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Nearly 25 years ago, 49er QB controversy flared

Published: Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 5:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 5:50 p.m.

On Jan. 9, 1988, at Candlestick Park, in a first-round playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings, 49ers head coach Bill Walsh pulled starting quarterback Joe Montana in the third quarter and called on his backup, Steve Young.

Montana had had a brilliant 1987 regular season, winning 10 of the 11 games he started, completing nearly 67 percent of his passes, including 31 touchdown passes. Only 13 of the 398 passes he had thrown had been intercepted. And he finished the regular season with a stellar 102.1 passer rating. Oh, yes, he had also demonstrated his full recovery from back surgery.

One more thing: He, along with Walsh, had won two Super Bowls. Joe Montana was already an iconic figure in 49ers history.

But on that cool and overcast January afternoon in 1988, Montana was struggling mightily. He had completed only 12 of 26 passes, and the Vikings had closed out the first half with a 20-3 lead, thanks to Najee Mustafaa intercepting a Montana pass and returning it 45 yards for a touchdown.

Young didn't pull out a victory, but he made his presence known. He completed 12 of 17 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown. He also utilized his nimble and gutsy running ability, carrying the ball six times for 72 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown run and a breathtaking 42-yard broken-field scamper.

The final score was at least respectable: Vikings 36, 49ers 24.

What's the point of this little journey down Memory Lane?

Well, after Young's performance in that playoff loss, 49ers fans and the Bay Area media stoked two of the least-appealing words an NFL head coach can hear: Quarterback controversy.

Unlike previous Montana backups — Guy Benjamin, Matt Cavanaugh and Jeff Kemp — Steve Young was an heir apparent. He wasn't there simply to carry Joe's water. He was a blue-chip quarterback out of BYU who had played (and had become instantly wealthy) in the short-lived United States Football League, then had been the first overall pick by Tampa Bay in the 1984 NFL supplemental draft. He was also five years younger than Montana.

Walsh, a brilliant tactician not particularly known for sentimentality, had traded for Young before the 1987 season, and the implication was clear: Sooner or later, Young would supplant Montana; if it was sooner rather than later, so be it.

Young's performance in the 1987 regular season, which included winning two of three games he started, throwing 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions and achieving a ridiculous passer rating of 120.8, certainly boosted his credentials. But after his sensational playoff appearance, a question was out in the open and couldn't be ignored: Montana or Young?

Montana answered by having three more brilliant seasons for the 49ers, including back-to-back Super Bowl championships following the 1988 and '89 seasons, and coming within a Roger Craig fumble of at least another Super Bowl appearance. After that playoff debacle in January 1988, Montana, through his performance, had stifled any notion of a quarterback controversy. Steve Young continued to perform splendidly in limited action in those three seasons, but mostly he bided his time, champing at the bit.

The somewhat ugly and more than a little sad quarterback controversy that eventually developed following the 1992 season — after Montana had missed almost all of two seasons with injury and Young had established himself as an elite NFL quarterback, which eventually resulted in Montana getting traded to Kansas City and Young winning a Super Bowl for the 49ers — was still years in the future on Jan. 9, 1988.

Is there present-day relevance in this flashback?

Yes and no.

No, there is no reasonable comparison of Alex Smith and Joe Montana. Nor is there any sane connection between Colin Kaepernick and Steve Young.

On the other hand, there is a history lesson to be applied to the 49ers' present quarterback controversy, if indeed there is currently a controversy.

And that lesson is this: There is nothing wrong with having two highly capable quarterbacks.

In fact, it's a good thing. Depending on the personalities involved and the coaching staff's deft handling of those personalities, it should only benefit the team. If your No. 2 guy truly has what it takes to be No. 1, so much the better. If the No. 1 guy is really a No. 1 guy, he will respond to the potential competition for his job by performing like a No. 1 guy. Until he doesn't. At which time, the No. 2 guy will ascend.

Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, among others, have already stated the following but it's worth repeating: This Smith-Kaepernick issue, if handled just right, can be a problem only for other NFL teams. It doesn't have to be a problem for the 49ers.

Not yet, anyway.

Robert Rubino can be reached at robert.rubino@pressdemocrat.com.

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