Ghosts of 49ers hard to catch


MIAMI -- They were born a quarter-century apart and they work different jobs, but they find themselves in identical circumstances today.

They are at the peak of their powers and their professions, yet they can't escape the shadows that haunt them.

George Seifert and Steve Young. One coach, one quarterback. Two men running. Fast. Running toward the high places in pro football history that they have earned.

But still not outrunning the shadows that linger over them, casting all that they do in a darker light.

Young is the first quarterback in NFL history to lead the league in passing for four straight seasons. Twice, he has been named the league's Most Valuable Player. He'll be the winning pitcher if the 49ers beat the Chargers in the Super Bowl tomorrow, which they figure to do.

Yet listen to his favorite receiver, Jerry Rice, holding court with reporters earlier this week: "The greatest quarterback to play the game is Joe Montana. There will never be another Joe Montana."

And listen to what former 49ers coach Bill Walsh wrote in a guest column in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel earlier this week: "The people in San Francisco have not welcomed Steve because of their total commitment and adoration for Joe Montana. I think Joe will always be the person 49er fans adore. Maybe Steve would be if he wins four Super Bowls, but I doubt he can do that. . . ."

Seifert is on the verge of equaling Chuck Noll, Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi, Joe Gibbs, Don Shula, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells, Tom Flores and his predecessor, Walsh, as a coach who has won at least two Super Bowls. He has won 78 percent of his games in six seasons, the highest winning percentage in league history.

Yet listen to his starting right offensive tackle, Harris Barton: "Bill Walsh's fingerprints are still all over this team, mainly the offense. Every play we run was designed by Walsh. . . ."

A coach and his quarterback. Seifert and Young. They win and win and win, yet still they can't win.

Certainly, a victory tomorrow would do much for Young's place in the hearts of 49ers fans, not to mention his reputation as a top quarterback, which will be incomplete unless he wins a Super Bowl. But would that victory put an end to the ceaseless comparisons with Montana?

"Oh, no, no way," Young said this week, smiling. "But I'm not worried about it now. I'm comfortable with the expectations and the scrutiny."

In other words, he has finally reconciled his privileged and yet prickly lot as Montana's successor. And he has had to do it all by himself, thanks to Montana's classless refusal to make things easier.

Montana saw Young as a threat from the day Young arrived from Tampa Bay in 1987. He offered Young only limited help and rarely compliments him to this day. Their relationship is poor. Young stopped just short of admitting publicly this week what many football observers have known for a long time: They don't speak.

Yet Young has never failed to treat Montana deferentially even as his own list of accomplishments has grown. "The master still had something to teach the student," Young said after Montana's Chiefs beat the 49ers this season. He didn't have to say that. But Young brings all the grace to this situation. Montana has just let an ugly side show.

For that reason as much as any, a 49ers victory tomorrow, marked by another fine performance from Young, would be welcomed. Perhaps it is true that Young will never outrun Montana's shadow, but he deserves his own moment on top.

Seifert has had a little more luck outrunning Walsh's shadow, and that, too, is only fair. Only seven of the 53 49ers who will dress tomorrow were on the team when Seifert took over for Walsh after the 1988 season. The defense has been reconstructed several times since then. Some of the offensive X's and O's are now in different places. Seifert's fingerprints are all over this team, too.

Yet there is no arguing that the foundation of the team, then and now, is the short passing game that Walsh invented and that every team in the league now uses to some degree. Walsh was a visionary who changed the nature of pro football. Seifert is just a coach.

Sure, it isn't easy to follow a legend and continue the pattern of success. You need a thick skin, a small ego and some clever ideas of your own. Seifert is one of the few who has pulled it off.

Yet he will never receive the same acclaim as Walsh or any of the other coaches who have won the Super Bowl twice. His record, no matter how brilliant, will always be compromised by the fact that he didn't build something from scratch, as each of the others did.

To his credit, he doesn't seem consumed by this. "He is remarkably unconcerned about his image," Young said, "which is one of the great things about him."

Yet one 49ers source said this week that Seifert wants to keep coaching long enough to break Walsh's records, implying that Seifert cares more than he admits about the ghost he can't seem to outrun.

Still, it would appear that neither the coach nor his quarterback is obsessed with what Young calls "the race." This is understandable. As much as it must be frustrating to try to catch a shadow that can't be caught, winning Super Bowls is gratifying solace. And it sure beats just about any imaginable alternative, such as, say, a job with the Tampa Bay Bucs.

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