Book revisits pro football's greatest QB controversy

Posted Oct. 04, 2012 @ 11:06 a.m.
Posted By Mike Beacom

By 1987, Joe Montana was a god in the Bay Area. He had been named to four Pro Bowls and had delivered two Super Bowls to the 49ers. He was Joe Cool, and the team had a great deal of promise for the coming years.

Problem was, Montana's back was a constant source of concern. He missed much of the 1986 season, and there was concern his back would force Montana into early retirement, or at the very least affect his ability to throw the ball.

To help protect their future, San Francisco made a trade with Tampa Bay to acquire Steve Young, who by that point was already three years removed from college, having spent time with both the USFL's Los Angeles Express and the Buccaneers. The trade began pro football's greatest quarterback controversy, pitting two eventual Hall of Famers against one another, with San Francisco's management and coaching staff caught between. It's the subject of author Adam Lazarus' latest book, "Best of Rivals."

A short excerpt from Lazarus’ book:

Roster depth is something every NFL front office and coaching staff pursues with tremendous passion. Teams want to have options when injury or poor play at a specific position hits. And having two great running backs or two great pass rushers or two great defensive ends is considered a bonus: those duos can both be on the field at the same time, helping their team succeed. But in today's NFL only one man can be the starting quarterback: their leadership and command needs to be unquestioned and unchallenged. So, unlike any other position on the field, having two star quarterbacks would be considered a curse, rather than a blessing. As soon as the incumbent struggles or he is viewed as too old or too fragile, the fans and the media start calling for the replacement to take over. That's the situation the San Francisco 49ers found themselves in during the late 1980s and early 1990s. They had Joe Montana and Steve Young, two exceptionally talented, future Hall of Fame quarterbacks and it became an embarrassment of riches. Whichever man the 49ers started they couldn't make the wrong decision … or the right one.

Lazarus recently spoke to Pro Football Weekly about his experiences researching and writing the book …

What made you want to take on this project?

Every year it seems a quarterback controversy — whether real or perceived — emerges during the NFL season. Just look at 2012. The Jets have been dealing with the Mark Sanchez-Tim Tebow conundrum for months now. And now there is talk about whether the Eagles should transition from Michael Vick to Nick Foles. And even the situation involving Andrew Luck in Indianapolis and Peyton Manning in Denver has quarterback controversy overtones. So I wanted to pursue the history of the quarterback controversy and since Montana-Young is the grandest such example it became the best case study to pursue. Not only was this a tense, at times bitter, battle for the starting job, but there was so much at stake. The 49ers were a Super Bowl contender every year so the outcome of the Montana-Young duel had championship implications every single season and that made it a momentous period in NFL history.

Was Montana or Young hesitant to revisit the subject?

It's not necessarily a pleasant (subject) for either. Neither man liked the situation they had been put in. Obviously Joe didn't like that Steve was brought in essentially to take his job. And even though Joe remained the starter and the centerpiece of the franchise for another four years after Steve was acquired, I think it really bothered him that he didn't get to finish his career in San Francisco, because Steve emerged as the heir apparent. And on the other side, Steve was brought to the 49ers under false pretenses: he accepted the trade to San Francisco because he was told Joe wouldn't play much longer … Still, they were both forthcoming and open about the issue and I think, after 20 years have passed, they now have a different perspective on what took place.

What is their relationship like today?

The book doesn't pursue the state of their relationship today, but I know that's something a lot of people are interested in. I don't think Joe and Steve were hated enemies: they played golf together with Steve Bono during the team's day off … you don't play golf with someone you hate. But they weren't friends, either. They were two polar opposites and their personalities never meshed. And since there was a lot of passive-aggressive mudslinging through the press while they competed for the same job, they were never going to be close. Still, if they see one another at a 49ers or football function today I think they are friendly. I know they both were at Harris Barton's charity event in June, taking pictures together. They were also together on stage for an event honoring Jerry Rice a few years ago. So I gather that they are civil and polite to each other. They just were never destined to be friends based on their personalities and the tough situation they were put in.

