Steve Young held a teleconference Wednesday and spoke about the NFL playoffs. Here’s what he said, courtesy of ESPN.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Atlanta and how this team seemed pretty easy to dismiss or forget about, the Falcons and obviously they have not won a playoff game with Matt Ryan and they almost lost some of the easier games at home this year. How do you assess that team and its chances?
STEVE YOUNG: Yeah, I always used to chuckle when teams would say, ‘we are really focused this week; we’re going to be super aggressive’. You know, I would think, really? Because that’s all you really see in the NFL. So it’s tough to kind of quantify what I’m about to say.
But I feel like the Falcons, their whole narrative of who they are, perceptionally, it’s now at stake. There’s nothing that they can do from September to December that we even really paid much attention to; go undefeated, we are like, oh, that’s just great, but we want to see you in January. The fact that their coach is 0‑3 and the history of the Falcons, I think this is the chance. This is the moment. This is the one, so you’re going to see a ferocity from them. There’s not going to be an inch that they’re going to give.
But see, that’s so anticlimactic for most people because everyone in the playoffs, everyone has sudden death, but maybe there’s just more here and more than any other team, more can be gained by the Falcons than anybody else in the playoffs. And I just think you’re going to – what happened last year – and you’re going to see overzealousness that I think will pay off. The fact that they scored two points, we’ve been hearing that. They won game after game this fall and even people at home were saying, oh, yeah, but you scored two in January.
This is a big, huge, big deal that cannot be underestimated, and I think you’ll see the effects of it with this team. They might be overwrought. It might backfire, but I think the odds are you’re going to see something that, I don’t know how you can describe it, but it’s going to be different and it’s going to be different than any other playoff team that’s at stake.
Q. The speed of the game for a guy like Colin Kaepernick in the playoffs, how do you think he will face that and deal with that and how do you think after watching him, he will be prepared for this Packers defense?
YOUNG: He gets a lot of help, and I think that’s the pact that Jim Harbaugh made when he made the controversial switch, because his defense was so good and his offensive line was so good and his runners were so good, and his philosophy was not that demanding compared to other teams that they could protect him enough from having to do the difficult things that just are difficult.
Even Andrew Luck, with the amazing season he had, turned the ball over a bunch, threw it into peoples’ chests some. It’s just the nature of the difficulty and that’s going to be obviously the degree of difficult in the playoffs.
I think that the calculus for this game and the playoffs for Colin is they cannot put him in a situation where he’s deep in a hole and he’s got to throw his way out of it. They are going to try to prevent that. They are going to try to make sure that they do what they have done before: turn the ball over a bunch in New Orleans, turn the ball over a bunch in New England, because you saw when they didn’t turn the ball over a bunch, the defense – and get the ball back to Colin and that they had to come back in Seattle – that’s not the scenario he wants obviously.
I think if Colin is forced to see the full measure of all of the defenses and coverages that Green Bay has in the arsenal it is going to be tough on him. I think the idea is that he’s going to be protected from that and Jim is probably hoping that he sees full‑field reads, reads where he has to take all that in and deal with that maybe five times in a game. That would be optimal, right, where you just don’t get in those situations too often.
I think that’s how he always thought this would go, and now his dream is that doesn’t break down and then he has Colin take 25, 30, 40 snaps of pure, unadulterated read the defense, figure out where everybody is, safeties are raining down and now it’s on you.
Q. John Elway, when he first became an executive, he said his priority was interestingly enough to get back home‑field advantage, and the key to home‑field advantage is the defense – that home‑field advantage generally feeds off the defense. I was wondering as a quarterback what you think about that?
YOUNG: I think John is speaking to what all quarterbacks who have been playing for a long time know, is that you need a lot of friends. They never get quite the credit that a quarterback gets, but when you look back, you recognize that what you really need is a great defense. And the 49ers had that all through our 20‑year run, understated defense and that was the key.
More than anything, getting the ball back in the quarterback’s hands, you say Peyton early in the year when he was struggling trying to make the transition, in Atlanta, San Diego, those are two games to try to get ready, trying to get up to speed, and the defense needs to hand you the ball back a bunch, and then San Diego handed it back to them.
