Book Review: Best of Rivals
The classic quote about quarterback controversies, one you customarily hear attributed to John Madden, is “If you have two quarterbacks, you actually don’t have one” (or something along those lines). That is indeed most often the case, but it hasn’t always been so. Best of Rivals: Joe Montana, Steve Young, and the Inside Story Behind the NFL’s Greatest Quarterback Controversy by Adam Lazarus is about the best example since the merger of a team that had a quarterback controversy and actually had two really good quarterbacks. As the subtitle indicates, Lazarus’s title is about Steve Young and Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Knowing how things would play out, it’s hard to put yourself into the mindset of Bill Walsh following the 1986 season. Joe Montana then was not the Hall of Famer who won four Super Bowls, but a quarterback in his thirties who’d had shoulder surgery the previous offseason and then undergone major back surgery. The 49ers were not yet the team of the 1980’s but instead a team coming off back-to-back seasons where they’d won “only” 10 games and lost their two playoff games by a combined score of 66-6. Given the near-total lack of free agency and especially considering the potentially career-ending back surgery, acquiring another quarterback became, in Walsh’s mind, not just a luxury but a high priority. And thus, the 49ers acquired Steve Young from the Buccaneers.
Then, a funny thing happened. Montana recovered from his back surgery and came back and played at a high level. The 49ers, marginal playoff teams the past two years, suddenly got really good. They finished with the top seed in the NFC three of the next four seasons. As far as the quarterback went, Joe Montana started every meaningful game in which he was healthy and not on strike. Young played the other ones. Once Montana actually did rehab and come back from the back injury he suffered at the end of the 1986 season, the 49ers had not so much a controversy as a prominent and eventually very good backup quarterback behind a bit of an injury-prone starter.
The story is a little bit more complicated than that, unsurprisingly, but there is only one tantalizing hint that Young could ever have been the starter in front of a healthy Montana. With Joe injured, he started consecutive games in the middle of the 1988 season. The latter was a 24-23 loss to the Cardinals in which the 49ers blew a 23-0 third quarter lead in agonizing fashion, with Young being marked just short on a scramble out of bounds late in the game with San Francisco clinging to a 23-17 lead. Walsh would later tell a journalist that if the 49ers had won that game Young would have remained the starter.
From reading about the kind of tinkerer Walsh was, though, it’s hard for me to take that statement too much at face value. The story I’ve related here is a bit deceptively simple; Montana started when healthy, but those starts sometimes had a great deal of sturm und drang associated with them, with The Genius playing Young at times he felt the team needed a spark. Even if Young had won the job, it’s hard to see him starting every game-when he eventually became the starter following Montana’s major elbow injury that cost him all of 1991 and almost all of 1992, he would sometimes face his own health issues. Further, a younger Steve Young was not the same caliber of passer as the older Steve Young-it’s easy for me to see Montana being inserted to provide a spark, as indeed happened in one of Young’s starts that 1988 season, and then holding on that starting job. That might have made things more interesting than was indeed the case.
In the end, the 49ers had a quarterback controversy but not so much a quarterback competition. Joe Montana started when healthy. When he had a major injury that cost him more than a season of playing time, Steve Young started. When Montana recovered from that injury, the 49ers chose to trade the man who would be 37 when the next NFL season began and kept the 31-year-old who led the NFL in passer rating.
Lazarus tells the story reasonably well, interviewing most of the major figures and relying heavily on contemporaneous quotes from the major parties involved. I approve of that use of newspaper archives, much more than I like the (more common) use of a beat writer’s gamer for what really happened in a game. The book is about the controversy much more than the 49ers as a whole; a thing like Walsh’s mastermind 1986 draft that supplemented the core for the 1987-90 run is not mentioned. While he talks to players, including Roger Craig, Brent Jones, and Jerry Rice, I didn’t get much feel for how the rest of the team reacted to Walsh’s quarterback shenanigans, or if they viewed them other than Walsh’s shenanigans at other positions. No mention is made of, for instance, Montana’s alleged cocaine usage, or other non-injury reasons Walsh may have wanted to move on from Montana.
I’m not sure where I come out on the book as a whole. It’s a well-done narrative of what despite some drama was somewhat of a non-event on the field, better done than most football books. At the end of the day, though, I’m not sure it avoids the smallness problem of too many football books; I’m not sure what lessons, if any, I take away from my reading experience.
Best of Rivals includes an index and extensive notes that source for all the quotes beyond the all-too-common listing of just e.g., the San Francisco Chronicle during the time period. I noticed a couple typos, none too serious. For more on the book, see Lazarus’s website. See also this interview with Pro Football Weekly.