Could Steve Young Actually Be Better Than Joe Montana?

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Could Steve Young Actually Be Better Than Joe Montana?

Just about every single football fan has seen a list ranking the ten greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. 

Joe Montana usually occupies the top spot on the list, and if he's not ranked numero uno, he'll be second. 

Steve Young will usually show up near the bottom of the list, if he makes it at all.

I've seen him ranked as high as fourth, and that was by me in an article about the ten greatest quarterbacks in history a year and a half ago. I've also seen lists which don't even include him among the top ten and some lists which mention him in the high teens, which is actually comical.

However, Joe Montana is so popular, so legendary, so revered, that he has almost been universally accepted as the greatest quarterback ever. 

And if Montana is not No. 1, it's probably Johnny Unitas. Definitely not Steve Young.

How could Montana's successor be better than him? Did he win four Super Bowl titles? No, he did not. He won one. While this definitely gives Montana a sizable advantage over Young, many historians fail to even take the time to closely examine Young's career against Montana.

They should. A closer look might reveal the unthinkable. 

Montana's successor, Young, might be even greater. In fact, Young might be the greatest quarterback in NFL history. 

So to compare Montana and Young, I have chosen four different topics to focus on:

  1. Longevity
  2. Supporting cast on both offense and defense
  3. Statistics 
  4. Postseason performance

Since Montana is considered to be the king, we'll look at his numbers first, and if we have time, we'll examine Young second. 

 

1. Longevity

Montana played just one game as a rookie in 1979, and was handed the starting job in the middle of the 1980 season. From 1981 to 1985, Montana missed just one start. 

But in 1986, Montana suffered a back injury so severe that doctors suggested he retire. He continued playing, however, missing eight starts, but earning NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors for his late-season efforts.

From 1987 to 1990, Montana missed eight games, but in the 1990 conference championship game, Montana suffered a hit from Giants' defensive end Leonard Marshall.

The impact from the hit, as well as multiple elbow injuries, caused Montana to miss every start in 1991 and 1992, during which he lost his starting job to Steve Young. Before the 1993 season, Montana was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he played well, but missed seven starts due to injuries over the next two seasons. 

In his career, Montana made 164 starts, winning 117 of them. His reputation as an injury-prone quarterback is well deserved.

He started all 16 games in a season just twice and missed a total of 57 potential starts due to injury. Had he stayed healthy throughout his entire career, he would have made 221 starts and would most likely rank in the top five in most statistical categories.

Steve Young's career is one of the more unusual in the NFL history. 

He started out with the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League but joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL after the USFL went bankrupt. Young played two seasons for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, winning just 3 of 19 starts. However, the Bucs were clearly the worst team in the NFL, and Young achieved little success completing passes to receivers Gerald Carter and Phil Freeman.

49ers' head coach and offensive mastermind Bill Walsh liked what he saw in Young and traded two draft picks to acquire Young before the 1987 season.

Over the next four seasons, Young played whenever Montana was injured, making a total of just 10 starts. He was easily the best backup quarterback in the NFL, throwing for a combined total of 23 touchdowns and six interceptions, including ten touchdowns and zero interceptions in 1987.

Young finally became a full-time starter before the 1991 season, at the age of 30, but suffered a minor knee injury in midseason and missed five starts. 

Over the next seven seasons, Young missed 11 games: none from 1992 to 1994, five in 1995, four in 1996, one in 1997, and one in 1998. Young missed a total of 17 games in eight seasons. He played in 111 of a possible 128 games as the 49ers' starting quarterback. 

Although Young earned a reputation for being somewhat injury-prone (rightfully so, due to the seven concussions he suffered throughout his career), he still played in 87 percent of games—much higher than Montana (74 percent). However, Montana made 21 more starts than Young during his career.

 

2. Supporting Cast

When Montana joined the 49ers in 1979, they were a pitiful 2-14 team. Two years later, they were Super Bowl champions. Obviously, this couldn't have been all because of Montana.

So how did they do it?

The most important contributor to Montana's success was head coach Bill Walsh, an offensive mastermind who helped to perfect the West Coast offense. 

