STEVE YOUNG began his career with the USFL’s L.A. Express, then moved on to the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers. He eventually replaced the great Joe Montana for the 49ers, carving his legendary career. A two-time NFL most valuable player, Young directed the 49ers to victory in Super Bowl XXIX and made the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005. He is an ESPN analyst.
The quarterback position is unique. What other position do you really have to get everybody on board every time? You are the consolidator. You have to have everyone together. No one can hide.
With a pitcher, it’s just him throwing strikes. He needs some help behind him, but it’s more of a commodity behind him.
With a point guard, you can play without a point guard. You don’t have to have that.
The great quarterbacks get everyone together, when it’s third and 10 in the fourth quarter, down by four on the road in the drizzling rain in 33 degrees. You have to be a guy that people will respond to.
The elements in basketball and baseball don’t change. For the most part, the weather stays pretty much the same. That’s not the case in football.
The foundation of the game in football is to knock down the quarterback. You knock him down, you’re going to win.
Then there’s the intellectual challenge of the job. I’ve said this many times: I’ve gone to law school, and the intellectual challenge of honing all of the data in a way that you can have immediate, you can have reflexive recall — not taking a couple seconds to think about it.
There are a lot of really smart people who can pass any test if you give them a few seconds to think about it. But that’s five, 10, 30 times more time than you get in football. And you have to do it from the time you step on the field until you step off of it.
You see some quarterbacks that get overwhelmed by that. They don’t know who’s playing defense, let alone dictating the terms of the game themselves.
We saw a transformation with Alex Smith in San Francisco this year. They’re a quarterback-centric team now. That’s what Bill Walsh perfected: If we can get the quarterback in a position to be successful and focus all our energy toward that — not to coddle him, but to help him be successful — we’ll win. It’s just the nature of how he looked at the game back then.
Alex didn’t have that at all for a number of years. But this season, as soon as he met with Jim Harbaugh, he was in. Alex didn’t care what anyone said or talked about after that point. He recognized that Jim is the kind of guy that we all desire to be coached by, a guy that will focus on the quarterback. That’s the relationship, two of them working hand in hand as they take those baby steps toward getting things moving.
Look at Eli Manning. In my mind, Eli should be in there when people ask, “Who are the best quarterbacks?” Do you know how hard it is to read the whole field, come back to the third receiver, step up, re-find the guy down the middle and deliver it? That’s the highest level, and he’s doing it now, regularly.
Every quarterback who improves takes those little steps in his career. For me with the 49ers, it was a different thing. [In replacing Montana], it was like, you’ve got to do it all now. You’re in or you’re out. I don’t ever remember getting the opportunity to step it up.
It was going from standing still to the Indianapolis 500.