Thumbs down on exhibitions Need proof? Ask 49ers' Young

August 09, 1993|By Mark Purdy | Mark Purdy,San Jose Mercury News

STANFORD, Calif. -- If you want to sum up yesterday's thrill-an-hour game in bumper sticker terms, try this: Preseason happens.

To which my own personal bumper sticker would add: But how come?

There is no scientific evidence that proves National Football League players need seven full weeks of workouts and five exhibition games to prepare for a regular season. High school teams do quite well with three or four weeks and exactly zero exhibition games. So do college teams.

Not the NFL, which sends out its highly paid players to collide with each other five times in meaning-deficient games that are a pain in the distal phalanx.

Of course, on the plus side, these exhibition games do teach us what a distal phalanx is. It's the bone at the tip of the thumb. It's the bone that 49ers quarterback Steve Young cracked yesterday against a Los Angeles Raider's helmet while following through on a pass.

The distal phalanx is a tiny bone. But this one is on Young's throwing hand, which causes a big problem.

"It's like a ballerina with a toe [injury]," said Young.

Young promised he would be back for the regular season, but it appears that the NFL's defending Most Valuable Thumb will be out of action for at least a month.

For those demented souls who are still keeping score of the ZTC Steve Young-Joe Montana rivalry, that means Steve has officially been knocked out of a game before Joe this summer -- although Joe has had a slight advantage because the Kansas City Chiefs haven't even let him play yet.

After yesterday's injury to Young, the Chiefs appear to have made a smart decision. Backup 49ers quarterback Steve Bono survived yesterday's game in good shape but took at least one hard shot after a pass. And third-stringer Bill Musgrave injured his ribs in the second half, which forced him to sit down. By the time Young returns, he might be the only quarterback on the roster.

In this really necessary? Let's ask the always-candid Jerry Rice, who made a Super-Bowl caliber catch for the 49ers' second touchdown but couldn't get too thrilled about it.

"I don't like the exhibition season," said Rice. "I really don't. It's something that just ... well, we have to get it done. That's all you can say. If it was left up to me, this would be the time for younger players to show what they can do."

And what about the veteran starters? Rice thinks they could play just one or two practice games to get down their timing, then kick off the real deal. Young basically endorsed the same concept.

"Five [exhibition] games is a lot of games ... a lot of games," Young said.

"We could probably get by with two games," agreed Brent

Jones, the 49ers tight end.

So why are there five games? Here's a hint: It has something to do with cash flow. If you're an NFL owner, you can't beat the exhibition economics. Players are only paid about $650 per preseason game, far below their regular-season wages. Meanwhile, the owners charge $35 per ticket, same as the regular season.

On the other hand, you can't ignore the demand side of the equation. Nearly 80,000 civilians showed up yesterday at Stanford Stadium to watch the game. This either shows you the depth of fan dedication here in Northern California, or it reflects the basic failure of our education system.

The 49ers, at least, gave their followers something to applaud. As for the Raiders ... well, they never claimed to be professional sports' winningest exhibition team, did they? Owner Al Davis has an interesting philosophy of trying to rebuild by getting older. If you add up the ages of just three prominent Raiders veterans -- James Lofton (37), Max Montoya (37) and Vince Evans (38) -- they are a combined 10 years older than Stanford University, which was founded in 1891.

The Raiders' offense looked just as creaky, but as we all know, it's only August. That's also why Young was not too glum yesterday after his bad break. He pointed out that this was the first broken bone of his entire athletic career. Even as a high school kid, he never fractured anything.

"And does this really count?" Young asked in the locker room. "It's not even a break. It's a crack. Look, the swelling isn't even that bad."

With that, Young held out his thumbs side by side for reporters to examine. The Mercury News can exclusively report that the two thumbs looked like ... uh, like two thumbs. Young estimated the crack was about half an inch long, maybe more. Maybe less. Stay tuned for your daily distal phalanx update.

"It could have been a lot worse," said Jones, and he was totally correct.

Lest we forget, the last time a 49ers game was played at Stanford -- after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when Candlestick Park was briefly out of service -- things were a lot worse. Safety Jeff Fuller broke his neck making a headfirst tackle. He was hauled away in an ambulance with a broken neck, never played again, and still does not have complete use of one arm.

Placed in perspective, then, Steve Young's thumb is not a tragedy. It's just an annoyance. It's the preseason. And the best thing about it is, there are only three weeks left.

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