And so you get in the playoffs in a one‑game scenario, you have to guarantee that you get the ball back enough in case you make that one mistake. And so John’s smart enough to know that home‑field advantage and a defense that you can pack and go anywhere is the secret in January, because that takes the degree of risk in a one‑game scenario, because even John Elway or Peyton Manning can have a bad game in January, and if that comes, if you have a defense and they hand the ball back to you enough, the good quarterbacks can stop the bleeding and start pushing the rock back uphill very quickly and in a quarter or two, save the day. So, that’s what he’s thinking and I think that’s very smart.
Q. Jim Harbaugh, very popular here in the Bay Area, because he’s won so quickly, even the controversial decision to bench Alex in favor of Colin has worked out so far, but seems like it might be a whole different thing come playoff time. Given the playoff success of last year for the 49ers and the fact that he changed quarterbacks in November, how much pressure is there on Jim this playoff season?
YOUNG: Jim went all‑in, you know, but that’s Jim. That’s his nature. So when Colin played well at Chicago, his reaction was, ‘I’ve been looking for this’. I think he was looking for this and found the opening and went to full speed. I don’t think he looked back. And people questioned him or talked to him, even internally, I would assume this would go to the owner and this would go all the way to the top. I’m sure he just said, ‘this is where I’m going’. So he’s all‑in with it.
I think that the pressure is, absolutely on there, but he’s got a lot of built‑up goodwill in the bank with everyone in San Francisco because of what you mentioned in the record. Now, losing playoff games, ask Lovie Smith, you can win a bunch of games, but you’d better win in January.
So this move that happened a couple months ago, if it blows up on Saturday in a way that kind of did when he got beat in St. Louis or something else where it just fumbled around and looked like a second‑year player, the gamble that Jim’s made is that I can protect Colin enough that I can actually make him look like a five‑year player and he won’t devolve and look like a rookie with the defense handing the ball back to him, running game, play-action, cut the field in half, doing some things that make it a little bit easier.
But certainly, if it all blows up on Saturday, that will take a lot of that goodwill out of the bank. Now, that doesn’t change much and you’re still going to be around with a great coach, but it’s a high‑risk situation and where that high‑risk is, there’s high reward and obviously things that could be lost.
So far, everyone is kind of all‑in with him. But you know, there’s obviously a lot of pressure in that situation right now.
Q. This weekend, two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time playing, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. When you look back over the course of their careers, is there a season that stands out to you as perhaps the best between them? I mean, 2004, Manning set the record for passing rating, depending how you feel about passer rating. 2007, Brady led the Patriots to an undefeated regular season record, 50 touchdowns, eight interceptions. If you had to pick one accomplishment by one of those guys, could you pick one?
YOUNG: Well, it’s funny, you mentioned 2007, because but for, I think, laying an egg in the Super Bowl, both Bill Belichick and the Patriots, in general, and Tom Brady missed the opportunity to be the de facto answers for any argument that anyone brought up as the greatest season in history, the greatest team in history, the greatest quarterback in history and the greatest coach in history. In my mind, all of these things hung in the balance in Phoenix that night just because of the nature of what they were about to accomplish. It was a phenomenal season, unfortunately not capped.
What they have done collectively, the two of them, I always think greatness is really about building off the previous generation and stretching the game and taking it in new places, developing, doing more with the position. And I always find quarterback as an art form and the ultimate guide in the position of artists, and these guys have done that. So, for a guy that’s played a generation before, I just honor them with how both of them have taken the game and extended it, and the position and extended it, and doing it like the next generation should, but so few can.
Peyton changed the game forever because he demanded more from the receiver/quarterback relationship. That’s never been demanded. Tom did the same in other ways. So to pick a season, these guys are so far ahead. In some ways, as they get ready to play, there must be a little piece of them chuckling because they are so far ahead in the free agent era and with the rules kind of bending towards the offense’s favor, they have to be chuckling that they are so far ahead of any defense. Everything they are doing they have such mastery over, that yeah, they could still screw up; yeah, they could get beat. But boy, they are playing kind of in a downhill, kind of from the start and that’s got to be a fun place to be.
Sorry that doesn’t answer your question. I’m not great at picking greatest, you know what I mean. I honor what they are doing just because it’s amazing to me what they have accomplished.
