Healthy approach keeps Young, 49ers in running S.F. in super shape as QB plays it safer

January 08, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

It was a typical Steve Young play, one of his signature scrambles.

Needing 4 yards for a first down in the third period against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday, Young took off, trying to get it with his legs.

The play, though, had an unusual ending for the San Francisco 49ers quarterback. At the Minnesota 41, a yard short of the first down, he slid to a stop rather than trying to put his head down and gain the first down.

"I didn't mean to slide so short. I slid too short. I set up that nice

play," he said with a smile, referring to his subsequent 16-yard pass to Brent Jones on fourth-and-one.

Young's willingness to be cautious is a sign that you can teach an old quarterback new tricks.

As the 49ers, who routed the Vikings, 38-22, last week, prepare for Sunday's NFC title game against the Green Bay Packers, the important thing for the 49ers is that Young is healthy.

Last year, he had cracked ribs going into the Green Bay playoff game and lasted just nine plays as the Packers ousted the 49ers for the second straight year.

In the season opener this year against Tampa Bay, he suffered his third concussion in 10 months.

There was talk that it was time for him to retire, and he sat out the second game. He finally decided he had to change his game.

"He hates running out of bounds," said rookie coach Steve Mariucci, who has made keeping Young healthy a major priority.

"The 'slide' is not him, either. I remember during an exhibition game, he went down before a sack and came to the sidelines and he was so mad. 'I hate doing that,' he said. 'It makes me look like a wimp.' "

Mariucci added: "But he knows now that it's OK for him to slide or go out of bounds. He's done it before. He's just doing it more frequently. He's played smart. Very smart."

Explaining the change in the way he plays, Young said: "I think more than anything, it's a philosophy. My philosophy changed a little bit."

In the past, he said if he had a chance to run for 8 yards or throw for 8, he'd sometimes run. Now he'll throw.

Young said: "[Mariucci] put that on me. He basically said, 'I'm giving you the responsibility of staying healthy,' and, in a funny way, I think it made me a better quarterback."

The result is he rushed for only 199 yards in the regular season, his lowest total since he became the 49ers' starter in 1991. He had averaged 369 yards the previous six seasons. By contrast, his quarterback rating of 104.7 this season was his third best and his interception ratio of one per 60 passes was his best.

His only problem since the opener came off the field. He dined on some bad fish last week and didn't eat much more than soup the rest of the week before the Vikings game because he couldn't keep food down.

He couldn't be healthier going into the Packers game, and one thing hasn't changed.

Young is still the key to the 49ers' success. If anything he's more important than ever because wide receiver Jerry Rice is out for the season with a knee injury and running back Garrison Hearst's status is up in the air.

If the 49ers are to derail the defending champions, Young has to out-duel Brett Favre of the Packers.

This is an intriguing matchup because both coaches have coached each quarterback. Mariucci is a former Packers assistant while Packers coach Mike Holmgren is a former 49ers assistant.

Holmgren said: "There's an element in Brett that refuses to grow up and it makes people love him. Steve is one of the few people you can't say anything bad about. He's what every father dreams his son would be."

They both like to throw on the field, but they couldn't be more different off the field. Young is a Mormon, a direct descendant of Brigham Young who doesn't smoke or drink and has a law degree. Favre's a country kid from Kiln, Miss., who says he is trying to cut down on his beer drinking after winning a battle with painkillers last year.

Young said he has a "level of respect" for Favre.

"I just think he's a very competitive guy. I think it separates quarterbacks. I'll say this: It's very difficult to stay competitive in this game, down after down. There's a lot of guys that don't do it. My greatest compliment to Brett is he never backs down. It's probably the ultimate compliment for a football player, that he's the ultimate competitor."

The same could be said for Young. Forget the law degree. He's a warrior on the field.

After John Randle of the Vikings got a 15-yard penalty for popping Young last week, the quarterback said, "I'd like to take a running shot at him one time. That'd be fun. I don't know if I'd hurt him, but I'd give it a shot."

At age 36, he knows he doesn't have as many days left as Favre, who's only 28.

But he's not even thinking about hanging it up.

"The word 'retire' is like yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater," he said. "I'll say it one time in my life seriously and that'll be the day I do it."

He's two games away from the 49ers' sixth Super Bowl victory, but says it's too early to judge where the 49ers are now in the journey.

"Everyone wants to know ahead of time what got you there. It's a journey. When the journey's over, you look back and say that was a big thing, that was a moment. I don't know exactly where we stand compared to other [49ers] teams. I like where we are. I don't know if it's better or worse [than the championship seasons]. I don't think it's worse," he said.

If the 49ers complete the journey, they'll probably look back and say the big moment came when Young decided to put more emphasis on staying healthy.

NFL playoffs

Sunday's games

AFC championship

Denver (-1) at


12: 30 p.m., chs. 11, 4

NFC championship

Green Bay (-1) at

San Francisco,

4 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Super Bowl

At San Diego, Jan. 25,

` 6 p.m., chs, 11, 4

Pub Date: 1/08/98

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