There have been other noted quarterback rivalries. Tell me which one you think is the closest to Montana-Young, in terms of where the players were at in their respective careers?

The parallels aren't perfect, but the Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers scenario is probably the closest. The fact that both Rodgers and Favre are (probably) Hall of Famers, just like Steve and Joe, is a main reason, but not the only one. Favre was such an icon and so beloved by the fans in Green Bay, just like Joe was in San Francisco, that as soon as a challenger stepped up the fans and the media were unwilling to turn the page too soon. It's always so difficult to part ways with the past. So Rodgers — just like Young — was put in this impossible situation where the only way his career wouldn't be viewed as a failure would be to win a Super Bowl.

How much regret did Eddie DeBartolo, Carmen Policy and others have for their role in how this played out?

I don't think DeBartolo or Policy or Bill Walsh or George Seifert had any regret over the way this played out. Sure, it was painful for the organization at times. They knew it was somewhat unfair that Steve was on the bench, but it did give him a tremendous opportunity to learn the offense and learn from Joe. And when they finally had to cut ties with Joe it was very difficult and painful (especially for DeBartolo, who loved Montana and was extremely close to him) but that was ultimately the right decision. Joe was 36 and coming off a series of surgeries that left his future in great doubt. In order to keep their dynasty going in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the 49ers' front office and ownership had to make thoughtful and rational decisions and they had to do so at times by setting aside emotion and loyalty and personal feelings. And while it may have been painful, it certainly worked; keeping Joe under center led to two more Super Bowls in 1988 and '89, then fully committing to Steve in 1993 led to another a year later.

In the book, you touch on Young having to follow Jim McMahon at Brigham Young. How much of the BYU experience helped Young handle his years in waiting in San Francisco?

I'm sure his experience at BYU helped Steve handle the "big shoes to fill." And the career of Jim McMahon wasn't the only one Steve had to match: Gifford Nielsen and Marc Wilson, the two quarterbacks before McMahon, were also All-Americans. And being a direct descendant of Brigham Young himself, only led to more great expectations for Steve in Provo. So, he certainly had some experience with that. But the situation in San Francisco was so much more complex and not just because Joe was probably the greatest sports icon in the city's history. While at BYU, Steve knew that he would at least have an opportunity to try and prove he was as good, if not better, than McMahon … In San Francisco, he barely got any opportunities to play during his first four years. He was learning from Joe and getting more comfortable in the system, but he wasn't consistently on the field showing the fans and media and coaches that he was a great player. That only added to his frustrations. But I do think Steve made the best of the both situations. He did whatever he could to learn from McMahon and that clearly made him a better quarterback so when he arrived in San Francisco, he did the same and tried his best to learn from Joe.

In your opinion, how would social media have changed this situation, had Twitter been around in the late 1980s?

I can't say that the end results would have been any different; I still think the 49ers would have traded for Steve in 1987, Joe would have retained the job until 1990, Steve would have taken over in 1992, etc. etc. etc. I don't think front offices put that much stock in what the media and/or fans are saying. All of the decisions that led to this great quarterback controversy were made by the 49ers' front office and brilliant football minds like Bill Walsh and George Seifert. They knew not to let emotion and sentiment and fan pressure persuade them. But it would have been very interesting. Twitter would have exploded every time Joe suffered an injury, or every time Steve threw an interception in the NFC championship game losses against Dallas. And the episode when the 49ers finally agree to trade Joe (Chapter 10 of the book) then change their minds at the last second, only to change back 24 hours later, might very well have crashed the Internet with all the tweets.

Best of Rivals can be found on Amazon.com. Lazarus is also the author of Super Bowl Monday, which captures memories from the Giants and Bills players who faced one another in Super Bowl XXV.

Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mikebeacom.