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WHEN YOUNG TALKS, 49ERS LISTEN

Steve Young has been the physical leader of the San Francisco 49ers. Now, he's become the vocal leader as well.

Always reluctant before to talk of personal goals, he talked frankly during a break in this weekend's mini-camp. "I'm always aiming at an MVP-type year," he said. "I always expect a lot of myself."Meanwhile, he was bouncing around the locker room, talking to the many new 49ers, welcoming them to the team and also making certain they understood what was expected of them.

Circumstances have changed Young's style. When he first became the 49ers' starter in 1991, it was still Joe Montana's team. If he had spoken up then, nobody would have listened.

Since then, he has gained the respect of his teammates, both for his accomplishments and his courage in playing through injuries without complaint. Now, when he talks, they listen.

Meanwhile, free agency has changed the game for the 49ers, as it has for other teams.

"It used to be that the only new guys coming in would be backups or special teams players," he said. "There might be a high draft pick that was expected to step right in, but that would be it.

"Now, we have a whole group of guys who are coming in who will have to play major roles for us to get back to the Super Bowl.

"We have to make sure they understand. George (Seifert) had a long meeting before we went out on the field, to explain how we're supposed to behave, as well as how we play. I don't think many teams do that.

"Now, it's up to those of us who have been around awhile, like Jerry Rice and me, to talk to people like Chris Doleman and tell them what it means to be a 49er. We have a very special attitude here, and that's been a big part of our success. We want to keep that.

"That means mini-camp and training camp are even more important than they've ever been, because that's when we put our team together. We want to hit the ground running in the regular season. If Johnny Johnson is going to be the guy who gets 1,000 yards for us, for instance, he can't be wondering about the snap count."

Young's new role is a much more natural one than his subdued persona of his early 49er years. He's always been an enthusiastic athlete, and that hasn't changed.

"I'm really pumped up," he said. "If I'm like this in May, you can imagine what I'll be like in September.

"I've always said that, when I don't feel that way, I'll quit, but I'm a long way from that. The way I feel right now, I can easily play another 6-7 years, well into the next century.

"I don't think that's unrealistic. I don't feel I've lost anything physically. When I see other quarterbacks my age, they're limping around, but if you think about it, because I was on the bench those years when I first came here, I really haven't played that much."

Young took a beating last year, because of a combination of injuries in the offensive line and the lack of a strong running attack that could have taken some pressure off him, but he brushes that off.

One of Young's endearing traits is his refusal to use injuries as an excuse for poor play, but he has finally admitted what was obvious to everybody last year: His shoulder problems seriously affected his passing.

"I can see from looking at the films that I changed my mechanics," he said. "I was stopping my forward movement at the point where I had pain. After the operation, I was free from pain, but I didn't have much strength, and a big part of accuracy is strength. Without strength, you don't have control."

Before the injuries, Young was making serious inroads into the 49ers' and NFL record books, on his way to a likely spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Now, he's looking forward to a healthy year, and so are the 49ers. One reason Young talks of an MVP season is that he knows that it would almost certainly mean the Super Bowl as well. That's how the 49ers are thinking, too.