Steve Young: “Whoever doesn’t think these guys are for real is kidding themselves.”

Steve Young spoke with Ted Robinson for a change this afternoon on KNBR.

Here’s the transcript.


Q: What did that win over the Steelers mean for the 49ers?

YOUNG: “It was huge, just perceptually around the country. People look at the Pittsburgh Steelers – that’s a marquee name and a marquee game and a marquee record, and a big name, big players, big stuff, Monday night. So it’s perception. And a lot of the game is perception. It’s emotional. People respond to those kinds of wins, and they don’t really get into the details. And sometimes that’s why the best thing to do is figure out a way to win them, because now around the country – I don’t know if you’ve noticed it but even the last couple of days it’s like: ‘The 49ers are for real! Watch out!’ Well, that’s them responding to the perception, right? That they are real because they just beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. Those of you that watched every play, you kind of probably felt they were real a month or two ago, right? And so that’s why Monday was a really important piece of the puzzle.”

Q: Does that matter to other players around the league? Do other players gain a perception by watching it on Monday night?

YOUNG: “Absolutely. That’s why Monday night’s the perception-maker, because everyone’s watching it. You can hear about a game – like, ‘Calvin Johnson had a good game for the lions,’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ But then when you actually see it, wow.

“I’ve got to be honest with you. I’ve got to apologize to Aldon Smith because I hadn’t really seen him in person all year. And I apologize, because I had no idea how great he really was until I saw him in person. And that’s what matters. Hearing about it, watching it on TV and then seeing in person – all different visceral relationships you have with something, and it matters. So around the league when everyone watched the 49ers kind of beat up on Ben Roethlisberger, don’t let him score, call a couple big touchdown drives, and they hear about the defense, they’ve watched Aldon Smith play and (laughs) whoever doesn’t think these guys are for real is kidding themselves.”

Q: Anything else strike you about Aldon Smith?

YOUNG: “When Charles Haley was young – he reminds me of that, and that is a tremendous compliment by the way, because Charles as a young player was a phenomenal football player. In many ways you can make the claim that he tipped Super Bowls one way or another. And that might be right. He was a dominant player, and Aldon reminds me of that. It doesn’t matter the tackle he’s going up against, and the way he closes it just makes your eyes blink. You say to yourself, ‘I’ve got to watch that again because I didn’t…how did he get there so, how did he close that gap so quickly. Watching him, that guy is going to be one of the all-timers, and that’s just a fact.”

Q: So if you’re in Seattle’s offensive line meeting this week, is Aldon Smith so dominant that they’re asking themselves how to block him?

YOUNG: “No question. I would. I would say that this is an issue. We’ve got to chip him. We’ve got to double team him. You can’t just single him up – he will make you look foolish. I’m sure he’s going to get better and better. He’s just young. But to be able to do the things that he did – I watched a long time – those are rare qualities, rare. You don’t see that. And there’s a lot of good pass rushers, and then there’s guys who can singlehandedly get to the quarterback, and he’s one of them.”

Q: In other words, he can just beat you one on one.

YOUNG: “Right, like Derrick Thomas….Look, I’m not saying, ‘This is Derrick Thomas,’ or, ‘This is Charles Haley,’ I’m just saying, my eyeball test was that was different than other things that you see, significant enough that if you just play that out over time and he gets better and better, that’s where he’s heading. He’s got that kind of ability.”

Q: Let me ask you something about what Alex Smith is going through this year. I ask this because Braylon Edwards has not played much this year, (Josh) Morgan has now been out a good chunk of the year, Ted Ginn (Jr.) goes out in the second half the other night. How much does it matter that Alex Smith has had to throw to different receivers over the course of the year?

YOUNG: “I think it matters to Alex but it matters more to Jim, because he’s got to put the plan together, he’s got to call the plays and he’s got the totality of the picture. He knows what’s happening defensively, he gets a sense of what the game needs to look like – the flow. And he’s going to call plays, that… and I promise you, the difference for Alex Smith this year is that he’s got a coach that cares about Alex’s success primarily, number one. And so I think when you lose certain guys the playbook kind of shrinks a little bit because you just can’t press the envelope as much because you just don’t have the experience or the talent or the things that make you be more expressive or more expansive. And so, Alex will feel that, there’s no question, but Jim I think really feels it because he has to call plays differently and he actually has to coach differently. We’ve seen that throughout the year. We’ve been looking for the offense to get more expansive, but it is made tougher with big injuries and people missing and not maybe, you know, living up to expectations.”

Q: Would that make a big difference in the red zone play?