Walsh drafted Montana in the third round of the 1979 draft and immediately realized the potential in the former Notre Dame quarterback, implementing him as a full-time starter before the start of the 1981 season. Walsh is considered to be one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, and his legendary coaching tree includes a total of 31 coaches who have appeared in 15 Super Bowls, winning nine. 

In 1979, the 49ers selected receiver Dwight Clark in the tenth round of the draft.

Clark emerged the next year as a solid receiver and would go on to a successful nine-year career. He earned two Pro Bowl selections and was named an All-Pro after leading the league in receptions in the strike-shortened season of 1982. 

In 1981, the 49ers drafted USC safety Ronnie Lott with the eighth overall pick in the draft.

Lott immediately became a superstar and his impact on the defense was priceless. Lott played with the 49ers for a total of 10 seasons, earning an incredible nine Pro Bowl selections and five All-Pro honors. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history, notorious both for his coverage abilities and his knack for delivering powerful hits. 

In 1985, the 49ers drafted receiver Jerry Rice, who, at training camp, boldly stated his desire to become the all-time leading receiver.

Rice became an immediate threat, earning a Pro Bowl berth and an All-Pro selection in all five of his seasons with Montana. Rice was even more incredible in the postseason, catching 18 passes for 363 yards and four touchdowns in two Super Bowl victories with Montana. 

Other notable offensive threats for Montana's 49ers included receiver John Taylor, a two-time Pro Bowler and the recipient of the most famous catch in 49ers' Super Bowl history, and versatile running back Roger Craig, a four-time Pro Bowler and the first running back to top 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. 

During Montana's reign, the 49ers boasted a fantastic defense. 

They ranked 23rd in points allowed in the strike-shortened season of 1982 but ranked in the top four in every other season except for 1988, when they finished eighth. In their four Super Bowl championship seasons they ranked second, first, eighth, and third. Excluding 1982, the 49ers' average defense ranked third in the 28-team league.

In fact, it could be argued that the 49ers' defense was even better than their offense, which ranked an average of fourth in the league during those eight seasons.

When Young took over as the starting quarterback in 1991, the 49ers were probably the best team in the NFL. They had won the Super Bowl in 1988 and 1989, and in a quest for the first-ever Super Bowl three-peat, lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the 1990 conference championship game.

Young's head coach was George Seifert, who had been the 49ers' defensive coordinator during the 1980s. 

Rice was just 29 in 1991, and turned in seven Pro Bowl and five All-Pro selections in the next eight seasons. The only year he missed the Pro Bowl was 1997, when he played in just two games due to injuries.

Rice was just as dominant with Young as with Montana—maybe even a little bit better. He caught three touchdown passes in Super Bowl XXIX and broke the all-time records for receptions, yards, and touchdowns during Young's tenure. 

In 1997, many anxiously watched to see how Young would perform without Rice, arguably the greatest wide receiver of the last fifty years. Young didn't disappoint, turning in his usual brilliant season, leading the NFL in completion percentage (67.7), yards per attempt (8.5), and passer rating (104.7).

Like Montana, Young was also aided by a great running back.

Ricky Watters was drafted by San Francisco in 1992 and earned Pro Bowl selections in each of his three seasons with the team. He tied a Super Bowl record by scoring three touchdowns in Super Bowl XXIX. 

Other key offensive players for Young's 49ers included Terrell Owens, who blossomed into one of the league's top young receivers in 1997 and 1998, running back Garrison Hearst, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1997 and led the league with 1,570 yards in 1998, and tight end Brent Jones, who earned Pro Bowl selections from 1992 to 1995. 

Like Montana, Young prospered from a top defense, which ranked in the top six in the NFL in six of eight seasons. Their average ranking was sixth, and only once did they rank in the bottom half of the league (16th in 1993).

 

3. Statistics

Montana is usually considered to be one of the best statistical quarterbacks in NFL history.

His 92.3 passer rating is seventh in history (among qualifiers) and he ranked number one upon his retirement. He is one of the least-intercepted quarterbacks in NFL history (2.1 percent), and posted a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of almost 2-1. He ranks among the top ten quarterbacks in career completions, completion percentage, passing yards, and touchdown passes. 

Montana became the first player to win consecutive MVP awards, as he was voted the NFL's Most Valuable Player following the 1989 and 1990 seasons. Montana's five combined regular season (2) and Super Bowl MVPs (3) is a record that has since been tied by Peyton Manning.

