On Oct. 30, 1988, in the midst of a season in which the San Francisco 49ers would win the first of back-to-back Super Bowls, an injured Joe Montana was riding the bench against the 5-3 Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota fullback Rick Fenney, who had run over the notoriously hard-hitting Ronnie Lott earlier in the game, scored in the fourth quarter after evading Lott again. That put the Vikings ahead 21-17 and the pressure on Montana’s replacement, Steve Young, to mount a comeback. Three series later, an improbable 49-yard-run by Young secured the victory and cemented an unlikely quarterback controversy in San Francisco — and launched a debate that remains unsettled over 30 years later.
Who was better: Montana or Young? Both won championships, and both have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The matter is made more difficult because we lack play-by-play, air yards charting and yards after catch data for that era, which would make the analysis more robust. But since legendary coach Bill Walsh ultimately had to choose between the two of them, so will we. Let’s wade into the all-time stats of two of the greatest QBs in football history.
For a quarterback we now consider to be one of the best ever, Montana’s college statistics were pretty unimpressive. Much of the lore surrounding Montana’s early days relates to the seven comeback victories he helped engineer over his three-year career at Notre Dame. But even viewed in that context, Montana’s production was underwhelming. He managed just a 52 percent career completion percentage for the Irish, for whom he threw as many passes for interceptions (25) as touchdowns. And his 7.7 yards per pass attempt in his senior year was good for just 16th best in the nation. So when the 1979 draft rolled around, it’s understandable that Montana fell to the bottom of the third round when San Francisco took him with the 82nd overall pick; he was the fourth quarterback chosen behind Jack Thompson, Phil Simms and Steve Fuller.
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Young, meanwhile, completed 71.3 percent of his passes in his senior year at Brigham Young University, an NCAA record at the time, and posted a 65.2 percent completion percentage over his college career. He threw for 56 total touchdowns with 33 interceptions and added 18 more scores on the ground. He finished second in voting to Nebraska running back Mike Rozier for the Heisman in 1983. Though Young skipped the NFL draft right out of college, choosing instead to play in the United States Football League, the strength of his college resume made him the first overall pick in the NFL’s 1984 supplemental draft — a draft that was stacked with talent. Three of the four top picks — Young, offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman1 and defensive end Reggie White — were ultimately enshrined in Canton. If your only prior knowledge of Young and Montana was their college play, Young was the clear bet to be the more productive pro.
With the 49ers
After college, Young’s career meandered its way through a failed league and a pit stop in Tampa Bay, where he did his part for two years among the Buccaneers’ 12 straight seasons of at least 10 losses. But when he did finally land in San Francisco, Young’s career flourished.
Montana suffered through a 2-6 record over his first eight starts for the 49ers in 1979 and 1980, but things turned around quickly in 1981, his first full season as a starter. That season is best remembered for The Catch in the NFC Championship game in January 1982 against the Cowboys, but the 49ers’ remarkable turnaround was about more than Montana and Dwight Clark. The 1981 team ranked second in the league in Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Ratings System (SRS) — a power ranking scheme that converts team strength into a point spread — and a lot of that was thanks to its excellent defense.
Of the 49ers’ 6.2 SRS points above average, 5 were contributed by the San Francisco defense. For early 1980s Niners teams, defense mattered. And this trend holds up when we look at each quarterback’s tenure with the team. Montana-led teams had the benefit of about a half-point in defensive performance compared with Young’s Niners teams, on average. Meanwhile, Young’s teams averaged a higher margin of victory and 2.8 more points of offensive SRS compared with Montana’s.
The 49ers had a better offense with Steve Young
San Francisco 49ers team statistics with Joe Montana or Steve Young as the primary starting quarterback in that time period
|Primary QB||Period||Margin of Victory||Offensive SRS||Defensive SRS|
But lumping all of the team’s performances while led by Montana or Young into one bucket might be obscuring some important changes over time. Using FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, we can plot each quarterback’s weekly performance relative to league average to get a sense of how the careers of Montana and Young developed as they gained experience in the 49ers system. Since the metric is adjusted each week of the season, we can see each player’s performance level relative to his peers as well as to each other.
Interestingly, moving to San Francisco appeared to almost instantly lift Young’s ceiling. Over 70 percent of his weekly performances were below average in his first 19 starts in the NFL while playing in Tampa Bay. But in his next 19 starts, with the 49ers, just three came in below par.2
Plotting their careers this way also illustrates that Young’s early 49ers career performance surpassed Montana’s, but that Joe Cool had a surprising late-career resurgence before falling off after being traded to Kansas City. Perhaps the addition of future Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice in his prime had something to do with this, and perhaps Rice’s injuries and relative decline late in Young’s career also explains some of his dropoff. Whatever the case, Young’s overall performance edge remains based on the strength of his early and midcareer production.3
In the Super Bowl
When it comes to Super Bowls, Montana’s accomplishments dwarf Young’s. Montana retired having won four Super Bowls with the 49ers, tied at the time with Terry Bradshaw for the most in league history.4
Young famously got the monkey off his back by winning Super Bowl XXIX against the San Diego Chargers. And over a string of four consecutive years — 1992 through 1995 — Young’s teams had the top-ranked offense in the league, a feat Montana’s squads accomplished just twice. Young’s career stats — Elo, passer rating, adjusted yards per attempt — are superior to Montana’s. So it’s fair to ask: If his play was so dominant, why didn’t Young win more Super Bowls?
The obvious answers are the Cowboys and the Packers. Both teams ascended at different times in Young’s career and became massive obstacles for the Niners to overcome, particularly in the playoffs. Free agency and the salary cap likely also contributed. After 1994, the first year the NFL instituted a cap on team spending and parity became a buzzword, teams could no longer afford to keep players like Montana and Young on the same roster for very long.
Perhaps yet another partial explanation is expansion. The NFL expanded in 1995, dropping the championship chances of an average NFL team from 1 in 28 to 1 in 30. And these new franchises weren’t pushovers. Carolina won 12 games in just its second year in the league, frustrating offenses with Dick LeBeau’s “fire zone” blitz scheme. The Panthers advanced all the way to the conference championship after that 1996 season, finally losing to Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. In Florida, the Jacksonville Jaguars put up nine wins in their franchise’s second year, and they notched at least 11 wins in each of the following three seasons.
Finally, offense is important — but it isn’t everything. And while the quarterback is the most valuable player on offense, it’s unfair to lay the success or failure of an entire franchise at the feet of one person, no matter how important. The 1989, 1984 and 1990 49ers were better overall teams than those that took the field during Young’s tenure, according to Elo. From 1981 to 1989, four defensive players led San Francisco in Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value, while Montana led the 49ers just twice in that period. It’s a good bet that given similar defensive support, Young’s teams would have had better playoff results.
Young was better in college. He was a superior athlete and a more dynamic playmaker, and because of that, he outperformed Montana in the same system with less defensive support. And while Montana’s Super Bowl record remains unimpeachable, when we account for surrounding talent and changes to league structure, it’s hard to fault Young for winning fewer Super Bowls during his tenure.
Our evidence from that era isn’t perfect. But the evidence we do have points pretty clearly in one direction: Young was the better player.