Don’t sleep on Steve Young.
That was the mantra of defenses back in the day. Recently, Young was highlighted in a piece produced by the NFL in NFL Films Top 100 quarterback runs of all time.
Young had the No. 1 and No. 4-ranked runs in that opinionated ranking.
Young played in an era when QBs didn’t run that often. They were kind of lumbering, slow, big-armed, tall, powerful and athletic men. But they were not cheetahs.
Young brought in an era of QBs becoming a real threat with their legs, leading into athletes with a lot of fast-twitch muscle fiber like Michael Vick and even Patrick Mahomes.
It was a factor in the New York Jets drafting Zach Wilson No. 2 in the 2020 draft. It is why Taysom Hill has stuck in the NFL so long and has Saints fans wishing he’d stay at QB as a backup instead of tight end this coming season.
Young’s 49-yard touchdown run against the Minnesota Vikings Oct. 30, 1988, beat out the No. 2 run, a 46-yard touchdown scamper by Vick, the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback, against Minnesota.
Young’s run was more mechanical artistry — a winding, cutback, angle-creating run through more would-be defenders.
Vick’s run was a dropback run that turned into an explosive sprint that one commentator said was done with “almost inhuman speed.”
Young’s No. 4 ranked run was against the Rams a few seasons later. Young dropped back, made a look-and-run and ran to the sideline.
Instead of going out of bounds, he cut back to the field, made another cutback and sprinted down the boundary line for his second game TD.
The play went for 39 yards and John Madden said that against Young, “you can’t assume anything.”
Madden called Young’s TD run that October one of the all-time great plays in NFL history.
Young’s threat to run on any given play made him susceptible to injury, but it also highlighted his desire to win.
Said Atlanta Falcon defensive end Tim Green: “On Sunday morning when you have to play Young, you wake up with a sickening feeling and a headache.
“I can honestly say those are the only times I approached a game conceding that an opposing player’s going to make big plays no matter what we do.”
Today, Young is 60 years old. But his run is part of history.
Why do we bring this up in the summer of 2022?
Because “The Run” play is part of the sports world’s museum pieces. The Louvre hangs da Vinci’s Mona Lisa on its wall in a tiny frame. In football, sportswriters and documentarians remember, relive and break down what seems memorable or impossible.
It took place in Candlestick Park in San Francisco on a day that starter Joe Montana was injured.
Young had been given sporadic playing opportunities and was still finding his way with the offense. Using his legs to get out of trouble had been his go-to act his entire career in high school and college.
On that day, he wasn’t going to abandon that golden parachute.
At the time, the 49ers were losing and on the verge of dropping to 5-3, further behind the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints in the conference standings.
San Francisco fell behind 7-3 and had managed just four first downs in the first half. Young was sacked four times and had just 40 yards passing by halftime.
This is a time of the game the offense needs a taste of success, anything, as frustration sets in. It’s a time defenses get tired of working hard when the offense isn’t cashing in.
The 49ers switched to some play-action sets with Young faking handoffs, pulling up and throwing for first-down yardage instead of launches downfield.
Young threw for 152 yards in the second half including a 73-yard strike to John Taylor.
That was the taste the 49er offense needed, but the Viking defense was putting pressure on Young. Just after that scoring pass to Taylor, Young was smothered and never saw the catch or score.
“A couple of times I think we literally almost killed him,” said Viking rusher Al “Bubba” Baker.
The Vikings took a four-point lead (21-17) into the final four minutes of the game. With the game slipping away from Bill Walsh’s squad and the offense stalled at midfield, the day looked bleak.
With just over one minute left, it was third down and four. The 49er play called for Young to run a “Double Underneath” in which the two inside receivers in San Francisco’s formation would break to the outside, while the two wideouts would drag across the inside.
Young dropped back to pass near his own 40-yard line. The play broke down and Viking defenders swarmed toward Young.
Young was looking for Mike Wilson when Viking quarterback killer Chris Doleman raised his hands up, blocking Young’s vision downfield. Young moved to the side, looking for a passing lane to throw through.
Spinning away from Doleman, Young looked for tight end Brent Jones, who was supposed to come down the field, pull up and stop right in the middle.
Young needed only a couple of yards for a first down to keep the drive alive so, as usual, he thought he could take off and get the necessary distance.
In a quick burst of speed, Young stepped out of a tackle at the line of scrimmage and then pivoted toward the east sideline as recovering Viking linebackers and defensive backs broke off coverage and tried to run Young out of bounds.
At that instant, Young cut back, veering out of diving tackles by bewildered defenders. Young was going to just run out of bounds and take the first down until he saw running back Tom Rathman make a block.
Cutting behind Rathman’s interference, Young picked up another block from Jerry Rice on Viking linebacker Jesse Solomon and headed back toward the middle of the field.
This is not what most QBs are supposed to do. They’re supposed to take their derrieres out of bounds and stay safe, protect themselves, avoid contact, protect the investment and live another day.
But there was Young, running like a running back, looking for daylight.
Carl Lee grabbed Young’s jersey, but the quarterback broke free. He cut in front of Viking defenders Brad Edwards and Cris Martin, leaving them clutching air.
Young’s outstanding 4.4 speed was in full throttle.
“I just think Young saw an opportunity and his athletic ability allowed him to do it,” said Baker. “This is no discredit to Joe, but I don’t think Joe could have made that run.
“He would have probably slid 10 or 15 yards down the field. Steve really wanted it.”
Young explained later that he was going to stiff-arm Solomon until Rice took him out. Young broke free and there were no remaining Minnesota defenders left to make a play. He had essentially run through half the defense.
At this stage of the run, his legs were pumping and he began to lose his balance, stumbling forward. He was able to keep his feet in front of him for a few more strides from the 8-yard line before diving into the end zone for the score.
A TV shot at the 49er sidelines showed Montana laughing not at Young, but at how he had made the Viking defenders look like Keystone Cops.
The play electrified the crowd, who were used to seeing great plays from their stars and now they had this Monet.
Young had made the Viking defense look like a high school squad. They’d been suckered into falling for bad angles and broke containment trying to take Young’s head off.
“I was kind of laughing because I couldn’t believe I was falling into the end zone,” Young told reporters after the game.
“It was kind of embarrassing. I was thinking I was going to go down about the three and that would be embarrassing.”
Said teammate Roger Craig, “That was natural God-given talent. He just went out there and won the game. You know, he won the game.”
Walsh called Young’s move “an unbelievable athletic feat.”
That play kept the 49ers alive with a 24-21 win and improved the record to 6-3. The 49ers would go on to beat Miami in Super Bowl XXIII.
Later that season, a reporter asked Young if that “run” could be compared to the spectacular and dramatic pinch hit home run by Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series that fall.
“No,” said Young. “Because he got to trot.”
Material for this column came in part from my book “Steve Young, Staying in the Pocket.”
Correction: The original version of this column stated the Mona Lisa was painted by Pablo Picasso. The famous painting was actually a creation of Leonardo da Vinci.