Nearly 25 years ago, 49er QB controversy flared

On Jan. 9, 1988, at Candlestick Park, in a first-round playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings, 49ers head coach Bill Walsh pulled starting quarterback Joe Montana in the third quarter and called on his backup, Steve Young.

Montana had had a brilliant 1987 regular season, winning 10 of the 11 games he started, completing nearly 67 percent of his passes, including 31 touchdown passes. Only 13 of the 398 passes he had thrown had been intercepted. And he finished the regular season with a stellar 102.1 passer rating. Oh, yes, he had also demonstrated his full recovery from back surgery.

One more thing: He, along with Walsh, had won two Super Bowls. Joe Montana was already an iconic figure in 49ers history.

But on that cool and overcast January afternoon in 1988, Montana was struggling mightily. He had completed only 12 of 26 passes, and the Vikings had closed out the first half with a 20-3 lead, thanks to Najee Mustafaa intercepting a Montana pass and returning it 45 yards for a touchdown.

Young didn't pull out a victory, but he made his presence known. He completed 12 of 17 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown. He also utilized his nimble and gutsy running ability, carrying the ball six times for 72 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown run and a breathtaking 42-yard broken-field scamper.

The final score was at least respectable: Vikings 36, 49ers 24.

What's the point of this little journey down Memory Lane?

Well, after Young's performance in that playoff loss, 49ers fans and the Bay Area media stoked two of the least-appealing words an NFL head coach can hear: Quarterback controversy.

Unlike previous Montana backups — Guy Benjamin, Matt Cavanaugh and Jeff Kemp — Steve Young was an heir apparent. He wasn't there simply to carry Joe's water. He was a blue-chip quarterback out of BYU who had played (and had become instantly wealthy) in the short-lived United States Football League, then had been the first overall pick by Tampa Bay in the 1984 NFL supplemental draft. He was also five years younger than Montana.

Walsh, a brilliant tactician not particularly known for sentimentality, had traded for Young before the 1987 season, and the implication was clear: Sooner or later, Young would supplant Montana; if it was sooner rather than later, so be it.

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