Welcome back to our Throwback Thursday blog. Each week, we spotlight one of our favorite throwback superstars. We choose these stars using a rigorous scientific process we know in-house as “Whoever Nick Feels Like Writing About This Week Unless One Of You Jackals Has A Better Idea.” This week’s Throwback Thursday is about as underrated as a championship-winning 2x MVP Hall of Famer can be: Steve Young. We figured our San Francisco fans could use some nostalgia after Week 1.
There may not be a more common football argument than “who’s the greatest quarterback of all time?” It’s a classic question with no real, true right answer; current stars Brady and Rodgers have their case, as do about any number of legends including but not limited to Montana, Manning, Favre, Bradshaw, Marino, and Elway. But there’s one guy who gets too often left out of those conversations: 49ers legend—and Montana’s understudy turned replacement—Steve Young. Now, the point of these articles isn’t generally to make an argument, and I’m not here to say Steve’s the GOAT… but I will blow a paragraph or two pointing out that he probably belongs in the conversation.
He has the fifth-highest passer rating (96.8) of all-time (and a decent shot of it ending up at 2nd if Rodgers/Brady/Wilson play past their primes, or even 1st if Romo suits up again), and pretty cleanly the highest of his pre-spread offense era (Joe Montana’s the only other guy in the top 20 who played before 1998, at 13th with a 92.3 rating). Despite spending a lot of his career stuck behind Montana on the depth chart or banged up, Young still racked up plenty of other statistical accolades: most touchdown passes in a championship game (6), most postseason rushing yards (594) and touchdowns (8) by a quarterback, most seasons leading the league in passer rating (6) and touchdown passes (4), most seasons with a passer rating over 100 (6)… the list goes on. Now, the Brady Bunch and the Manning-at-arms crew will hem and haw about longevity, or titles, or injuries, and those are all potentially valid points depending on what you value most… but if you’re looking at what QB could win you a game, a playoffs, or a season, Young’s got as many bonafides as anybody else.
Of course, the stats alone aren’t what made Young special—and they frankly kind of undercut him, given how relatively little time he spent on the field compared to the rest of the passer pantheon (for example: Manning, Favre, and by the end of this season, Brady, have all thrown over double the number of passes Young did). What really set Young apart was his skillset, degree of difficulty, and a Montana-esque sense of the moment. Young’s pretty cleanly one of the most accurate passers to ever play the position, and that’s before you factor in how poor a job his offensive line did of protecting him. Young got sacked 1.8 times per game, an already high but misleadingly deflated number given he played over a third of his career as a backup. In every season where he started at least 12 games, he ate at least 29 sacks, all the way up to a high of 48 sacks in 15 games in 1998. So, given that he was usually throwing under pressure and after getting knocked around a bit, his numbers aren’t merely mind-boggling—they probably should have been impossible.
Speaking of things that should be impossible, Young was almost as good of a rusher as he was a passer. In addition to his surprising speed (for a QB), Young had a decidedly running back-like ability to break tackles, and a pretty respectable stiff arm. The 7 rushing TDs he rang up in 1994 would have had him tied with guys like LaVeon Bell and Isaiah Crowell in 2016… though his ‘94 yards per attempt (5.1) would have beaten both of theirs, and landed him in a tie with Ezekiel Elliott for 5th in the league… and his career mark of 5.9 would have actually led the league.
As for degree of difficulty, well, we already touched on his offensive line pretty much serving him up on a platter—and running as much as he did also meant getting hit a lot more in non-sack situations than your average QB. He also spent his prime in an NFC that featured Aikman’s Cowboys and Favre’s Packers (to say nothing of Montana’s Chiefs). More than that, though, Young might be the all-time winner of the “Following the Tough Act to Follow” sweepstakes. Joe Montana was the most beloved Niner probably ever, fresh off four championships…and Young had to be the guy after the guy. It didn’t help that Montana’s exit had come under less-than-natural circumstances, with Young essentially the starter in Joe’s final season thanks to an injury. Young won the MVP that season, and the locker room was split over exactly who their quarterback was right up until Montana asked to be traded.
So, basically, Young’s job was to take a locker room divided over whether or not he deserved his job, win over a fanbase that had just seen him replace their favorite player—who also just happened to be the winningest QB in the game at that point—and spend every season duking it out in the same conference as the other two best QBs in the league. Young took one long look at that metaphorical Everest, then more-or-less sprinted up it, recording one of the strongest four year runs in quarterback history and bringing one last title to San Francisco.
There’s a lot more to the story, of course. His special relationships with Jerry Rice and Mike Holmgren, his BYU backstory, or his karaoke version of Montana’s most famous play (“The Catch II”), but in spite of his relatively short career, the fact is that Steve Young just made too many memories to really do the guy justice in a single blog.
There’s an old saying about the star that burns twice as bright, burns half as long… without completely beating the metaphor to death here, I think you’d be hard pressed to find somebody who didn’t think Steve Young was a star.
The dream of 90s Steve Young is alive on YouTube.