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Flashback Friday: The Montana/Young controversy

We’ve talked about this before, let’s go a bit deeper

San Francisco 49ers Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

When the Jimmy Garoppolo trade happened we were quick to point to it mirroring the Joe Montana/Steve Young controversy with one difference: Instead of keeping the up and comer, the New England Patriots traded the future.

So what exactly was it like in San Francisco?

Steve Young was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the USFL/CFL supplemental draft, and had an underwhelming experience, going 3-12 as a starter. As a favor, Young was given a bit of a choice on a trade destination for a fresh start while the Bucs prepared to draft Vinny Testaverde in the 1987 draft. After much deliberation, Young selected San Francisco. Notably because his offensive coordinator from BYU, Mike Holmgren, was now at San Francisco. The other thing that influenced Young’s decision was consultation from head coach Bill Walsh telling him starting quarterback Joe Montana had suffered two back surgeries and would not come back to form. Young, who had a history of absolutely hating the bench saw his opportunity to continue playing.

Of course when Young arrived for training camp he saw Joe Montana throwing the ball around and knew that the starting job wouldn’t be so easy. This video describes the moment from Young’s point of view.

In the 1988 NFC Divisional Round, the 49ers would get dominated by the Minnesota Vikings. Walsh finally sat Joe Montana into the 3rd quarter and called in Young. It wasn’t enough as the Vikings would win and Walsh would nearly get fired after the game by an enraged Eddie DeBartolo. From there, Walsh would pit Young and Montana against each other in the 1988 season.

Following the loss to the Vikings, Walsh tried to thread the needle in a coaches meeting about trading Joe Montana, but the coaches looked at him like he was crazy. Trade talks came up with the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos. Nothing happened. So instead, he put the two quarterbacks up against each other.

This was best known by Bill Walsh’s interview during the 1988 preseason:

Well, our strength is at quarterback but our problem is we have two. There’s a quarterback controversy developing. We’ll have to select between Steve Young and Joe Montana.

Walsh then alternated between quarterbacks. For 10 games in 1988, the 49ers ran a two quarterback system that did nothing more than get a mutual frustration between the two players against their head coach. Finally at 6-5, Walsh settled on Montana and Young went back to the bench.

Despite them trying to take each other’s jobs, Young and Montana actually were friends — according to Young. In his autobiography, Young has nothing but good things to say about Montana (even talking about how Montana invited Young to dinner once). The problem was they were two completely different people, which was why they weren’t ever seen in the same place outside of the football field.

In 1991 Montana hurt his elbow which put him out of football for almost two seasons. Young played the 1991 season, though injured for a few games, and replaced due to strong play by Steve Bono for a few others until Week 15 when Young finally was let back in. 10-6 was considered not strong enough a record for the 49ers and everyone predicted a Young trade in the offseason, assuming Joe Montana would return.

Montana’s elbow injury kept him out of most of the 1992 season, and by the end of the season, Young won NFL MVP and despite Montana returning, Young stayed under center despite a nice appearance during a Monday Night Football contest against the Detroit Lions:

Following the season, locker room rifts developed between who wanted Young and Montana to start. There were also contract disputes on Young getting told by 49ers Vice President Carmen Policy to be patient. Despite recently signing a lucrative contract, there were predictions going out on Young eventually being traded.

The 49ers began trade talks for Joe Montana. They settled on the Kansas City Chiefs. All was set to go until Young got a phone call from his agent saying that the 49ers were having second thoughts. Young demanded one of them to be traded saying he, “had enough of this” and hung up the phone.

Eddie DeBartolo headed to Montana’s home to convince him to stay on the 49ers while 49ers head coach George Seifert called Montana the “Designated Starter”. Young cut off all communication with the outside world while he studied for final exams pertaining to his law degree.

It wasn’t until he went to his car that Young heard the news: Joe Montana had officially been traded. There was a press conference immediately with 49ers brass and Montana talking about the trade, but Young now was the unquestioned starter.

The trade came allegedly at Montana’s request, as he didn’t want locker room rifts and politics to spill out onto the field.

Montana had two more years in Kansas City before he called it a career. One year, he took them to the AFC Championship game. Young went on to play nearly a decade more—and rack up a Super Bowl win while he was at it.

At the time of the trade, fans were in an outcry. When the 49ers played the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994, San Francisco sports bars were cheering when the Chiefs scored on the 49ers. The face of the franchise was gone.

Young however, kept the legacy going. Looking back, trading Montana was the right move as it extended the legacy. Who was better? That’s up for debate. Young had more youth, while Montana’s age was beginning to show. The 49ers invested in the younger talent.

Once again, they were the beneficiaries of a quarterback controversy. Except this one had the younger one traded.