Montana ranked among the top five quarterbacks in the league in passer rating on nine different occasions, but posted three seasons which stand out among all of the rest: 1984, 1987, and 1989.

In 1984, he led the 49ers to 14 wins in 15 starts, throwing for 28 touchdowns and posting a 102.9 passer rating, the tenth highest single-season total in NFL history. In 1987, he topped the NFL in completion percentage (66.8), touchdowns (31), and passer rating (102.9), while leading the 49ers to wins in 10 of his 11 starts. 

In 1989, he turned in arguably the greatest season by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era. In 13 starts, he threw for 26 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. He broke the single-season record for passer rating (112.4) and adjusted yards per pass attempt (9.54), and completed 70.2 percent of his passes, a record in a non-strike season. Montana concluded his record-breaking campaign by winning his fourth Super Bowl title and his third Super Bowl MVP award. 

Montana is also widely regarded as the greatest clutch quarterback in NFL history. In 2006, Sports Illustrated picked him over the legendary Unitas as the most clutch quarterback ever.

According to Pro Football Reference, he has led 31 fourth-quarter comebacks and 33 game-winning drives (a total of 34 games), which includes five games in the postseason. 

His three most memorable comebacks include the famous drive against Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXII, the drive which led to Dwight Clark's catch in the 1981 conference championship game, and a 28-point second half comeback against the New Orleans Saints in 1980, which is still the largest regular season comeback in NFL history. 

Montana led a game-winning fourth quarter drive in 17.6 percent of his games, which includes a 21.7 rate in the postseason. This is a higher percentage than all but four Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

He was a decent scrambler, rushing for 1,676 yards in his career (3.7 YPC). He scored 20 touchdowns on the ground and fumbled just 53 times, an impressive total for a 16-year career. 

As good as Montana's statistics were, however, Young's were even better. 

Young is the greatest statistical quarterback in NFL history. 

He's better than Dan Marino, Manning, and yes, Montana. He cracks the top twenty quarterbacks in just a single career statistic (passing touchdowns), but he is hands down the greatest percentage quarterback in the history of the National Football League. 

Besides earning two regular season Most Valuable Player awards, Young holds the NFL career record for passer rating (96.8), including an incredible six passing titles, the most in NFL history.

He has the second best touchdown-to-interception ratio in NFL history (2.17). He ranks fifth in completion percentage (64.3 percent) and thirteenth in interception rate (2.6 percent). And he ranks among the best six in history in all forms of yards per pass attempt, including a spot at the top of the list in adjusted yards per pass attempt (7.94). 

According to an exclusive study conducted by Cold Hard Football Facts, yards per attempt (YPA) is the single biggest indicator of success in all of football, as the team winning the battle in yards per attempt wins approximately 75 percent of its games.

From 1991 to 1998, Young turned in the greatest eight-year stretch by a quarterback in NFL history.

He topped the league in passer rating six times. From 1991 to 1998, Young's average passer rating was 100.9. In fact, from 1991 to 1998, every other quarterback in the NFL combined to top a 100 passer rating just four times—three of them were in 1998. 

He led the league in adjusted yards per pass attempt six times and yards per attempt five times. He led the NFL in completion percentage five times, touchdown passes four times, and interception percentage twice. He led the league in various statistical categories a total of 42 times, which is more than twice as much as Montana did in his whole career (17). 

According to a study conducted by New QB Rating, Young's average season was more than 1.5 standard deviations better than an average quarterback, the best figure by a quarterback in history. 

Young's 1994 season was, quite simply, one for the record books. 

He led the 49ers to 13 wins and 505 points of offense. He broke Montana's single-season records for passer rating (112.8) and completion percentage (70.3 percent). He tossed 35 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions, and led the league in every form of yards per attempt. Young earned his second MVP award in three seasons, and capped off his MVP season with six touchdown passes in the Super Bowl. 

Young wasn't just the greatest passer in the game's history. He was also arguably the greatest running quarterback ever. 

In 1988, he ran 49 yards for a game-winning touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings, a play which NFL Films voted in 1994 as the single greatest run by any player in the 75-year history of the league.