Q. Sticking with the Patriots, one of the things they started out with Belichick and went 9‑0 early on in the post‑season with him, not so hot of late. Curious if your experience with the 49ers, with that first loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship, and another loss to the Cowboys, it looked like that first loss to the Giants broke the mystique a little bit. Do you sense that with the Patriots a little bit – that the mystique has been broken by their, not failures in the last couple of years but their average play in the post‑season?
YOUNG: There’s no question that when we warmed up, I got a sense that we were up 14‑0 at times, with perception with the way that people thought about us. And as you said that could be broken with some tough losses a little bit here and there.
But substantively when you’re getting beat in championship games by teams, most of the time it’s because they are better, and I think the Patriots lost their pass rush, they got a little bit weaker defensively and they’ve been trying to make that up. So I think there are things that substantively happened that they have now tried to fix. You’re right, though. When they are rolling, when they are two‑time defending or two‑out‑of‑three Super Bowl champions, you have a lot of kind of perceptional advantage as you warm up. And that gets lost.
So, yes, I agree that some of that is lost. But substantively, the Patriots seem to have put some of the things that have been hurting them, like two or three years ago ‑‑ but yet still haven’t I think gotten to the point where they really had that defense that was top two or three in the league.
And to me, the 49ers, Patriots, I’m thinking back to the Cowboys in the early 90s and the vintages I knew so well, they were great offenses but really you took a look at the defenses, they were the top two or three defenses. So a great offense with the top two or three defense, that’s when you constantly win Super Bowls, and that’s the thing that they Patriots have been missing.
Q. When you look at Aaron Rodgers — seems to be at pretty much the height of his powers — is having him as much of an advantage as it would seem going against a rookie quarterback and what’s the 49ers path to victory here?
YOUNG: Well, Aaron Rodgers will beat you if he’s protected. If you can bring four guys and put pressure on Aaron Rodgers, you can beat him. I saw it in Seattle in spades with the Monday night game where they were ‑‑ it’s four guys that just tortured the Packers and they got beat.
Now, we can talk about the end another day, but I think that Aaron is really in that elite category that we just described with Peyton and Tom where they are playing downhill. They have seen it all. They are ahead of what we call the free agent defense, which obviously now is 10, 12, 13, 15 years old, but still, it changes every year, and the guys that are really good, that own all of the data and can reflexively recall all of it immediately can really dictate to defenses that they are going to put together every summer.
And so those guys, and that’s why you look at Super Bowl history and in the last 10 years, really almost except for a couple that you could argue against me, it’s those guys that win the Super Bowl, it’s those guys that make those plays that are playing more downhill that win it.
So to beat Aaron Rodgers, obviously ‑‑ if you bring five or six, that’s more of an uneven fight to Aaron’s favor; but if you can bring four ‑‑ and that’s why Justin Smith is so important in my mind. If he’s playing and full speed and they can bring four with Aldon Smith, create havoc with four guys, that’s the special sauce that Aaron can’t control. He can’t beat that because he’s just under duress and every quarterback knows you can’t. Under a certain amount of duress, you can’t do your job. But other than that, it’s all advantage to Aaron Rodgers.
Q. What are your thoughts on Ray Lewis and Peyton Manning going at it for the last time and does it conjure any memories of you going against (Mike) Singletary back when you were playing?
YOUNG: It’s funny, enough time goes by and people lose context of time. I don’t think I saw Mike (Singletary) maybe a year or two when I was a rookie, but there were guys like Lawrence Taylor I saw once or twice before he retired. I think more for me, it would be like Reggie White or that kind of thing.
There are great battles, and it’s really a respectful thing. And I know Peyton and Ray would feel the same way, both ferocious competitors, but there is a big piece to the puzzle that is absolute respect. And you would see that ‑‑ I saw that with Reggie, after every time he sacked me, he would pick me up and say, ‘how you doing?’.
The greatest of all time, actually, are athletically competitive. In other words, they can be white hot competitive at the moment, and transition very quickly to respect, camaraderie, whatever else there is that’s a part of the equation and I loved the emotional athleticism that the great players have to carry with them not just the white hot competitiveness that you have to have but other aspects that made them kind of richer people and richer competitors.
And I think that’s what is so cool about Ray and Peyton is that they define a generation or more of football from different positions, but yet there’s that element of statesmanship. There’s that element of ‑‑ that makes it just even for fans, and I count myself as one of them, fans of football, it makes football richer and it’s cool.
