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Amid all the fanfare over the San Francisco 49ers' reunion with Joe Montana in two days, a significant question has gotten lost in the hype. It's a simple question, really. Are the 49ers better off or worse off as a result of the trade that sent Montana to Kansas City last year?

Forget the emotion. Forget the history. Forget the four Super Bowls.The issue is today. It's all about the '90s, not the '80s.

And the answer is irrefutable: The 49ers are a better team today than they would have been had they not traded Montana to Kansas City last year. (The Chiefs, no doubt, are better, too, but that is not the point.)

First, let's be clear on something. This is not an attempt to compare Joe Montana and Steve Young as quarterbacks, neither their current status nor their place in history. Neither is the top quarterback in football today; that, clearly, is Dallas' Troy Aikman.

Also, it has been said here before, but bears repeating: Young will not approach Montana's record or Montana's place in NFL history. Young is a terrific quarterback, but Montana was the best.

Nonetheless, in today's game, Young is a better quarterback for the 49ers than Montana. Their current abilities are comparable, and the key is that Young was, and is, more likely than Montana to stay healthy. That factor is magnified in importance by the salary cap.

And, because Young figures to keep playing for several more seasons after Montana retires, whenever that happens, the 49ers have more time to prepare for the next transition and to groom a successor. That also is good for the team (although the transition from Montana to Young showed there's also a danger to a long break-in period).

But what matters most to the 49ers now is this: The deal that sent Montana to Kansas City began the chain reaction that eventually helped the 49ers draft defensive tackles Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young. They are very talented players, and Stubblefield already is a proven pro. Presuming the 49ers can keep them satisfied so they don't leave as free agents, they will be pillars of the team's defense into the next century.

Team officials believe they could not have gotten Stubblefield and Young without making the Montana trade. Their theory is supported by a trail of draft picks; it's difficult to follow, but we'll try:

- Montana was traded to the Chiefs for the 18th pick in the 1993 draft.

- The 49ers sent that choice to Phoenix for the 20th pick in the 1993 draft plus a fifth-round selection.

- The 20th pick was traded to New Orleans for No. 26 plus a third-rounder.

- The 49ers chose Stubblefield with the 26th pick. (They had another first-rounder, No. 27, which was used on Todd Kelly, who has done nothing so far. It is impossible now to know with certainty who the 49ers would have drafted if they only had one pick instead of two.)

- The 49ers then traded the Saints' third-round pick, plus a second-rounder they got from Dallas for Charles Haley, to the Raiders for a second-round pick.

- Then, they traded the Raiders' No. 2 with three later picks of their own to San Diego for the Chargers' first-round pick in 1994 and second-rounder in 1993 (which turned out to be Adrian Hardy, a non-producer so far).

- Finally, the Chargers' first-rounder in 1994, No. 15 overall, was traded to the Rams, with two other picks, for the seventh choice in the draft. The 49ers used that pick on Young.