Once upon a time--which is to say early September--some pro football pundits were predicting a Super Bowl rematch between the San Francisco 49ers and the, uh, Denver Broncos. Fans at Mile High Stadium, this particular piece of wisdom held, would need pocket calculators to keep track of the points on the board all year long, but their club's expensively beefed-up offense would probably prevail often enough--35-31, or 43-38, or 109-107.

Those were sunnier days, of course. Before Biff's Whiff in the San Diego game. Before getting beat by the lowly Jets. Before Wade Phillips's porous defense was blown away again by the hated Los Angeles Raiders and failed to hold the lead against...who was that, anyway--San Jose State? That was before the lunatics in the south stands started pelting Phillips with garbage and screaming for his head on a stick.

That was also when Wade Phillips still had a job. The clueless, currently coachless Broncos will watch the rest of the NFL playoffs perched on their living-room couches--where they belong.

But the other half of the pundits' prediction is about to come true. The 49ers have already won four Super Bowls under the leadership of a titan--Joe Montana--and on January 29, they're the chalk to win their fifth behind his pissed-off former understudy.

Until this year Steve Young was the Rodney Dangerfield of NFL quarterbacks--at least in the joints of the Mission District and the towers of Russian Hill. The former Brigham Young star landed in San Francisco seven years ago, and for four of them he stood with a clipboard in his hands and waited, reduced to a living, breathing insurance policy. To his credit, the polite, mannerly Mormon kid never whined. Instead, Young gritted his teeth and explained to reporters what a privilege it was to learn from a master.

Meanwhile, he was dying inside. "It was very difficult," he said last week. "A lot of times I thought things were going to pass me right by. It was very troublesome. That was the anxiety I felt as I pined away on the sidelines."

San Francisco refused to trade Young. And like Lazarus, Montana kept rising. He came back from a back injury that would have put most players in a wheelchair for the rest of their days. He endured scrapes and dings that intimated he was merely mortal. He wasn't. He led the Niners to Super Bowl wins in 1989 and 1990.

When the team finally shipped arm-sore Montana off to Kansas City in 1991, Steve Young took the field to the sound of one hand clapping in Candlestick Park. All he did was win three consecutive league passing titles and an MVP award, and twice he led the Niners to the NFC championship game against Dallas--only to watch the suspect San Francisco defense break down before the assaults of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith.

That wouldn't do. Second-rate, the Niners fans sneered into their sourdough. Prove yourself, Young man. "There was a sense here that you could never do enough," he says. "I mean, if you threw five touchdown passes, get ready to throw six. Why celebrate? You have that much more work to do."

In case you haven't heard, the fatal stain on Steve Young was that he was not Joe Montana. He was not a god. And last September 11, when the two quarterbacks --who'd rarely exchanged Christmas cards, anyway--met in a much-hyped Monday-night game in Kansas City, it seemed to underscore Young's second-class citizenship. Three-point underdogs, the Chiefs won 24-17, and Joe Montana's shadow once more engulfed his former backup.

Even while winning early-season games this year, Young took a pounding because his offensive line was beat up. Teammate Brent Jones remembered last week that Young was hit so hard so often that he was getting physically sick on the sidelines and could hardly walk. But he never missed a snap.

Then came one of those defining moments that only boys' book authors dare dream up.

On October 2 in Candlestick, a flat Niners club was sleepwalking through an unholy beating at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles when San Francisco coach George Siefert pulled Young out of the game. In this most improbable of seasons, his backup was someone named Elvis (Grbac, late of the Michigan Wolverines). But instead of singing "Love Me Tender" to his coach, Steve Young finally blew his cool. While a national TV audience watched from afar, he shouted down his coach and set a fire in his teammates.

The Niners lost to Philly, 40-8, but their circadian rhythms were cranked into high gear. The next Sunday they overcame a 14-point deficit in Detroit to win 27-21, kicking off a 10-game win streak that ended only with a meaningless injury-prevention loss at Minnesota to close the regular season. Clearly, they had become the NFL's best team.

Even the tart Siefert acknowledges Young's sideline outburst as the 49ers' turning point. "It was one of the best things that happened this year," he allowed. "Steve expressed his emotions. It demonstrated leadership. And for whatever reasons, whenever somebody stands up to the head coach, everybody else rallies around him."

Young has finally earned respect in San Francisco. He's just had his finest season (324 completions in 461 attempts, 3,969 yards and 35 touchdowns, with only 10 interceptions), won a second MVP award and become the NFL's all-time passing efficiency leader. The man he surpassed? Right. Joe Montana.

With that outburst in the Philadelphia game, Young also gave his team a new image and a new resolve. Under the great thinker Bill Walsh, San Francisco was known for its brilliant finesse, for poetry in motion as Montana lofted precise passes to Jerry Rice and John Taylor, and Roger Craig picked his way to daylight. It was a team that reflected San Francisco itself--no City of Big Shoulders or Make It Here, You Can Make It Anywhere, but an urban jewel speckled with wine bars and absorbed in its own lovely vistas.

But look out. After the Philly debacle, the Niners began playing as rough as Alcatraz inmates. Some say Young has even taken to cursing in the huddle once in a while.

Meanwhile, the defense was toughened up by the additions of Richard Dent from Chicago, Ken Norton Jr., formerly of Dallas, and the jiving but unquestionably talented defensive back Deion Sanders, late of the Atlanta Falcons. When San Francisco meets Dallas this Sunday for the NFC championship, the third time will be the charm. Book it: America's Team is going down this year.

But Steve Young, tough guy, knows that even that win won't cast off the long shadow of Joe Montana. "It will be an unsuccessful year if we don't win the Super Bowl," he said. "We've set up the base camp, and now we're attacking the summit. The best thing about it is, we're attacking it with a lot more emotion, which is a good thing."

Pssst. Let you in on a little secret. The real Super Bowl is this Sunday against the Cowboys. No AFC team has won a Super Bowl since the Raiders beat Washington, 38-9, in 1984, and no AFC team will do it this year, either.

So, unless the gods turn their backs on him and Dallas pulls off the hat trick, Steve Young will finally find peace in Joe Robbie Stadium on January 29.

For now, all football fans, save the huddled masochists of western New York state, are relieved that, for the first time in five years, there will be no Bills at the end of the month. But Broncos fans should be especially glad. Had the Donkeys clicked this season, perhaps they, not the Pittsburgh Steelers, would be the ones taken out into the Miami courtyard and summarily executed by the death squads from San Francisco.

There's no point feeling sorry for the Steelers. They've had their days of glory, and now Steve Young will finally get his. Because while Elvis remains in the building, Joe will be watching at home.


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