Young gets victory, not validation

January 16, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SAN FRANCISCO -- He awakened yesterday to the headline, "Young One Loss Away From Villainy." That's how it is for Steve Young, three straight passing titles and all. As the quarterback who followed Joe Montana, that's how it always will be.

One loss away from villainy, yet his San Francisco 49ers won, 44-3. That should mean something -- the New York Giants gave up the fewest points in the NFL this season -- but nothing will change. A likely rematch of last year's NFC title game against the Dallas Cowboys awaits. One loss away from villainy again.

For Young, 32, it's the Super Bowl, or else. No one cares whether he's the first quarterback to lead the NFL in passing three straight years. No one cares whether he's the first San Francisco quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. Montana has won four Super Bowls, Young none.

The San Francisco Bay area is obsessed with the rivalry, and 49ers fans will be glued to the Kansas City Chiefs-Houston Oilers game today, rooting for Montana. By now, Young is so accustomed to the scrutiny, he can almost joke about it. What about those comparisons, Steve? "Well," Young deadpanned. "John Brodie's a good guy."

He completed 17 of 22 passes for 226 yards yesterday, led San Francisco to a 23-0 first-half lead, pinned the Giants with the worst loss of their 69-year postseason history. Will San Francisco even notice? Next comes the NFC title game, probably in Dallas. A chance for revenge. A chance for . . .

"That validation thing," Young said, shrugging, smiling, sighing. "I've been jumping through hoops for years," he added. "They XTC keep putting 'em up there, and I keep jumping through 'em. It's tough, trying to keep track of what you're trying to validate."

He knows. You bet he knows. Young is one semester away from completing a law degree at his alma mater, Brigham Young, the school named for his great-great-great grandfather, an early Mormon leader. He peppers his post-game interviews with words such as "symbiosis" and "ebullience." You bet he knows.

It wasn't all his show yesterday. Running back Ricky Watters set an NFL playoff record with five touchdowns -- Chris Webber wishes he could score 30 points so easily. The often-criticized 49ers defense accounted for four sacks and three interceptions, and held Giants running back Rodney Hampton to 12 yards.

But it all started with Young. He completed his first six passes, and 12 of 16 in the first half for 183 yards. The 49ers scored on four of their five first-half possessions. Young marched them 80 yards in eight plays on the opening series, 92 yards in eight plays to make it 23-0.

"He made some great throws, sometimes hitting the second, third or fourth receiver," Giants coach Dan Reeves said. Which stood out most? The 31-yarder to John Taylor on the first series? The 43-yarder to Taylor later? "I don't know," Reeves said, shaking his head. "There were so many."

Good thing for Young. The 49ers had lost three of their final four games, the final two at home against Houston and the Philadelphia Eagles. Their offensive players spent the week ripping the defensive line, and the linemen sniped back. If ever a team appeared headed for defeat, this was it.

One loss away from villainy. Even on a perfect Bay area afternoon, before a home crowd of 67,143, Young needed the early liftoff. "It helps to score touchdowns before anyone gets too fired up," he said. "Sometimes here, when you get off to a slow start, it gets ugly."

Ugly, because of you-know-who, and all that was. The possibility of a Phil Simms-Jeff Hostetler Super Bowl ended yesterday, but the prospect of a Young-Montana shootout -- while still a long shot -- keeps getting closer.

Young said he'll be rooting for Montana today, "absolutely." Friends, teammates, opponents -- everyone marvels at his dignity as he labors under the biggest shadow in professional sports. "He handles it better than anybody," Simms said. "I know he handles it better than I could."

He took a wicked shot in the neck from Giants cornerback Mark Collins in the second series, but kept right on going. Like Montana in his glory years, he benefited from stunning protection and a resourceful game plan. After a while, Collins was thinking, "Geez, when is it going to stop?"

The same thoughts must run through Young's mind, but for different reasons, of course. At one point this season, he threw 183 passes without an interception, a team record. No one wants to hear it. Unless he wins a Super Bowl, no one will care.

One loss away from villainy.

"That's nothing new," Steve Young said. "That's no threat. I've been around too long."

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