SANTA CLARA — Steve Young was winding down from a 20-minute, enthralling phone interview on the 49ers’ quarterback dynamic when he captured his own feelings:
“I’ve got my fingers crossed. This is great. This is hairy stuff.”
Young is 30 years removed from the NFL’s gold standard in quarterback controversies, back when he competed against and eventually succeeded Joe Montana amid the 49ers’ Super Bowl-winning dynasty.
He sees the parallels — “sure, of course” — from those Joe-vs.-Steve days to this past week’s Trey-and-Jimmy evolution.
Shocked that Jimmy Garoppolo could not find a starting job elsewhere, Young says the 49ers now own a “perfect scenario” in welcoming Garoppolo back — at a reduced salary — to back up Lance, last year’s No. 3 overall draft pick who’s entering his first full season as the 49ers’ starting quarterback.
“If Jimmy is a problem, it kind of speaks to the ability to do the job,” Young said in an exclusive interview with this news organization. “He doesn’t seem like it’s bugging him, and I would say ‘hallelujah,’ because if it does, we have a problem.”
Young, an ESPN analyst who lives in Palo Alto, hasn’t approached Lance with any advice on Garoppolo’s sudden return to the 49ers’ quarterback room. But Young said Lance knows he’s an absolutely willing mentor, just as Lance said Thursday he sees Garoppolo as a resource, too.
Here are the topics Young feverishly spoke on Friday afternoon:
JIMMY GAROPPOLO’S ‘REFERENDUM’
Garoppolo prolonged his 49ers’ tenure by taking a pay cut Monday and agreeing to return as Lance’s backup, but only after months of speculation amid a wild market and discussions with other teams. Garoppolo opted not to ask for his release, and he’s slated to hit free agency next year for the first time after nine seasons.
Young: “With his record and with how crazy the market is for quarterbacks, I’ve got to believe Jimmy’s thinking that’s not a good place to be. ‘The only market I can find is as backup? That’s not the news I wanted to find out in the offseason.’
“I take Kyle (Shanahan) at his word: he loves Jimmy as a backup. That’s a true statement. He loves Jimmy as a backup. If I was Jimmy, clearly, there’s two jobs in the NFL as a quarterback: processing and delivery. They’re both necessary elements. He can do that.
“Something’s not right. He just had a referendum on him. Something either perceptually or really is not resonating. If I’m Jimmy, I take the opportunity to change whatever narrative teams have – words, whispers, scouts, whatever — right now, it’s not good, because no one wants him to start for them.
“If I’m him, I can’t keep playing the same music and thinking I’m getting a starting job somewhere. This is a period of time he can start change narrative, whether it’s first guy in, last guy out, memorization, owning the data, processing. Whatever’s out there that’s keeping him from getting a starting job, he needs to change.
“He can do that from a backup role by showing his diligence, showing ‘I’m the hardest working guy, I’m in the film room, I’ve never owned more data in my life, I’m memorizing.’ Coaches would talk: “Jimmy’s really different.’
“If I’m Jimmy, I just got punched in the face. I’m 34-14, been to the Super Bowl and two (NFC) championship games and was just told by the league, now people say the timing, the shoulder — this is the quarterback world. If you are a starting quarterback, you would have found a job. So you’ve got to do something to change the narrative, and maybe somebody gets hurt and then there’s (a market).”
HEY, TREY, ‘THE JOB’S A JOB’
Lance inherits a playoff contender and takes on a starting role that Garoppolo went 35-16 in since December 2017, including a 4-2 playoff mark.
Young: “The job that Trey’s being asked to do on a Super Bowl-ready team, without having really ever played much, even in college, the job they’re asking him to do is pretty amazing, right, and we’re all expecting him to do it. That’s a really, really hard job. All the hurdles he’s got to go over and all the filters he’s got to go through, we’re going to be eyewitnesses to it all.
“Having Jimmy there or not doesn’t change the degree of difficulty. The only thing that would change it is if Trey allowed it to be. In the end, the job that Trey’s asked to do, he’ll get booed just as fast, he’ll be criticized just as fast. It doesn’t matter.
“That’s what I would tell Trey: it doesn’t matter. The job’s a job. You’ve got do it. If you don’t do it, you have to pay the price.
“In some ways, Jimmy being there, holds your own feet to the fire that can be productive. It depends how he takes in. It seems he takes in productively, and it can be thought in of the positive.”
UNDERSTANDING THE JOB
After sitting behind Montana most of his first four seasons on the 49ers, Young started 10 games in 1991, won NFL MVP honors the next season, and then repeated as MVP in 1994 en route to the 49ers’ fifth Lombardi Trophy win.