I can’t wait. Those kind of games, you can’t wait to watch. They are not just a commodity. They are not just another event. It’s something really special and for a particular reason, so that’s why I look at that game. I’m really looking forward to it.
Q. Just wondering if you could comment about Colin Kaepernick, generally about his upside, the dimension he brings, the arm and the mobility.
YOUNG: A rhetorical question, you hit it all right there. But I think the thing that surprised me and it came out right away when he replaced Alex against Chicago was the accuracy and the ability to make a lot of different throws. There’s a lot of throws that if you are going to make them really precisely, it really is this kind of a special ability and a risk to be able to still forcefully throw a ball with a touch that comes out the last second as you release the football. There’s a lot of arm‑throwers out there that the ball starts in motion and the arm is moving and it’s going where it’s going, and it’s going to go at the trajectory it’s going. There’s not a lot of intricate adjustments that the guy can make.
So to me, the great throwers are the ones that can make the intricate adjustments and make a lot of different throws. And so that was great to see. That tells you that the upside for Colin is large, because now you know that not everybody has to be open all the time and he can pull the string when he needs to and he can place the ball where he needs to, and that’s a big deal, and probably the biggest deal of all the aspects you just mentioned. Because certainly having the ability to run around and move always served me well.
People have all kinds of arguments with the guys playing today. If you have learned the position, which is to deliver the ball from the pocket, if you’ve mastered it, you’re on your way, or close to it; moving around, being able to move around, just a huge advantage, just the bottom line: fact. So that’s always a positive, as long as you’re making the transition to the job, which is to deliver the ball from the pocket.
Colin, certainly think about it, almost no playing time under the pressure that Jim put him in. Hey, look, you have this other guy that’s playing kind of at an All‑Pro level, and people have developed a real appreciation for because of the things he’s been through and what he’s done for the team. You’re now in it. You’re in the middle of that. Go win. Go make it look great. And you’ve got to give Colin a tremendous amount of credit for the moxy to kind of be so far pulling it off and that’s a tough spot. Certainly legs, certainly size, but the delivery and the moxy to stand in and do what is not easy to do, I’ve got to give him a lot of credit.
Q. Since 2005, it has not been a slam dunk for teams in the bye week to advance to the Conference Championship Game, and before that there was a better chance of that happening. Wondering if you had any theories about that, and how you felt about if you would rather have a bye, or if you were the hot team going into the playoffs, keeping that going and playing that first week.
YOUNG: Well, at the end of the season, despite the ‑‑ you do lose a little bit of an edge when you take a week off. Even when people have that last game when they don’t have to play, I’m a big fan of keeping the edge, having your starters go out, warm up, play, at least through a quarter so they go through that adrenaline preparation that the body needs to stay kind of in the peak playing performance.
Bye weeks are nerve‑wracking. But to me, I get in trouble for this, but I think it explains what your question is, in my mind. And I overstate it, but just take it in the spirit of what I’m saying when I say that the NFL has become the NBA. I always look at the NBA as kind of a muddled mess in the regular season, and then you just get in the tournament, just get in. And then the great teams just get on a roll and play well or the team that is hot gets hot and goes and wins it.
I don’t know if that analogy works or it doesn’t, feels like it does to me but I’m sure it doesn’t for a lot of people. But the NFL in my mind you used to be able to see the great teams coming from miles away. When they warmed, you knew this is a great team. You have a lot of benefit perceptionally that you are the great team and are already up on a team because they already perceive you as better. It’s just not the case anymore. There’s no team that’s not flawed, that has some holes. So I think in the last ‑‑ and I’ve noticed it, too, in the last years, handful of years – it’s just get in the tournament, be the sixth seed, doesn’t matter. As long as you’re playing great football, the teams are not as dominant. Remember 20 years ago, you could see a team that could go the distance from three years before, kind of coming. And they would come and there was never really a shock. The biggest shock was probably the ’92 Cowboys. But you just knew teams were coming from a long ways away and that’s just not the case anymore. People love parity. I love superior football, and so I probably appreciate the old days better. But certainly it’s a lot of fun, because I think clearly Seattle can run the table right now, and that’s not the case in the past.