Young rushed for 4,239 yards in his career and averaged 5.9 yards per rush. He scored 43 touchdowns, the record for a quarterback, and fumbled 68 times, a fantastic figure for a running quarterback.

I think that the term passer rating should be changed to quarterback rating, and it should include rushing touchdowns and fumbles lost. Think about it. 

Who cares if a quarterback throws for a touchdown or runs for a touchdown? It's still a touchdown.

And by not counting fumbles in the passer rating, quarterbacks who are fumble machines have an unfair advantage in passer rating, which always has been and always will be the primary statistic used to determine a quarterback's success. If a quarterback quietly fumbles ten times and loses five of them each season, it won't go unnoticed, but it also won't be criticized nearly as much as if he tossed five more interceptions per season. 

Let's look at this past season. Aaron Rodgers committed a turnover in a postseason game in overtime to lose the game, and while this play was definitely criticized, it would be ten times worse if the turnover was an interception. Just ask Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. 

This isn't fair. A touchdown is still a touchdown and a turnover is still a turnover. 

I don't think it's unfair to give Young a tremendous amount of praise for all of his rushing touchdowns. 

Look at his career statistics. He threw for 232 touchdowns and 107 interceptions. He also ran for 43 touchdowns, giving him a 275-107 mark on his career. Then there are his 68 fumbles, and while an exact amount of his fumbles lost is not known, let's say he lost 50 percent of those fumbles, giving him a total of 34. 

So now he has accumulated 275 total touchdowns and 141 turnovers. Tom Brady, who ranks first in touchdown-to-interception ratio (225-99), has rushed for six touchdowns and fumbled 70 times (approximately 35 turnovers) in his career. Brady's new numbers would look like this: 231 touchdowns and 134 turnovers. 

In this situation, Young becomes the most successful quarterback in NFL history, in terms of touchdowns produced to turnovers produced. 

Now let's figure out Montana's career totals.

Add on 20 touchdowns for Montana, giving him 293 touchdowns and 139 interceptions. He also fumbled 53 times, so let's add 26 (and a half) turnovers to his stats. His totals include 293 total touchdowns and 165 turnovers, still a phenomenal percentage (1.78), but significantly lower than Young's 1.95-to-1 ratio. 

Young has definitely not received enough credit for his running ability. He isn't like Michael Vick or Vince Young, who likely wouldn't be able to win games without their scrambling. 

He is in elite company with a select few quarterbacks with both amazing passing and running statistics, and only former Minnesota great Fran Tarkenton comes close to approaching Steve Young in a combination of passing and running. 

In fact, Young's unprecedented combination of passing and running is so incredible that it will likely never again be equaled throughout history. 

 

4. Postseason performance

Montana has been even more successful in the postseason than in the regular season. He is probably the greatest postseason quarterback in NFL history. 

Four times he led the 49ers into the Super Bowl, and all four times they won. 

In Super Bowl XVI, he threw a touchdown and ran for another, outplaying Bengals' quarterback Ken Anderson, the regular season MVP.

In Super Bowl XIX, he threw for three touchdowns and ran for a fourth, outplaying Dolphins' quarterback Dan Marino, the regular season MVP.

In Super Bowl XXII, he led a game-winning 92-yard touchdown drive in the final three minutes, outplaying Bengals' quarterback Boomer Esiason, the regular season MVP.

And in 1989, he threw a then-record five touchdown passes in the biggest blowout in Super Bowl history, outplaying Broncos' quarterback John Elway, who was two years removed from an MVP award. 

He earned MVP honors in three of his four Super Bowls and threw a total of 11 touchdowns against zero interceptions (127.8 passer rating).

Montana suffered through a terrible three-game stretch in the postseason (1985-1987) in which he threw zero touchdown passes and posted a 50.5 passer rating. He led the 49ers to exactly three points in each game, all blowout losses. 

He was even benched in the third quarter of the 49ers' loss to the Vikings in the divisional round in 1987, one of the biggest upsets in playoff history. That's right. Joe Montana was benched in a playoff game, despite winning two Super Bowls at that point in his career. 

Joe Cool bounced back, and from 1988 to 1990, Montana was simply unstoppable in the postseason. 

He completed 70 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns and just two interceptions, and his 126.5 passer rating included a triple-digit passer rating in all eight games. 

His 16 career playoff wins are an NFL record and his .696 winning percentage is one of the best marks in history. 

Young's postseason career is a very unusual one.

Officially, he played in 20 playoff games. 

However, four times he played cleanup for Montana at the end of a blowout win. Once, he replaced an injured Montana but threw just a single pass. Another time he missed virtually an entire game after an early injury. And when Montana was benched in the 1987 divisional playoffs, Young played just over a quarter of football.

So, Young played in 13 full playoff games as a starter.

He won eight games for a solid .615 winning percentage. After consecutive losses to the Cowboys in the NFC championship game in 1992 and 1993, Young led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, where he threw a Super Bowl record six touchdown passes in a 49-26 pounding of the San Diego Chargers

He failed to lead the 49ers back to the Super Bowl though, and ultimately struggled against the Green Bay Packers in losses in 1995 and 1997 (he was injured during the loss in 1996). 

But Young would extract revenge against Green Bay in the 1998 wild-card round, throwing a game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Owens in the final seconds, arguably the greatest moment in wild-card history. 

Young turned in the greatest performance of his life in the Super Bowl, but posted just a 1-3 record in conference championship games. 

He threw 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in his postseason career, for an above average passer rating of 85.8. However, his 1.58 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the postseason is a far cry from his 2.17 mark in the regular season, and without his six-touchdown performance in the Super Bowl, he would have thrown just 14 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. 

 

Conclusion: 

If one can state the claim that Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback ever, why can't one call Steve Young the greatest quarterback ever? 

Manning is always considered to be the game's best regular season quarterback in history, yet Steve Young is even greater. And while Manning is a good postseason quarterback, Young is better. So why hasn't Steve Young ever been considered the best quarterback ever? 

I have heard arguments for Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham, Sammy Baugh, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Bart Starr, Dan Marino, John Elway, and Brett Favre. 

But never Steve Young.

I would pick Young as my quarterback over all of these other quarterbacks, except for one.

That's Joe Montana.

There's simply no way to deny it. Montana is the greatest quarterback in NFL history. 

He is one of two quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls and he is the only with three Super Bowl MVPs. He is probably the greatest clutch quarterback, as well as one of the game's best postseason performers, and he led two of the ten greatest game-winning drives in NFL history. 

He is one of six quarterbacks to win multiple awards, and according to New QB Rating, his average season is just a fraction behind Young's, making him arguably the second greatest regular season quarterback in history. 

Montana overcame a potentially career-ending injury in 1986 to enjoy a 16-year career, longer than Steve Young. He ranks higher than Young in career totals of almost every single statistical category. 

Although Young beats Montana in most percentages (completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating), the difference between their numbers is not a substantial amount, and it becomes even less after the differences in eras are factored in. In fact, although Young broke Montana's single-season records for completion percentage and passer rating, Montana's totals are actually higher when adjusting to the difference in eras. 

If one could add four more seasons to Young's career, he would have had about 100 more touchdown passes and probably another MVP. He might even have had a second Super Bowl title. In fact, it's probably those four seasons that are stopping Young from surpassing Montana as the greatest quarterback in history. 

But there's another thing we must remember: When Young took over for Montana, he was basically working with the team that Bill Walsh and Joe Montana had helped to create.

The 49ers had been winners for years and their immediate success with Young was expected. After all, during the four years he rode the bench, Young had learned the quarterback position from a combination of Walsh's coaching and from watching Montana play.

Montana, however, joined a franchise which had suffered through a 2-14 season in 1979 and led them to a Super Bowl title just two years later. He experienced success after leaving the 49ers, leading the Kansas City Chiefs to the AFC championship game in 1993. Excluding the nine-game strike season of 1982, he never played a season in which his team missed the postseason.

Joe Montana simply had ice water in his veins, especially in the postseason. 

If you need a quarterback to turn a losing franchise into a winner, Montana is your man. If you need a quarterback to lead a 92-yard game winning drive in the final minutes of a game, Montana is your man. And if you need a quarterback to consistently take your team deep into the postseason and win multiple Super Bowls, Montana is your man. 

Joe Montana. The greatest quarterback in National Football League history.

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