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Quarterback Controversy That Is Nice, for a Change

December 28, 1987|SCOTT OSTLER

SAN FRANCISCO — Here's a situation Los Angeles football fans can relate to: A quarterback controversy, this one in 49er land.

The 49ers do it a little different, though. They have two guys who can play the position. And whichever guy is in the game gets cheered by the fans.

A little weird, but the Bay Area always was a little off center.

Sunday evening, it was Joe Montana who was relegated to quarterback mop-up duty, taking over in the second half after Steve Young piloted the 48ers (sic) to a comfortable 27-0 halftime lead over the Rams.

Montana finished off the 48-0 victory, which sent the winners into the playoffs with a bye and sent the losers into the off-season with a bye-bye.

That starting 49er quarterback was the one-time L.A. homeboy, Young, magna cum laude graduate of the late, great L.A. Express.

The Rams didn't know until game time which 49er would start. For a team visiting San Francisco, waiting to find out which 49er quarterback you'll face is like waiting to find out which Bay bridge you'll get pushed off.

With Montana on the sidelines with a mending leg injury, Young started and riddled the Rams, passing 10-for-13, for 174 yards and 2 touchdowns. Montana, who really (ital. really) wanted to start this game, stood on the sidelines near coach Bill Walsh and tried to give subliminal hints, like whistling the tune to John Fogerty's "Put Me In, Coach, I'm Ready To Play."

Montana got his chance, in second-half garbage time, and did real well, like you'd expect a future Hall of Famer in his prime to do against a team that was, by then, spinning like a cheap top.

But Young was the star this night, playing so well he earned the back-up job for the playoffs.

Finally, a former BYU quarterback who can play. Jim McMahon? Nice player, but Jimbo is a 200-pound pulled muscle with a headband. McMahon makes more appearances in taco commercials than football games. Young is 26 years old and has yet to miss a football game with an injury.

The former $40-million-dollar baby with the Express is playing for less money these days, but in better company.

Which is not to say Steve is happy about being a backup, even to Montana the Magnificent.

Is there a rivalry?

"I hope so," Young said Sunday night. "I try to make it as competitive as I can with a nine-year veteran and three-time All-Pro. I've always kind of cringed at backing up."

Sunday he showed why. Young can play. Granted, this was no playoff-caliber opponent. But it was a pressure situation, the conference title at stake, Young's personal pride and reputation on the line. A very emotional game for the 49ers and Young, believe it or not.

On the 49ers' third series, Young threw a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice, 22 yards. Those two did it again the very next series, this one for 50 yards.

Said Young, "I threw that one and I said, 'Ahhhhh, now I hope that's not too long.' He just ran it down."

Rice will do that one or twice a week, until some team drafts Ben Johnson as a DB.

All Young's passing heroics took place despite the steady rain that washed out the Candlestick Park halftime show featuring Huey ("It's Hip to Be Dry") Lewis and an all-star San Francisco backup band. Huey didn't want to get his harmonica wet.

But Young was as cool as a guy playing catch on the beach at Waikiki. On the first TD pass to Rice, Young called an audible, then checked it off and called another. Walsh could've sat in the stands and shucked peanuts.

And Young is a real pain in the rear for defenders, since he runs as well as most NFL halfbacks. Sunday he ran four times for 29 yards.

Does Walsh ever caution Young to tone down his outlandish scrambling antics?

"He's never said anything (about that)," Young said. "Like today, when we're in control, it's not recklessness. He's never said anything. He just says, 'Play.' "

That's all Young wants to hear. But he won't hear it when the 49ers open the playoffs. Walsh will say, "Sit."

Montana will start, of course, "As long as Joe doesn't do anything dumb the next couple weeks," Young said.

Not that Young would wish that on Montana, rivalry or not. The two guys aren't closest of pals, but they like one another. Each one just hates to see the other guy play, that's all. But Young says he's learned a lot watching Joe.

"The biggest thing I've learned from him is his poise," Young said. "The way he's methodical, makes decisions. He's so precise."

Learning poise from Joe Montana is like studying harmonica under Huey Lewis.

In this case, Young knows he'll be playing second fiddle in the playoffs. But he once played for the Express, remember, and once didn't (ital. didn't) play for the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Now he's in football heaven. It's hip to be there.

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