Q. Do you think we are seeing an era with (Russell) Wilson and RG III, even (Andrew) Luck, all of these guys are mobile where teams are hoping ‑‑ looking for a quarterback to not only be a pocket guy but a mobile guy and also related – RG III, I haven’t heard what you thought about the other day when he played and the injury. Wanted to get your take on that.
YOUNG: Obviously, I love the idea of athletic quarterbacks. But what’s happening is, you’re getting athletic quarterbacks that have been trained as quarterbacks, and despite the fact that college is playing a spread, some more than other, you’re now seeing the pistol as a tremendous bridge from college to that place where you’ve now become – until I’m proven wrong – championship quarterbacking is delivering the ball from the pocket. So all of us that can move around have tried to bend the truth to be that’s not the truth and we always get straightened up to realize that championship football is that.
So with the pistol and with quarterbacks that can move around being better trained earlier, I think you’re going to see that people will see the benefits of mobile quarterbacks in the long-term and that will still be hopefully the prototype. Now, Peyton and Tom have forever proven me wrong on that, but I think you’re starting to see that the potential for what mobile quarterbacks can do on third down and just piercing plays to defenses, as they learn the job. Because as soon as a mobile quarterback learns the job, Andrew Luck is probably going to be the first one that gets there, that’s when you get to complete capitulation of defenses. They just don’t know what to do. You’ve seen RG III do that at times this year as a rookie and you’ve seen Russell Wilson do that as a rookie. It’s incredible the things these guys can accomplish.
Now, the second part is the thing that you wonder, can you stay the long haul. Can you stay healthy? Particularly to Sunday, I’ve always – and I said a year ago when the 49ers played the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger had the ankle injury and literally in my mind he could not protect himself. That’s when you can’t play. You’re injured. You cannot protect yourself. You need to leave the field and I said that at the time. Until that point, people can limp around, people can be hurt, can be hurting. Some of the great John Wayne hero things that have ever happened in football happened because people play hurt. And that becomes a personal calculus with the doctor, the team, the coach and the player. And that one is tougher for us as outsiders to really know for sure exactly.
Looking back, certainly, everyone, Mike (Shanahan), everyone would have chosen – if they knew he was going to hurt his ACL, or hurt – that they would have done it differently. But some of the great things that happen in sports happen because someone is playing hurt. When you are injured and you can’t protect yourself, then you must leave the field. I didn’t sense that, watching the game, that he couldn’t protect himself. He certainly couldn’t be as much as he was, or could be when he’s healthy, so that’s kind of how I feel about that. How can guys that can move around stay healthy, have long careers? You get smart fast, and you use that weapon really judiciously. And I think RG III learned a ton this year, and with this injury will be forced to deal with learning a lot more – and quickly. He’s a smart guy. He will. Michael Vick has had the same thing. You can make these phenomenal plays – 80-yard runs, make five guys miss – sooner or later you’ll expose yourself to something that you nor your team can afford, and that’s just judiciously understanding your weapons and using them in the right way and with experience. I wish for RG III to get fully healthy, to get back on the field with no remnants of this injury, so he can continue that path. Because if he continues the path, he can be one of the great weapons that ever played at quarterback. But that’s the challenge for anyone that moves around. Guys who don’t move around don’t have to worry about it. They hold other skills.
Q. Have the Packers found enough of a running game at the end of the season to keep San Francisco’s defense off balance? And, what are your impressions of what you’ve seen in Aaron Rodgers this season, especially compared to last season when things came so easily to the team and to him?
YOUNG: You can see, defenses are predatory. They smell trouble and then they go after it. And throughout this year I think defenses smelled that there was really no threat from the run. You can talk about it. You can even have some success. You know the truth. It creates a lot of problems for quarterbacks. And that’s why I think Aaron had one of the great years ever because he pulled this team along without all the weapons, without his full arsenal. You give him a running game and the ability to put the ball in the belly of running back and pull it back out, and have reaction from safeties and linebackers, Aaron Rodgers will kill you. I’ve got to carefully word my statements — you won’t stop him. I think the answer to your question, no, I don’t believe there’s enough of a threat to change the predatory nature of how defenses look at the Packers. They haven’t been straightened up to that fact. And so that hurts the Packers. That’s why they do struggle week to week at times. And especially, the 49ers, to think they can run and make up for mistakes because they are so fast, I sense that they won’t admit it but they’ll come into the game saying ‘look, I’m not worried about anybody running over us, and if we start to get beat, we’ll adjust. But we’re going after Aaron Rodgers because if we are going to beat the Packers, he’s going to be on his back.’ Specifically, no, I don’t think they’ve done enough to change the perception from the kind of defense he’s going to be facing.
