April 24, 2011

1987: Bucs Trade Steve Young to 49ers

Coming off of a second straight 2-14 record in 1986, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the first overall choice in the NFL draft and came to terms with QB Vinny Testaverde, the Heisman Trophy-winner out of the University of Miami, ahead of time. Three weeks later, on April 24, 1987, with the draft coming up in a matter of days, the Bucs traded QB Steve Young to the San Francisco 49ers for two picks (second and fourth round) and an unspecified amount of cash (reportedly enough to cover Young’s 1985 signing bonus).

The southpaw Young had been a college star in his own right at Brigham Young (he was a direct descendant of the namesake) and signed a huge 10-year, $40 million contract to play for the Los Angeles Express in the United States Football League. He played well for a mediocre team, and with the USFL on hiatus following the spring ’85 season, bought himself out of the big contract. Two days into the 1985 NFL season, he joined the Buccaneers, who had taken him in the first round of the ’84 supplemental draft.

After quarterbacking a subpar USFL team, Young found himself in an even worse situation in Tampa Bay. He took over for the veteran Steve DeBerg as the starting QB after the team got off to a 1-10 start in ’85 and completed 52.2 percent of his passes for 935 yards with three touchdowns and eight interceptions. With his outstanding mobility, Young also rushed for 233 yards and a TD on 40 carries (5.8 avg.). In his third start at Minnesota, he had a rough outing, completing just 13 of 32 passes, three of which were intercepted. But he passed for over 200 yards in each of the last two games, including 277 in a three-point loss to the Packers (his high with the Bucs).

Young lost the starting job back to DeBerg during the ’86 preseason but got it back after the veteran tossed nine interceptions in the first two regular season games. He had five 200-yard passing performances, was never intercepted more than twice in any contest, and ran for two touchdowns in a win over Buffalo. In all, Young started 19 games in two seasons with Tampa Bay, completing 267 of 501 passes for 3217 yards and 11 touchdowns, as opposed to 21 interceptions. He also ran the ball 114 times for 658 yards and six touchdowns. The team went just 3-16 in his starts, but there were far too many weaknesses on the club that the promising young quarterback couldn’t overcome.

Meanwhile, the 49ers were looking for someone to back up star QB Joe Montana, who would be 31 years old by the start of the ’87 season and had been sidelined for part of 1986 with a back injury that required surgery. While he amazingly missed only eight weeks, his passes lacked the usual velocity when he came back, his running ability was hindered, and he was knocked out of a playoff loss to the Giants with a concussion.

“We think that Steve's style of play will fit into our system and he will be able to display his vast talents,” San Francisco Head Coach Bill Walsh said. “This move is not a reflection on Joe Montana. We fully expect Joe to continue as the leader and mainstay of our team,” Walsh added.

“I'm pretty excited,” Young said in reaction to the deal. “There are a lot of plusses for me. First, playing in the city itself. The town's 49er-crazy. And playing for Coach Walsh. He's obviously a genius in coaching quarterbacks. Being around a legend
like Joe Montana will help me.”

For the next four years, those initial sentiments were tested as an increasingly-impatient Young backed up Montana, who returned to form and led San Francisco to back-to-back NFL titles in 1988 and ’89. He did get to start ten games, and the talented 49ers went 7-3 under Young’s direction. Young threw 23 touchdowns to just six interceptions during that period, and his spectacular 49-yard touchdown carry that pulled out a win over the Vikings in a 1988 contest not only became an often-replayed highlight, but served as a reminder of the outstanding running ability that complemented his passing.

Following an injury to Montana in the 1990 postseason that required surgery and effectively kept him off the field for the next two seasons, Young got his chance to start regularly. There were questions about his discipline in the pocket and whether he fit in San Francisco’s offensive scheme, and he missed time due to injury. The club went just 5-5 during his starts in ‘91 (as opposed to 5-1 under backup Steve Bono), but Young won his first NFL passing title with a 101.8 rating.

It was the first of four straight passing championships, and six in seven years, and Young received NFL MVP recognition in both 1992 and ’94 while also garnering selection to seven consecutive Pro Bowls from ’92 to ’98. The 49ers also won the Super Bowl following the 1994 season, thus relieving him of the inevitable pressure that came with succeeding Montana and his four championships. There was tumult and retooling along the way, but Young rose to the occasion as he also displayed toughness, such as overcoming a broken thumb early in ’93 that hindered his performance. He played until the 1999 season and retired with a 96.8 career passer rating (101.4 in 13 years with the Niners) and 4239 rushing yards in the NFL. In 2005, he joined Montana (who finished out his career in Kansas City) as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Vinny Testaverde had a far more difficult time in Tampa Bay, lasting six seasons before being dealt to Cleveland and throwing 112 interceptions (twice leading the league in that category) as opposed to 77 TDs. He would go on to play a total of 21 years in the NFL, and while he often showed off the ability that made him a first-overall draft choice, he also remained inconsistent and pickoff-prone.

The two draft picks obtained from the 49ers were used to take LB Winston Moss from Miami and Arizona State WR Bruce Hill. Moss moved into the starting lineup during his rookie season and stayed there for four years before moving on to the Raiders. Hill played five years, all with the Bucs, and caught 58 passes for 1040 yards and nine touchdowns in 1988. He worked out well in combination with another 1987 rookie, WR Mark Carrier, but tended to drop too many passes and his numbers progressively diminished after his good second season.

The 49ers had been strong throughout the decade of the 1980s and would remain so with Young at the helm in the ‘90s. Tampa Bay continued to flounder, despite the efforts of coaches, including Ray Perkins (newly arrived in 1987, who traded Young and made other deals in an effort to stockpile draft choices), to turn the franchise around. It would not be until the arrival of Tony Dungy as head coach in 1996 that the team’s fortunes would begin to change for the better.