Typically, when an NFL team starts a once-in-a-generation quarterback, they try to hold onto that player as long as possible. After all, how rare is it to replace one legendary player with another? The San Francisco 49ers found themselves in that position in the early ’90s. As luck would have it, the team was able to replace one all-timer with a second one. When the face of the team, Joe Montana, went down with an injury, Steve Young stepped right in and took control.
Rarely does one Hall of Famer replace another, but in this situation, it happened. But which one of them was better? A recent comparison may shed some light on that discussion.
Career overviews of Joe Montana and Steve Young
Montana played college football at Notre Dame. After a promising yet lackluster collegiate career, the 49ers selected him in the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft. According to Pro Football Reference, Montana finished his career with eight Pro Bowl appearances, four Super Bowl wins, 117 victories, and 273 touchdowns.
Young’s career took a less predictable path. After a stellar college career at BYU, Young went to the USFL. After that league failed, he was underwhelming as a member of the putrid Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
When he came to San Francisco, Young saw his career flourish. He eventually supplanted Montana and one a Super Bowl of his own.
Who was better, Steve Young or Joe Montana?
FiveThirtyEight compiled a comparison of Young and Montana and found that statistically speaking, Young was the better player. During Young’s era, his teams had a higher margin of victory than Montana’s (10.4-8.6). From 1992 to 1995, Young’s 49ers’ squads had the highest-ranked offense in the league. Montana’s teams were only able to do that twice.
FiveThirtyEight ranks quarterbacks with something known as an “Elo” rating. This compares a quarterback to the performance of a league-average quarterback. According to their findings, Young’s Elo ratings, adjusted yards per attempt, and passer rating were all stronger than Montana.
So why is it that when you hear a discussion of the all-time greatest quarterbacks, Montana’s name comes up and Young’s does not?
Which quarterback is better?
Here’s what makes the discussion of Montana vs. Young complicated: Young’s numbers are undoubtedly better. But Montana has more championships.
In evaluating quarterbacks, it’s easy to look at their Super Bowl rings as the ultimate arbiter of their quality. Forget the numbers — the primary reason people refer to Tom Brady as the GOAT is that he has more titles than anyone else.
This isn’t quite fair to Young, though. 53 men win a championship, not one. As important as a QB is, he can’t do it alone. Young had some great supporting casts during his time in San Francisco, but none as good as Montana. Also, as the FiveThirtyEight piece points out, Young was playing during the same era as some great Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers teams.
One major distinction that aids to Young’s argument is that the NFL instituted the salary cap in 1994 during the middle of Young’s prime. This made it harder for teams to keep multiple expensive pieces on the same roster. Montana had much better defenses playing behind him.
One argument in Montana’s favor? The dominant style in the league at the times both men played. As the years have gone by, the NFL has shifted from more of a running league to a passing one. The ’90s saw passing become even more important, which meant Young had a greater opportunity to put up bigger numbers than Montana did.
So what’s the verdict? The truth is that Young’s numbers probably made him a slightly more effective player than Montana. But in the eyes of Niner fans, no one will displace Montana until they equal his ring count.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference