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At Long Last, Young's Demons Be Gone

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Columnist
January 30, 1995

MIAMI -- The past two years, Steve Young couldn't bear to watch the Super Bowl. On the other hand, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback couldn't bear to not watch the game either. Dreams of the Super Bowl, and nightmares about how his team kept failing to get there, haunted his nights and dominated his waking conversation. So, the past two Januarys, he wandered around the house, watching the Dallas Cowboys win their back-to-back titles out of the corner of his eye.

"I avoided it. Or, at least, I made the attempt not to watch. It was in my peripheral vision," said Young last week, facing his demons. "You can't ignore it. That's all you talk about. And we did have those train wrecks."

Those two wrecks, of course, came against the Cowboys in NFC championship games in which Young had an extremely serious problem. He wasn't Joe Montana.

Oh, that's all Young has heard the past four seasons. Not as good as Joe. To make it worse, Montana disliked and bad-mouthed Young when both were Niners. The well-mannered Young -- outgunned in the public debate by the deity wearing No. 16 -- had no choice but to bite his tongue. And wait for his day.

Once again Sunday night in Super Bowl XXIX, Steve Young wasn't Joe Montana. Montana, after all, never threw more than five touchdown passes in a Super Bowl. Sunday evening, in the performance of a lifetime, Young threw six touchdown passes. That's a Super Bowl record, besting Montana. Move aside, Joe.

Okay, be picky. Montana led the Niners to four Super Bowl wins. Still, after this 49-26 crushing of San Diego, Young should finally be "persona most gratis" beside the Bay. Besides, he's now got a Super Bowl tape he can put on eternal loop in his living room forever. If he lives to be 100, it will still make him smile.

Young's image of a train wreck was appropriate for this game. Isn't the AFC tied to railroad tracks every year on the last Sunday of January? This time, the 49ers' diesel engine offense came down the tracks with its big wheels -- Jerry Rice and Ricky Watters -- each rolling for three touchdowns.

Tragically for the Chargers, the engineer was Young. He opened the throttle, squashed the Bolts like dolts, then slammed on the brakes, threw the train into reverse and backed over poor Junior Seau and his friends again at full speed. For three hours, Young frolicked. Forward, backward, forward, back. When he left the game to a standing ovation, Young had completed 24 of 36 passes for 325 yards and no interceptions. Incredibly, Young was also the game's leading rusher with 49 yards on five scrambles -- each of them a drive-saving, back-breaking blow to the Chargers.

For years, the Niners worried that Young lacked the requisite nastiness for pro football greatness. Friends told about how, even after he was rich and famous, Young would get up before sunrise to deliver newspapers when his younger brothers overslept and neglected their paper routes. In a sport full of egotists and fashion peacocks, the modest Young was famous, in one mate's words, for being able to "mismatch all six major elements in an ensemble."

Once, roommate Harris Barton looked in one of Young's bureau drawers to borrow a pair of socks and found 13 of Young's uncashed paychecks.

"I didn't feel like I was earning my keep," explains Young, sheepishly. "The club got mad at me. They said I was screwing up their bookkeeping."

Young is still so nice it's eerie. A kind of West Coast Mark Rypien -- with a lot more talent. But he's finally found his own style. A dazzling one.

Niners veteran Steve Wallace said this week that Montana ran the San Francisco offense like a conductor directing a symphony, while Young's work felt more like an exciting, improvisational jam session. Certainly this Super Bowl showed all of the wide variety of skills that have led Young to four straight NFL passing titles -- including a 112.8 rating this season that broke the all-time record of -- Joe Montana.

On the third offensive play of the game, Rice split the safeties deep and Young hit him perfectly at the 12-yard line for a 44-yard touchdown. On the Niners' next possession, Young led Watters in traffic over the middle so that the halfback didn't have to break stride; Watters left a 51-yard trail of broken tackles and outran defenders for a 14-0 lead.

Next, Young flipped a short dart through a collapsing pocket to rookie William Floyd for a five-yard score. That made the Niners the first team ever to score in its first three Super Bowl possessions. A deft swing pass, deflating a blitz, gave Watters an eight-yard stroll to the end zone for a 28-7 lead.

Perhaps touchdown pass No. 5 was the most beautiful, since Young stepped into the teeth of a charging line and drilled Rice with a 15-yard bullet as he got blasted. That gave the Niners a 42-10 lead. The rest was academic.

Young's final touchdown pass -- a seven-yard slant to a diving Rice, who had 10 catches for 149 yards and three scores -- may have been a subtle message from the whole Niners team to Montana. Lots of Niners, much as they were in awe of Montana's skills, never forgot his unnecessary meanness toward Young. This week, Rice pointed out several times that he had a closer personal relationship with Young than he ever did with Montana and added that his first wish for the Super Bowl was "an MVP award for Steve."

If yet another Super Bowl had to disintegrate before halftime into a bad game, then at least the evening's hero was good as gold. The only consistent complaint about Young -- from his USFL days to his infuriating backup seasons to his stellar '91, '92 and '93 seasons as the NFL's top-rated passer -- was that he could never drop the goody-two-shoes bit. Come on, Steve, get real.

In the season's fifth game, as the Niners lost, 40-8, to the Eagles, the dark side of the Steve Young moon finally came into view. To everyone's delight. Coach George Seifert -- who knows what he was thinking? -- yanked Young from the game before a third-down play late in the drubbing. It was a public slap in the face. Young exploded, screamed in the coach's face and had to be restrained.

"There was certainly a flash point," says Seifert wryly now. "It's been well-publicized. Steve took on the head coach. He became one of the guys. And they all lived happily ever after."

"Yell at the coach and get an apology" from him, said Young. "It doesn't get much better than that."

Since then, the Niners have never stopped rising.

"I didn't know if Steve Young could take it to another level. But he has. He's the equal to Montana in understanding our offense and sensing it," said Seifert. "Joe established the standard here. . . . The pressure on Steve has been immense at times. But he's been up to it. Will he do it consistently over the years? We'll find out. But he's approaching that Hall of Fame status."

For one glorious Florida evening, Young was better than a mere Hall of Famer. Why, in this Super Bowl, he was better than Joe Montana at his best.

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