Young: “Despite the rigor, I didn’t ever doubt what needed to get done. In that way, it keeps you focused. You can try to convince yourself the job is not as much as it really is, and that’s a mistake.
“Trey can’t do enough. If he takes the team to the Super Bowl and loses, oh well, arggh.
“If Jimmy is a problem, it kind of speaks to the ability to do the job. He (Lance) doesn’t seem like it’s bugging him and I would say hallelujah, because if it does, we have a problem. I’m not gleening through and seeing someone, ‘Oh crap, now how do I deal with this in the locker room?’ The truth is that Trey’s job in the locker room is not that different. Yeah there are guys that like Jimmy and guys will moan if Trey struggles. Whether Jimmy is there or not …
“To get the job done, it doesn’t matter who’s sitting there. Jimmy is not going to play defense against you. All he can be is a mentor and help. There’s the emotional, the noise and the media, and if that keeps you from doing the job …
“The job, how do I put it, it’s like climbing Everest. It’s for experts only. ‘Oh, Sir Edmund Hillary is sitting in the tent with me. I still have to climb Everest. It doesn’t matter.’
“It helps because Jimmy is not a toxic personality, and if Trey needs help, he can ask him.
“Trey needs to see that he’s in the perfect situation, with a mentor around him, an incredible, innovative offense, and a Super Bowl-ready team, (that) ‘This is everything I could ever ask for to see how good I could get.’
“I would ask Trey one question: Do you want to see how good you can get? If he can deep down say he’s willing to take the risk, then there’s no better place than this, right now.”
THE JOE-VS-STEVE PARALLEL
Young and Montana co-existed on the 49ers from 1987-92 en route to their spots in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Garoppolo-Lance dynamic obviously doesn’t offer such sterling credentials, yet. Young knows what they’re in for, however.
Young: “When Joe was hurt, he’s sitting on the sideline, and every mistake you make, everyone turns and says, ‘Well, Joe wouldn’t do that.’ It can drive you crazy, or it’s super important you see the truth, that this is an incredible opportunity so don’t get distracted by all the noise, the whispers in the locker room, the issues with the media, the boos you start to hear after a couple of picks, starting slow and everyone wonders, ‘Are we going to play Jimmy? Let’s play Jimmy.’
“There’s a level of performance that’s necessary. You have to have the discipline to not see it, otherwise you can be driven to distraction.”
Most laymen see the situation and go, “Oh! Trouble! Trouble! I don’t want that guy spying on me, talking behind my back.” Laymen would say it’s a disaster, when the truth is if you really step back, it’s an incredible opportunity.
GAROPPOLO’S TRADE OPTION
Garoppolo’s revised contract includes a no-trade clause, and while he could waive that if an alluring opportunity arose, the 49ers have the power to keep him, at a $6.5 million base salary.
Young: “The 49ers now have you exactly where they want you – as a backup. They love it, as part of their push for a Super Bowl. Now that’s it’s played out this way, for the 49ers, it would take a really bigger offer before the trade deadline to take him away from right where they want him to be.”
“Everyone knew in end Jimmy had the right to be asked to be cut. You knew Jimmy had control of his destiny, and if cut, someone would give him a chance to start. The shock is that didn’t happen. Now the 49ers have the perfect scenario: They have Jimmy as a backup and it will take a lot to trade him.”
“What are we asking (Lance) to do? We’re asking to take an NFL franchise with a Super Bowl-ready roster and Super Bowl-ready coaching staff to the Super Bowl. You ask that of a 35-year-old and that is a heady job description. You’re here. Let’s go. We can parse it all you want. The job is right in front of you and it’s an incredibly difficult one for anybody, as proven through ages in time. Very few people can do this job.
“The idea you might fail at this job is kind of a given. By definition, it’s very rare. You’ve got to attack and believe you can go do it. If you think it’s going to get easier, this incredibly difficult job, is somehow easier if Jimmy somewhere else, then you don’t understand the job.
“Is it harder now? More difficult? It’s already a death-defying job.”
ON ADVISING LAUNCHES
Young crossed paths with Lance during the offseason at the 49ers’ facility and is always willing to serve as a mentor. But not in a proactive way.
Young: “I’ve been careful not to (contact him). I reached out in the summer and will reach out before the start of the year. The last thing, ‘Oh yeah, Steve is going to make this better…
“He knows I’m very willing to take any resource to give him, and he knows to ask at a drop of the hat. There’s no need for me to affirmatively try to bug him.
“I guarantee you if Trey had a question, Jimmy would not turn his back on it. Trey has a resource.
“I hope Trey goes to Jimmy, I hope he comes to me, goes to John and Kyle. We all want to help him do this nearly impossible job.”