It’s been said that the least important position on a football team is the backup quarterback until the starter gets injured. Then it becomes the most important one. Backup quarterback is a great spot to occupy in the pros if you don’t care if you ever play. That way you’re well-paid, always popular with the fans and face little risk of injury.
I remember 20 years ago when Don Strock was the backup to Dan Marino in Miami. For several seasons he rarely played, but was well-compensated and never got hurt. He seemed to accept his position without complaint. Today that attitude would be hard to find. Nobody wants to be a second-stringer and it’s especially volatile if two highly touted quarterbacks are on the same team. Then all hell can break loose.
We’ve seen this situation up-close-and-personal with the New York Jets and it’s been a disaster. Their starter has been Mark Sanchez and the backup was supposed to be Tim Tebow. Sanchez is a decent quarterback who looks insecure. Tebow was a Heisman Trophy winner in college, but pro football is a different animal. In the NFL he is more suited to fullback or linebacker.
Sanchez and the Jets have been horrible this season and the fans are screaming for Tebow. Under the pressure, Sanchez has played worse and worse. The odds of Tebow changing things are dubious because he throws the football like a wounded duck. What to do? Having two quarterbacks who want to start is usually a recipe for disaster.
There was one situation in NFL history where the drama of a quarterback controversy was magnified greater than ever. In the late 1980s the San Francisco 49ers were blessed (or cursed) with having two future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Steve Young. Montana was revered and possibly the best quarterback in the history of the league. Young was an up-and-comer who had all the tools to be an all-pro quarterback.
The late Bill Walsh was the head coach of the 49ers at the time. He won three Super Bowls in his 10 years with the team, so there was no doubting his acumen. By the mid-1980s his All-World starter, Montana, was getting so beat up that Walsh didn’t think he would last more than a couple of seasons.
Hence, he engineered a trade for Young in 1987 with the apparent promise that he would start by the beginning of the 1988 season.
Walsh was right as far as Montana’s fragility was concerned. He suffered from major back and elbow problems. He always seemed to miss a game here and there, which provided Young with multiple opportunities to start. Montana later missed almost two full seasons due to injuries.
However, Walsh underestimated Montana’s competitiveness. He wasn’t about to give up. He kept coming back to reclaim his job as the starter, leaving Young sympathetic and frustrated at the same time. Montana was at the helm to win his third and fourth Super Bowls in 1988 and ‘89 and was treated like a deity by the fans. How was Young going to overcome that?
Despite leading the 49ers to the NFL championship games in 1991 and ‘92 while Montana was out injured and being named the league’s Most Valuable Player in ‘92, Young was still not accepted by the Montana-worshiping 49er fans. It grew worse when the team acquiesced to Montana’s request for a trade before the ‘93 season to the Kansas City Chiefs. Redemption and acceptance didn’t come to Young until he led the 49ers to their fifth Super Bowl win, over San Diego following the 1994 season.
The whole story behind the two Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks facing the pressure of competing against one another is graphically told by Adam Lazarus in his new book, “Best of Rivals: Joe Montana, Steve Young, and the Inside Story Behind the Greatest Quarterback Controversy.” It describes the backgrounds of both players as they grew up, excelled in college, and eventually ended up together on the best pro football team of the 1980s. The situation created a tremendous amount of pressure on both players as their talent and competitive spirit never let them truly become close.
The 49ers were lucky in that they stayed competitive and both quarterbacks were able to achieve their personal goals of winning Super Bowls and being elected to the pro football Hall of Fame. Most teams are not so fortunate. Most of them end up like the Jets, floundering to find their identity. Lazarus’ case study of the ultimate competition shows that winning isn’t always pretty.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.