The late Bill Walsh was the head coach of the 49ers at the time. He won three Super Bowls in his 10 years with the team, so there was no doubting his acumen. By the mid-1980s his All-World starter, Montana, was getting so beat up that Walsh didn’t think he would last more than a couple of seasons.
Hence, he engineered a trade for Young in 1987 with the apparent promise that he would start by the beginning of the 1988 season.
Walsh was right as far as Montana’s fragility was concerned. He suffered from major back and elbow problems. He always seemed to miss a game here and there, which provided Young with multiple opportunities to start. Montana later missed almost two full seasons due to injuries.
However, Walsh underestimated Montana’s competitiveness. He wasn’t about to give up. He kept coming back to reclaim his job as the starter, leaving Young sympathetic and frustrated at the same time. Montana was at the helm to win his third and fourth Super Bowls in 1988 and ‘89 and was treated like a deity by the fans. How was Young going to overcome that?
Despite leading the 49ers to the NFL championship games in 1991 and ‘92 while Montana was out injured and being named the league’s Most Valuable Player in ‘92, Young was still not accepted by the Montana-worshiping 49er fans. It grew worse when the team acquiesced to Montana’s request for a trade before the ‘93 season to the Kansas City Chiefs. Redemption and acceptance didn’t come to Young until he led the 49ers to their fifth Super Bowl win, over San Diego following the 1994 season.
The whole story behind the two Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks facing the pressure of competing against one another is graphically told by Adam Lazarus in his new book, “Best of Rivals: Joe Montana, Steve Young, and the Inside Story Behind the Greatest Quarterback Controversy.” It describes the backgrounds of both players as they grew up, excelled in college, and eventually ended up together on the best pro football team of the 1980s. The situation created a tremendous amount of pressure on both players as their talent and competitive spirit never let them truly become close.