WHAT HE sees isn't different from what the rest of us see, a 49ers offense stumbling over its own apprehension.

Steve Young's view, however, is enhanced. He did play the game, played it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, played it to the Super Bowl MVP trophy.

If you think these are difficult times for Niner fans, they are worse for Young, not only as a retired Niner but also as a quarterback who loved the wheels turning and the yards mounting.

Young these days, when gray is nibbling at his dark hair, is both a commentator for ESPN's "Monday Night Football" and, more significantly because of his local knowledge, a Thursday afternoon regular with Ralph Barbieri and Tom Tolbert, a.k.a. the Razor and Mr.T., on their eclectic KNBR drive-time show.

You want to know what's wrong with the 2-3 Niners, who are averaging a morsel above 200 yards a game? They're being asked, Young explained, to keep it close.

"And that philosophy loses more games than wins them," Young correctly explained on the program.

Barbieri wondered if Norv Turner still were offensive coordinator, instead of Jim Hostler, the Niners wouldn't act as if they were terrified of doing something with a football instead of just trying to hold on to it.

"I think this is a study in philosophy," Young said. "I've seen it over the years. You talk about great, game-day play callers, and how rare they are, guys who have no regard for worrying about what the press is going to say, what the head coach will say. Guys who show, 'Look, I call my plays, and this is how I feel about it.'"

Guys like Turner. Like Mike Holmgren, when he was with the Niners. Like Mike Shanahan, when he was with the Niners. Like Marty Mornhinweg, when he was with the Niners. Young played for all of them.

"I love offensive coordinators who have the X-factor," Young pointed out. "It's like, 'Look I have a feel for this game, and I'm not going to be denied.' I'm not sure (Niner head coach) Mike Nolan is giving that kind of freedom. He's saying, we have a good defense, keep it close.

"That's where the Niners are right now, and the problem is it's exactly like we were in'96-97, when we lost our running threat, Ricky Watters — although no question we were a lot more dynamic than this team. We didn't have anyone who made defenses scared. When that happens, defenses start to creep and creep and creep, and I'm telling you first downs can be so difficult. I can only imagine what Hostler's facing right now, and what Trent Dilfer's facing."

The Niners are meeting this week, meeting and practicing. No game Sunday. Bye week. As opposed to the 9-7 loss to Baltimore. That might have been bye-bye week.

This was supposed to be a break-out season, a winning season. Quarterback Alex Smith went down temporarily with a separated shoulder. Receiver Vernon Davis went down with a bad knee.

The Niners are tip-toeing around, hoping nobody discovers them, but it's too late. Their opponents know. We all know.

"This team is not going to go very far," Young said. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. The offense says, we're going to be careful. The opposing defense says, we're going to creep more. Pretty soon the air is out of it. The comments from the Ravens. They said they shouldn't have given (the 49ers) one first down."

Nolan, perhaps, knows what Steve can only guess, that the offense, especially with Dilfer in for Smith, especially with an underachieving offensive line, is not to be trusted. And yet, this isn't a question of if it ain't broke don't fix it. It's very broken, maybe beyond repair.

"The Niners have a pretty good defense," Young agreed. "They're probably not going to give up 30, although it will happen once in a while. A three-touchdown or under game, and anyone is in that game, anyone with an offense. Last Sunday, the Niners had nothing going on, and they were one play from winning."

The play they couldn't make. The play they wouldn't make.

Young believes Smith has the potential to be an outstanding quarterback. Does he have the guidance?

"What I'd like to see," Young said, "is for Alex to tell himself, 'I'm going got grab this thing by the throat, I'm going to make the offensive coordinator call the plays I'm comfortable with.'"

He, and we, can only hope.

Art Spander can be reached at

typoes@aol.com