I've often felt I grew up at the best time to be a 49ers fan. I was 8 years old when they won their first Super Bowl and I was in college when they won their last. From 1981 until 1998 they would win at least 10 games every season except one and they would make the playoffs every season except two, 1982 and 1991. For 18 years I felt like they always had a chance to win it all and I was disappointed when they failed to do so.
The reason for their unprecedented run of success is almost always attributed to the fact they had one of the best quarterbacks to ever to play the game with Joe Montana, and then they replaced him with another Hall of Fame quarterback, Steve Young. But what many people forget, or others are just too young to remember, is that it wasn't a seamless transition. In fact, there were a lot of 49er fans who wanted Young to be traded.
Young first came to the 49ers in 1987 after playing two seasons with the Los Angeles Express of the USFL and a season and a half with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While with the Bucs Young had gone only 3-16 as a starter, completed just 53.3% of his passes, averaged only 169 passing yards per game, and had thrown almost twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. This was clearly not what people were expecting from someone who finished second place for the Heisman Trophy his Senior year at BYU.
In 1987 the 49ers traded for Young. Even though they already had perhaps the greatest QB in the game with Montana, the move to the 49ers gave Young a chance to learn and adapt his scrambling style of play to the NFL. In the four years he backed-up Montana, Young played in 35 games, starting 10 of them, and was 7-3 as a starter. But there were still concerns that he had a tendency to run as soon as he felt any pressure and would never develop into a prototypical NFL QB.
Finally in 1991 he got his chance to lead the 49ers. Montana was lost for the year with an elbow injury and Young was named the starter. After finishing 14-2 the previous two seasons the 49ers had high expectations coming into the year, but with Young as their QB they struggled to win. They began the year with a 4-5 record and Young was eventually replaced by Steve Bono when he hurt his knee in week 9.
That's when their season started to turn around. Bono got the 49ers back to their winning ways and went 5-1 as a starter. Even when Young was finally healthy enough to play again the 49ers stayed with Bono. It wasn't until Bono went down with an injury of his own late in their 15th game of the season that Young came back. He led them to a win in their final game but at 10-6 the 49ers missed the playoffs for the first time since 1982.
That's when the controversy really began. There were many in the 49ers organization that wanted to trade Young. They even came close to trading him to the Los Angeles Raiders, but when it was discovered Montana wouldn't be back in time for their season opener they decided not to go through with the deal.
Five plays into their season opener against the Lions Young suffered the first of many concussions and Steve Bono came in to lead the 49ers to a 31-14 victory. Young came back the following week against the Bills but in a game that featured zero punts, the 49ers lost 34-31.
By this point there was already a hard core contingent of fans that wanted the 49ers to get rid of Young. After Bono won in week 1 and Young lost in week 2, and considering what happened the previous season, their cries became deafening. Bench Young in favor of Bono! It may seem strange that people were wanting to bench a future Hall of Famer for a career journeyman, but most fans didn't know that at the time.
Despite the Bono supporter's wishes 49ers head coach George Seifert stayed with Young and by the end of the season they finished with a 14-2 record. Young threw for 3,456 yards and 25 touchdowns, while also rushing for 537 yards, and was named the NFL's MVP. In the divisional round of the playoffs the 49ers beat the Redskins 20-13 but their season ended when they lost at home in the NFC Championship game 30-20 to the Cowboys.
The loss to the Cowboys only added fuel to the fire for the Young haters. Montana had finally come back from his injury in the last game of the season and even played in the second half of their final win but Young, not Montana, was named the team's starter during the playoffs, and the fact they lost to the Cowboys only proved what they believed. Montana would have won that game and the 49ers would never win it all as long as they had Young as their starting QB.
By this point not only were the fans divided as to who should be the starting QB, but so were they players. Many wanted the 49ers to go back to Montana, including owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., while others backed Young. In the end the 49ers traded Montana to the Chiefs and the 49ers stuck with the more youthful Young.
During the 1993 season Young once again put up huge numbers. His 4,023 passing yards set a franchise record and he led the NFL with 29 touchdowns and a 101.5 passer rating, but their 10-6 regular season record was well below expectations and for the second year in a row they lost in the NFC Championship game to the Cowboys.
The fact Montana led the Chiefs to an 11-5 record and an appearance in the AFC Championship game, which they lost to the Bills, only added fuel to the Young hater's fire. Even though Montana and Young both lost in the same round of the playoffs it was the Chiefs most successful season in over 22 years and that gave the Young haters all the ammunition they needed. Montana would have led the 49ers to a victory over the Cowboys while Young would never win the big game.
Before the start of the 1994 season the 49ers were aggressive in the free agent market brining in a lot of new talent including Dion Sanders and Ken Norton Jr. It was also the year they drafted DT Bryant Young and FB William "Bar None" Floyd. They finished that year with a 13-3 record earning them the #1 seed in the NFC, and after crushing the Bears 44-15 in the divisional round, they finally beat their nemesis the Cowboys 38-28 to reach the Super Bowl.
After finally getting past the Cowboys the Super Bowl seemed like a foregone conclusion. Young threw for 325 yards and a Super Bowl record 6 touchdowns, becoming only the 5th player to be named NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP in the same season, and the 49ers easily cruised past the Chargers 49-26. It was after the game that Young had this memorable moment when he asked for the monkey to be taken off his back. If you want to watch a great video about it just click here.
So did the win finally quiet the doubters? Did those who had been yelling at the 49ers to trade Young for years finally admit they were wrong about him? Perhaps some did. But mostly the sentiment among those hardliners was, "Montana would have won 3 Super Bowls in the time it took Young to win 1", and "Young only won because the 49ers broke the bank bringing in so many free agents".
So what's the point in this walk down memory lane? It's that I can't help but notice some similarities between Young's situation and Smith's. Now before anyone freaks out, I'm not saying Smith is as talented, or even close to being as talented, as Young. What I am saying is that Smith seems to have this hard core contingent of fans who hate him no matter what and love to point out every time he messes up, much like what happened to Young.
Smith is far from perfect. There are a lot of areas he needs to improve and it's possible he could regress and the 49ers would be better off getting rid of him. But he's made huge strides from last year and he's played well for most of the season. The 49ers are 11-3 and the huge improvement in Smith's play is a big reason why. He's had some bad games like he did a couple weeks ago against the Cardinals, but almost every QB in the NFL will have games where they're off. There are only so many quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees to go around.
Now let me be clear, there's nothing wrong with being critical of Smith's play. He's far from perfect. But it's one thing to say he needs to do a better job in the red zone or in stretching the field, and it's quite another to simply say he's a bum and the 49ers are winning in spite of him and he deserves none of the credit for their success.
If the 49ers win their last two games against the Seahawks and Rams they will finish with a 13-3 record and the #2 seed in the NFC. That's a 7 game improvement over last year's team that finished 6-10. No doubt having perhaps the best defense in the NFL is a huge reason for their success, not to mention they've been playing outstanding on special teams, but to act like Smith doesn't deserve any of the credit for their enormous turnaround is just plain ignorant.
Feel free to be critical of Smith's play all you want. Just be fair and give him some of the credit he deserves for their success as well.