Q. What was the more memorable pass for you – the game-winner to T.O. against the Packers or the Super Bowl opening TD to Jerry (Rice)?
YOUNG: The better pass is the T.O. pass because, let’s face it, it was the last play of the game. You’ve got to go to the end zone. I mean, you’ve got to move people around, and people aren’t going to move around. They’ve got nowhere to go. So to get some kind of movement from LeRoy (Butler), to get some kind of movement from Darren (Sharper), that shouldn’t be there, that’s the toughest job. It’s kind of the oldest thing – I know that you know and you know that I know and we know each other, no matter what you do. To get some movement to have them believe that you’re doing something else after facing each other over and over and over, was one of the great feats. It just doesn’t happen. Not just the play in general but the throw, getting people to move in places they shouldn’t be, and make an opening that shouldn’t be there, was a higher degree of difficulty, kind of like an Olympic dive. And to this day, I’m sure Mike Holmgren and everyone else are like ‘how in the world did we allow that to happen?’. This was not a jump ball that T.O. jumped higher than everyone and wrestled to the ground, figured out a way to make some catch. This was tactical, run a play, move people around and find an opening and deliver the football. It’s part of from the huddle. So that’s why that one was a little bit better of a throw.
Q. In 2005 when the 49ers had the lowest-ranked offense in the league, was there anything you saw that year that told you Mike McCarthy might be a very successful NFL coach after that?
YOUNG: It’s so funny the irony that you bring up, because when the Packers went to the Super Bowl a few years ago, the irony for those of us that watched Mike and know his history and know the history of deciding between Aaron and Alex, it was almost too much to make the irony in the moment.
And so, yeah, it was a brutal time because Pittsburgh is known for defense, Chicago is known for defense and that city responds to that, and this city responds to offense, they appreciated defense but they want the ball flying. They want to see the scores and it’s just the way it works and they want to see the quarterbacks. I think that 2005 was, you know, kind of as low as you can go. That’s interesting. I think Mike is hopeful that you don’t remember all of that because the irony of him coaching Aaron Rodgers in Super Bowls and all of the things he’s done. I know Mike didn’t make the decision about Alex but it’s funny how things roll around.
Q. Obviously quarterback has always been such a glamour position in all of sports but how would you compare this current group of guys across the entire league in terms of the number of guys who just have star power; and the other times ‑‑ the number of guys that are like that right now.
YOUNG: It ebbs and flows, no question. There’s some dark times where you just only have two or three guys that can truly do it and really no one else can dictate to defenses. That’s really the test, who can come out and dictate to defenses and who are the masters of the field. I think that we are in a little bit of a boon right now; we’re overflowing a little bit.
Especially young players, and so if those guys continue to develop, we’ll have a period of time here, kind of a Camelot of quarterbacking if we can make sure these guys continue to develop. But we are going to see some guys exit the stage, too. No matter what, you are going to see Peyton and Tom in their mid 30s, Drew, they are not going to last forever. But you’ve got a feeling that there are some guys around that we’re in pretty good shape in the next generation.
Right now, as we speak, there’s compelling stories all over the playoffs at the quarterback spot, which is kind of fun. It’s fun to talk about. It makes for obviously much better football, and we all, everyone, I think has capitulated that it’s kind of a quarterback-driven league at every level.
So when you’ve got compelling stories at quarterback, it’s good, it’s good for all of us. Obviously an unprecedented year for rookie quarterbacks. There’s no way you can talk about a rookie class that’s done more, and I mean substantively more, not be carried by a great team, been protected and had a good season. We are talking about flat‑on‑their‑back Colts, literally a restart, almost an expansion club, dragged to the playoffs and really a real playoff team. What RG III’s done, what Russell Wilson’s done, we know that. And even what Ryan Tannehill’s done for a rookie, so it’s unprecedented what the rookies have done this year.