Making the case for bringing B.Y. back

It has been 11 years since the 49ers won their last Super Bowl, and it seems even longer when you consider that milestone took place during Bryant Young's rookie season. The old warhorse has seen and done it all in the NFL, and at his age – Young turned 34 on Friday – you might expect he'd think twice about sticking around in a rebuilding project. But Young wants to be part of that again in 2006. "Absolutely," he said. But B.Y. knows well there are several factors that must go into the decision.

The biggest factor, of course, is whether he still has the desire to play. After 12 often glorious seasons of hard NFL wear and tear, Young could hang it up today and call it a successful career that borders on Hall of Fame consideration.

He clearly isn't getting any younger, and his late-season knee injury after his inspiring play in 2005 displayed just how vulnerable Young is at this stage of his career. Young came back from ligament damage in his knee sooner than expected to start the final three games of the season – he missed just three games with an injury that would keep other mere mortals out the rest of the year – but he hardly was the same player that had been such a force earlier in the season.

Young already has risen from apparent decline by bouncing back with big seasons in 2004 and 2005 before his injury. But can he keep it up another season in 2006? The more pertinent question is, does he want to? He could retire today at the top of his game, or at least close to it, with plenty of accomplishment and millions of dollars earned behind him.

"I think questions have come up about retiring, or whatever, but I'm still enjoying playing," Young said. "I still have a desire to play. And as long as I'm healthy, I'll play. And as long as they want to have me here, I'll play."

Do the 49ers still want to have Young here on a team that clearly is shoving out the old in favor of the new? Young is something of a landmark on this San Francisco team, but the fact remains that coach Mike Nolan is changing the face of the franchise and is methodically bringing in new parts in practically every area to fit his vision for the team.

But Nolan says Young still can be a part of that vision, even though the 49ers can wipe some significant monetary numbers off the books this year by parting ways with an aging B.Y. Young is due a base salary of $2.25 million in 2006, and he's also due a substantial roster bonus in the upcoming months. That's relatively big money for a team that's in Year 2 of starting over.

"That will be Bryant's decision," Nolan said. "Yes, that will be Bryant's decision. He's got a contract. As I see it right now, that might be something he might talk to me about. But that's where it lies."

In other words, the 49ers still are deciding if there truly is a place for Young and his salary in the team's 2006 plans, just as they are with dozens of other veterans still on the roster. But Young played well enough in 2005 to earn a place in those plans. And what his dignified presence alone means to the team is something that's irreplaceable.

"It's hard to put words on what it means," Nolan said, "but everybody knows that it is meaningful. The guy is a true warrior. Years before, the structure and environment were entirely different than it was when he got here in 1994. It could be easy for him to slip into a non-professional mode. But the man is strong. It tells you a lot about Bryant and it tells you that he believes in what we're doing."

Young seconded that remark, and he said that's one of the reasons that inspires him to return for a 13th season as a 49er in 2006.

"I really like the things that they're doing here, and I think coach Nolan is a great communicator and motivator," Young said. "And he just really believes in the plan he set before us. I believe in the coaching staff and the things they're trying to accomplish here and just the direction that the organization is headed. So it's looking pretty good. I really want to finish my career here."

That career began auspiciously in 1994, when Young was the team's first-round pick out of Notre Dame and immediately earned himself a spot in a starting lineup chock-full of tremendous talent. Young started all 16 games at left tackle, earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, and his first pro season ended with the 49ers blasting the San Diego Chargers 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX.

Young has experienced plenty of highs and lows with the team since then.

He played on three NFC West championship teams before San Francisco's two-decade dynasty finally crashed and burned in 1999, when Young was the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year after bouncing back from a devastating, career-threatening leg injury. He played a leading role during the quick – and brief – rebirth of 2001-2002 before the 49ers bottomed out again in 2004.

Despite the team's recent slide, Young earned back-to-back Pro Bowl berths in 2001-2002 and he was the team's MVP in 2004. The four-time All-Pro led the 49ers with eight sacks in 2005 despite missing three games with the knee injury and being considerably hampered after he returned.

Young said his feelings about returning for another season would be different if he still wasn't playing at the top of his game. He hit a lull of mediocre play between 2002-2003 that had several observers believing his best days were behind him and he no longer was an impact force. But Young's play has been both stellar and productive the past two seasons.

"That's definitely important," Young said. "You don't want to ever live off of what you established earlier in your career. I think, for me, it's important to be effective out on the field and help the team win. If I'm not doing that, then it's probably time for me to leave. But I felt like I was effective this year, and hopefully I can continue that."

Actually, the experience of 2005 appeared to rejuvenate Young. That ultimately may be the deciding factor regarding the decision to return in 2006.

"I felt great this season," Young said. "I mean, just energized. I like the atmosphere here. The guys that are here, they worked extremely hard despite how things went this season. You saw no one hanging their heads, and I liked that. That's a very positive attitude to have in this business.

"I think we definitely have a good nucleus of guys here. So, if we continue to keep those guys here and really build on that and what we started and how we finished and have that carry into next season, things would look pretty good for us."

Things would look even better if Young remained a part of that nucleus. After all, hasn't he always been since the days back when the 49ers still were Super?


Niners Digest Top Stories