By 1986, Joe Montana was already a legendary quarterback and a possible Hall of Famer, but he was struggling with a career-threatening back injury. San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh picked up Steve Young from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – not just as a backup but as the future leader of the team. In doing so, he created the biggest quarterback rivalry in NFL history.
Montana returned from his back injury and kept returning from assorted injuries for another five years. He added two more Super Bowl wins to his resume. And all the while, Steve Young was growing frustrated with his occasional cameo appearances.
In Best of Rivals, Adam Lazarus tells the story of the tension between the two men, the divide it caused within the team and the organisation, and the acrimonious end. Both in contemporary quotes and later interviews, the two men occasionally speak tactfully about their relationship but the bitterness is hard to conceal. It makes sense – these were two exceptionally talented players, both more or less in their prime, and competing for one job.
At one point, when he was out and Young was starting in the playoffs, Montana was asked if he had offered his backup any encouragement. Montana said: “Why should I? Did he say anything to me when he came? If he did, I would have remembered. It’s part of the game, pressure.”
Eventually, after yet another injury, Montana was traded to Kansas City and Young got the job fulltime, eventually leading the 49ers to their fifth Super Bowl win. Asked about watching his former team in the playoffs, Montana said that he still had friends on the team and would like to see them do well. What about Young, he was asked. “I couldn’t care less,” Montana replied.
The cover blurb on my copy is from Jeff Pearlman, who says that Lazarus “makes you pull for both of them” but I’m not sure I agree. Certainly, Lazarus is even-handed and largely non-judgemental about the relationship between the two players but I found myself sympathising with Young’s more subtle frustration. Montana’s attitude to his rival seemed, in contrast, classless and unnecessary.
Perhaps my view of Montana was further undermined by Lazarus’s description of Montana as exactly the kind of workmate that I can’t stand. When he went to Kansas City, Lazarus writes, Montana “dropped stink bombs in team meetings” and “sneaked into teammates’ lockers and cut the shoelaces on their cleats”. At this point, Joe Montana was 37 years old, not seven years old. He sounds like the most annoying man in the world, though I realise others may have a more relaxed attitude to juvenile japes than I do.
Oh, and he was willing to undermine his fellow players by crossing the picket line during the 1987 players strike.
If there’s criticism to be made of Best of Rivals it’s that Lazarus spends a lot of time on play-by-play recaps of games when it would be interesting to hear more about the rivalry, especially the effect it had on other members of the team.
For anyone who is interested in Bill Walsh, there are fascinating tidbits here. For example, Carmen Policy, the 49ers’ president and CEO, argues that Walsh rated Young so highly because he was a first round pick and he could not help viewing Montana as a third-round pick, despite Joe’s success on the field. There’s also the fact, mentioned in passing, that Walsh’s gameplan for one playoff game contained 97 different passing plays – at least 20 of which were new for that game. It makes the job that his quarterbacks did seem even more impressive.
One final point about Best of Rivals is that it tells a story that is unlikely to be repeated. Under the NFL’s current free agency and salary setup, a team is unlikely to be able to keep a player of Steve Young’s quality as a backup. Pre-salary cap, the 49ers could pay enough to ensure that Young stayed with the team. In 1991, when the average salary for an NFL quarterback was $856,000, the 49ers gave Young a two-year, $4.5M contract.
A modern NFL team would surely not pay so much for a backup. And that’s probably a good thing. Steve Young had a good career – he has three Super Bowl rings and he’s in the Hall of Fame – but he started just 20 games between 1987 and 1991. What might he have achieved as a starter somewhere during those years?
Photo: Arnie Papp