YOUNG: “Red zone play – a lot of it is tactics. But even more of it is, “I’m a tremendous athlete and put it up.” So Braylon Edwards, who’s healthy and performing and doing the things he’s done at times – that’s a huge red zone weapon. A difference maker. Somebody who can make space and just figure out a way to make plays that aren’t there. We talked about it last week with Alex and really some of my growth when I was playing, was developing ways to put the ball in the end zone when doing the rational thing, which is, ‘I read the play, no one’s open, I drop it to the fullback, we kick a field goal.’ That repeated over and over, you will get beat – we saw that a week ago in Phoenix.”

Q: How much in the red zone should it come down to Alex Smith making a play? Can he be a difference maker in the red zone?

YOUNG: “He has to be. And I guess that’s my point from last week, talking about Brett Favre. I watched him throw many, many touchdowns where guys weren’t open. I kind of learned ‘Holy cow, you can’t wait for people to get open because it ain’t happening a lot of times.’ And that’s what I mean, you have to work with receivers, you have to be a little bit of a gun slinger, a little moxie to find those places where you can create that. And so a lot of that is on (Smith). We talked about the over-my-dead-body quality last week. That’s one of the qualities you have to have – I’ve watched great quarterbacks and that’s the common denominator.  You have that kind of, and I use this word truly as a metaphor – the assassin, like, ‘Down inside the red zone we’re going to make this happen.’ And creating it, and the artform.

“20 to 20 is not a commodity – it’s not easy to move the football in the NFL, but it’s more of a commodity putting it in the end zone. To me it’s differential for that level of expertise that you need to be one of the great players. But I’m not going to say Alex does or doesn’t have it because of what you just expressed about injuries and people not being there, and then also the way the defense is playing and how Jim has to coach through it – he’s been masterful – that I don’t know, and Alex Smith expressed this to me before the game the other day, you’ve got to be careful because kicking field goals has been okay. We have survived it. We can do much more. He expressed that we can do so much more, you’ve just got to do it at the right time, the right place. And so I agree with that.

“And I guess we all would agree – Alex would agree and Jim would agree and I would agree that in some point in the next few weeks a game’s going to come up where that’s going to be a big piece of the puzzle, and the more we’ve done it, the more we’ve tried it, the better.”

Q: What about running in the red zone? How tough is it to run the ball there? Because the 49ers, that’s one thing they have not done well this year.

YOUNG: “I always thought one of the most difficult things to do and one of the things I most respected about teams (was the ones) who could run it in. Like, ‘If we get in the red zone, we’re running it in.’ Very rare. Very difficult to do. Very few people are that good of a running offense to do that. And it also takes a tremendous commitment, which is tough too because you get down there you don’t want to necessarily commit to just one thing. It’s very hard to run the football in. You saw last week those unique plays.  The Vernon Davis – those are unique, bootleg, throwback, creating space – I thought it was genius from Jim. And Bill used to be great in the red zone just creating safer plays, not having to drop back and read the whole field down in the compact small area inside the 10 or the 15. We need more of those, and I’m sure Jim’s drawing those up. And then Alex can run the football, he can move. Creating those kind of plays, unique plays to threaten. But to just line up and hand it to Frank and run it in from the 20, that is a tall order in the NFL in my mind.”

Q: What about at the 5 yard line?

YOUNG: “That’s a whole different story. When we practiced red zone, you had the 20, the 15, the 10, the 5, and we have five to seven to eight to even ten plays for each one of those sections. And so as you practiced red zone on Fridays, you’d start at the red zone and run those plays, and then the 15, and so each section has its own plays. And so at the 5 running the football in, it’s much different endeavor on first and 5 than obviously it is at first (down) at the 20. When I’m talking about red zone, to me you’ve driven the ball down to the 20, are you going to run it in from there? In other words, ‘We’re going to run five plays and push it in.’ That’s a difficult process. From the 5? No, of course not. A great runner who can make space and run people over like Frank can, that’s not a bad option at all.”

Q: Did Monday night solve the protection issues? Or will they still get challenged by big time blitzes?

YOUNG: “They’ll get challenged, but what it does is it gives people confidence inside the building. It’s a confidence game. You have seven days to let everyone tell you you’re not great and you can’t protect and it gets in your head, and then all of a sudden you do it, and you now get seven days and everyone says, ‘These guys are good, they’re solid.” And that makes a difference inside the building. But they’ll be tested because they have to, because we’re running the ball so well. Defenses want to pick on something. Defensive coordinators have got to convince their guys that there’s a weakness and we’re going to expand on it. And I think generally for the 49ers they’re going to say, ‘we’re going to get to that protection.’ But last week was awesome.”

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