, Montana will be back, throwing the passes, hearing the cheers. Or maybe that right arm will never heal.

Joe's taking it personally, this decision to go with Young, almost as if it were Steve's outspoken desire to become No. 1 that destroyed the tendon in Montana's throwing arm.

Asked if Montana were upset because Young had officially replaced Joe as starter, the third 49er quarterback, Steve Bono, as close to Montana as Young is distant, responded in the affirmative.

"To put it mildly," answered Bono, "I think he has a right to be. A healthy Joe Montana, if that is the case, it's not easy to put him on the bench."

He's there. And whether Joe's healthy, and whether he's ready, are issues that coach George Seifert chose to subjugate for the issue of clarity. Seifert decided it was time to provide an answer that would end the questions.

The question for some is whether Young, indeed, can do what is required. Not to be another Joe Montana, because there never will be another Montana, in style or results. But to move the 49ers. To get them points. And, more important than anything for a quarterback, to get them victories.

Young was productive against the Seahawks. The assumption was he had now been able to study the opposing defense instead of figuratively looking behind at Montana. Young stood in front of his locker and contended the assumption was incorrect.

"Inside, I just try to take it all in stride," Young said. "But I understand around here everything is tied to how Joe performs."

When Young threw touchdown passes to Jerry Rice, when Young, improvising, dashed 11 yards into the end zone, Montana didn't do much at all. The coolness between the two was as apparent as the hot dog wrappers spinning in Candlestick's wind.

Young wouldn't talk about his relationship or lack of same with Montana. But a month ago, Young expanded on the situation.

"He's extremely competitive," Steve said then of Montana. "And I don't know any other way to be. We do very well considering we're very competitive. People think there are fistfights in the backroom. That's not the case at all."

No fights. No handshakes.

"Let's be honest," Young told the Los Angeles Times, "last year Joe wasn't very helpful. But there was a transition time. People weren't sure what they were supposed to say, how they were supposed to react."

People still may not be sure. But what is sure is Young is the 49er quarterback, as long as he's healthy. And maybe after Montana is healthy.

Montana's gripe was that Young not only was trying to get his job but was being groomed for it. And Joe, the competitor, knew that at age 36, he'd better kick and scream and do everything to cling to that job.

Well, in effect he's still kicking and screaming. But for once, he isn't passing. The ball. Or the torch.

Montana need make no concessions. But you would like to see him make Steve Young feel comfortable.