Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review: Best of Rivals (2012)

By Adam Lazarus

The position of football quarterback is unique in a variety of ways in sports, but in one way in particular. A starter is not merely named, he is the subject of a coronation. For whatever reason, we seem to think that quarterbacks can never be replaced, even temporarily, unless they are ready to be buried on the depth chart for years to come. Heck, NFL coaches don't switch quarterbacks until well past the point of logic, a time when their team is either so far ahead or behind that no one is even paying attention.

The general rule is such matters is that it helps to have one person take over the starting job. In other words, if you have two number-one quarterbacks, you have no number-one quarterbacks.

But there was an exception to that rule, and it's the subject of Adam Lazarus' book, "Best of Rivals."

After the 1992 season, the San Francisco 49ers had two star quarterbacks on their roster. Steve Young was arguably the best quarterback in the National Football League at that point. Joe Montana was arguably the best quarterback in the National Football League in history. There's never been a situation like it.

Thus a recounting of the story involving the two men is worth telling for that reason. Two Hall of Famers, one job.Lazarus tells the story here.

The author gives a brief biography of both players first. Montana and Young were both famous in college, but Montana needed little time to achieve pro stardom. Young began his professional career in the United States Football League, bounced to the lowly Tampa Bay Bucs, and finally arrived in San Francisco ... with Montana ahead of him on the depth chart. It wasn't an easy situation for someone used to starting.

From there, Lazarus gives us something of a game-by-game account of the few years that the two men were together. Sometimes two quarterbacks can have a good relationship, but usually one of them is clearly better and deserves to start -- thus, each knows his role. That wasn't the case here, and Montana was always looking over his shoulder at the younger, talented man backing him up.

What's striking in hindsight at how battered Montana was when Young arrived in 1987, even though Montana didn't even have a full decade on the job yet. He spent much of the next few years on the injured list, but was frequently still very effective when he was healthy enough to play. That gave Young a taste of playing time, but never quite enough to be comfortable until Montana started to miss long stretches of games at a time.

Lazarus obviously put in his time at the library for this one, with several quotes brought back from the past to describe games and events. He also talked to as many principals as possible, including Montana and Young. Indeed, Young sounds as if he was more forthcoming on the subject than Montana in hindsight. But the best moments in the book come this way, such as the time Bill Walsh needed about five minutes from his view in the owner's box at the Super Bowl (he had retired at this point) to say that the 49ers would in the game easily and decisively.

"Best of Rivals" works reasonably well. Since much of the detail comes from the games themselves and the accompanying quotes, it's fair to say that this book will be welcomed more than San Francisco fans who wish to review a unique part of their history. They should definitely give it an extra star. The rest of the football world may find that this bogs down just a little in the stories about games from two decades ago, but most will find this a solid enough recounting of the era.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

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