If someone were to ask you, “Would you trade a future Hall of Famer in his prime for a second- and fourth-round pick?” you’d say no without hesitation. Yet, in 1987, that’s what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did, shipping 26-year-old Steve Young to the San Francisco 49ers for two draft picks.
Young was deemed a bust after going 3-16 in his first two NFL seasons, and the 49ers were in need of a backup with Joe Montana’s health in question. The teams agreed to the trade, and Young went on to win three Super Bowls and two MVPs and make it all the way to the Hall of Fame.
It was a disastrous deal for the Bucs, who only pulled the trigger because Vinny Testaverde was sitting there for the taking with the first pick in the 1987 draft.
In the fifth part of our 10-day series reviewing the NFL's biggest trades, we take a look back at the deal that extended the 49ers’ dynasty and brought mediocrity to Tampa Bay for years to come.
Vinny Testaverde had more INTs in six years with the Bucs than Young had in his 15-year career
The Buccaneers were obviously content with trading Young because they held the first overall pick in the 1987 draft, and Testaverde was there for the taking. They agreed to a contract with the quarterback days before the draft, effectively ending Young’s tenure in Tampa Bay after being labeled a bust.
Hindsight shows the Buccaneers clearly made the wrong decision by choosing Testaverde over Young. In six years with the Bucs, Testaverde had a whopping 112 interceptions, including 57 in his second and third season combined. By comparison, Young had only 107 interceptions in his 15-year career. Testaverde’s 112 picks came on just 2,160 attempts, while Young had nearly twice as many at 4,149.
Additionally, Young lost only 49 games in his career (94 wins), while Testaverde lost 48 games in just six seasons with the Buccaneers (24 wins).
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Young led the NFL in passer rating a record six times after the trade
Young was just about the most accurate quarterback of his era, leading the league in completion percentage five times, ranking 11th all-time at 64.3 percent. More impressive than that, though, was the fact Young was the league-leader in passer rating six times – an NFL record. From 1991 – his first year starting at least 10 games – to 1994, he never had a passer rating below 100, leading the league in that department each year.
He was No. 1 twice more in 1996 and 1997, establishing himself as an all-time great. Young also led the league in touchdown passes three times (1992-94) and won two NFL MVP awards. To put that into perspective, the Bucs had only one winning season from the time they traded Young to the year before he retired. Testaverde obviously never won an MVP, but he did lead the league in interceptions as many times as Young won the award.
Young signed a 43-year, $40 million deal with the USFL’s Los Angeles Express in 1984
After college, Young skipped out on the NFL to join the USFL. He signed a 43-year deal worth $40 million with the L.A. Express, a contract that was supposed to pay him until 2027 – or 10 years from now, which is insane to think about. However, it was reported that he received only $1.4 million as part of a settlement after joining the NFL two years into the contract.
Young missed the first six games of his first season with the Express due to college classes, but after returning he became the first player in league history to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 in the same game.
In his second season, the team was turned over to the USFL after the owner declared bankruptcy. One year later, the league ceased operations.
After a disastrous tenure in the USFL, Young entered the 1984 supplemental draft, where he was the first player selected – by the Buccaneers, of course. He started five games as a rookie but went 1-4 with three touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
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There was never any bad blood between Young and Joe Montana, despite it seeming that way
When Young was traded to the 49ers, it was clearly to be a backup. Joe Montana, despite past injury concerns, was still the starter and in the prime of his career. He held the starting job for four years while Young watched impatiently behind him, leading the 49ers to two Super Bowl wins after the trade. However, when Montana got injured in 1991, competition heated up.
"I remember in training camp that year, Steve refused to call himself the second-string guy," tight end Brent Jones said in Adam Lazarus’ “Best of Rivals” book. "He even made a quote, and I'm sure this didn't go over well with Joe, but he said, ‘I'm 1-B.' So there's 1-A [Montana] and 1-B [Young]."
Young started 10 games, playing relatively well with 17 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. In 1992, he retained the starting job with Montana recovering from an elbow injury. That’s when the competition really heated up, especially after Young began to struggle early on. Young obviously remained the starter from that point forward -- and Montana was traded the next offseason -- but there was no bad blood between him and Montana despite the competition.
"People always think that we fought," Young said later on. "We never had a cross word, never had an argument, and I've always said to people that it went as well as it possibly could with two hypercompetitive people. But it wasn't easy; it was difficult, difficult for both of us."
Montana echoed the same sentiment.
"It's not that there was bad blood," he said in 2011. "I guess the only way you can explain it is if you go to work every day in an office ... you're not always best friends with the guy sitting next to you. You're friends, but you're not best friends. And while we were friends, we wouldn't hang out together. ... It had nothing to do with the game or the competition; it's just our personalities are different."
There was certainly tension between the two, but to say they hated each other isn’t as accurate as some made it seem.
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It’s the only time the Buccaneers have traded away a future Hall of Famer
The Buccaneers have made a number of significant trades in their history, from Jon Gruden to Keyshawn Johnson. However, none of them has involved Tampa Bay trading away a future Hall of Famer … except for the Young deal. He was the first and only future Hall of Famer that the Buccaneers dealt, proving to be a huge mistake looking back at the decision.
The Bucs got a second- and fourth-round pick in return – a decent haul, all things considered – but Winston Moss and Bruce Hill were both just decent players after the team drafted them with the two picks. They weren’t high-impact guys who changed a franchise the way Young did for the Buccaneers.
Granted, Young looked like a bust in Tampa Bay, and the team had little choice with Testaverde seeming like a sure thing, but it’s never a good feeling seeing your former player go on to make the Hall of Fame – especially after he was just 3-16 as your quarterback.