When tasked with selecting my 25 favorite 49ers of all-time, I started with what was, and remains, a given. Jerry Rice is the greatest player in NFL history.
Well, most of you are 49ers’ fans, so you’re shaking your head in agreement, thinking, “Darn straight! Nobody was better at what he did than Jerry Rice was! The best!” I’d lean to Jim Brown as the greatest player in NFL history, but he retired in 1965 and most of you didn’t see him play. And, heck, even if you did, you wouldn’t rate the game’s greatest running back as the NFL’s greatest player.
I wrote (for free, for fun, for a web presence that makes tons of money in advertising yet pays wannabe’ sports writers not a penny) that since even the greatest receiver of all-time needed Joe Montana and Steve Young to get the ball to him, it is possible to question Rice’s spot among all-time NFL greats. So, I didn’t start a list of the 25 greatest Niners with No. 80 at the top.
Rice needed too much help to get the ball to actually be the greatest all-around player in 49ers’ history, let alone in NFL history. In fact, you might be thinking, “This guy should be writing for a place where everybody writes for free because Joe Montana’s the greatest player in NFL history and, automatically, the greatest 49er ever!”
I can’t agree because it’s clear that Young would’ve done everything Montana did and … I’m sorry, it’s clear to me. It might not be so clear to you and I hope you’ll tell me so.
So, I’m going to enjoy NFL Championship Games week far from hyper-analysis of 49ers-Falcons and arguing about questions such as: “Colin Kaepernick: Great young quarterback? Greatest young quarterback ever?”
I’m starting with an updated list of the 25 greatest 49ers ever.
Even working for free, I researched the great pre-1963 Niners — guys I didn’t know a thing about until I read about them or saw them on NFL Films. From 1964 forward, though, I’ve seen and covered them all.
25. Vernon Davis: Want to argue that V.D. is the greatest athlete ever to wear 49ers’ colors? He’s faster, a lot faster, than the greatest receivers in team history. He’s stronger, bigger and stronger, than the best offensive linemen. And, if they could figure a way to get him the ball as often as the Patriots get Rob Gronskowski the ball … he’d be a beast! Davis cracks the list for encouraging Alex Smith to stand up to the worst head coach in 49ers’ history, Mike Singletary. Davis deserves credit for Smith resurrecting his career.
24. Hugh “The King” McElhenny: I really miss nicknames, and he had two! They trump the fact he’s seventh on the organization list of career rushers. “The King” is a better nickname that “Hurryin’ Hugh,” don’t you think? He had more than 11,000 all-purpose yards, most with the 49ers. And, we know all-purpose yards are more important than rush yards. (Well, to account for him being on the list, they do.) He’s a Hall of Famer who was voted All-Pro five times. “The King” attended the same high school as my professional mentor—Don Terbush. Don was a sprint champion and football star at Compton High School in the 1940s—as was McElhenny. When Don talked of “The King,” he spoke in reverent tones. “The King” must’ve been the real deal.
23. Dwight Clark: “The Catch” alone merits him the 24h spot. The hair restoration ad campaign he’s doing hurt him a little, I’ll be honest.
22. Leo Nomellini: The 1950s two-way line star Nomellini was a great lineman out of Minnesota in the 1950s who headlined the first set of Topps NFL cards I collected in 1964. His Italian heritage and off-season work as a pro wrestler made him a Bay Area icon back when people read newspapers to get their news. (Credit to reader David Contreras who followed the L.A. Rams during Nomellini’s career and reports that 49ers’ receiver Billy Wilson, who occupied this spot, “was good, but not great.” Contreras, a former football coach, points out that Nomellini was truly a great player.)
21. John Taylor: What a tough sonuva gun and, oh, how he got lost in Rice’s shadow. Returned kicks. Tough as nails. The TD reception and run on Monday night against the Rams is mentioned at a Sillanpaa family gathering every football season. Taylor didn’t get the acclaim he deserved … just lived every kid’s dream and caught the game-winning TD pass in the Super Bowl. He retired and started a trucking company in 1995.
20. Joe “The Jet” Perry: Based on having a nickname and the game-breaking ability he showed in the 1950s, “The Jet” would make an impact in the modern running game. Ken Willard’s son made a compelling case for the star of the 1960s to join running backs with stats like his who are in the Hall of Fame while Willard is not, so on the initial list I couldn’t choose between Willard and Perry. However, my childhood vision of Willard dims knowing he averaged 47.1 yards per game rushing.
19. Cedric Hardman: Back in the day, we only paid attention to quarterback sacks if we were forced to listen to David “Deacon” Jones talk about the mayhem he created rushing the passer for the Los Angeles Rams. Thank goodness that DE Hardman came along in the 1970s and became the 49ers’ original sack-master. (Note: Last seen at a Safeway in valley of the north state, selling autographed photos of himself in his Oakland Raiders’ uniform.)
18. Gene Washington: The top receiver and No. 1 offensive threat on the early 1970s NFC playoff teams. Lost all respect for him when we both worked in the Southern California media, though. Washington used his KABC TV camera guy to try to push past me to get closer to the Rams’ Eric Dickerson. I pushed back…and accidentally pushed Washington. Incidental contact.
17. Len Rohde: A stellar offensive tackle throughout my entire childhood and early teen years. Starred for the playoff teams of Dick Nolan in the early 1970s. (Note: Childhood years are like dog years—for every year Rohde was a star while I was in elementary school, he gets credit for five years of standout play.)He played from 1960-1974.
16. Roger Craig: Craig was a great back, but the championship 49ers who also won Super Bowls with Lenvill Elliott and Wendell Tyler at halfback. (Craig’s modeling work for Macy’s didn’t help him any when I made this list. I prefer my running backs to be a little less metro-sexual.) Craig could catch passes and remains No. 3 on the 49ers’ all-time rushing list. A game-breaker. A champion.
15. Charley Haley: Personalities have everything to do when those media guys gather to vote for Hall of Fame inductees. Haley averaged more than 10 sacks from 1986-1990. Then, he jumped to Cowboys — where he won a Super Bowl to go with the Super Bowl he won in San Francisco. (Note: Missed Haley a lot more when he left for Dallas and the club signed Tim Harris away from the Packers. Harris got caught in the summer camp parking lot taking a whiz on a sports writer’s car. Missed Haley more when I heard Steve Young tell a story about Haley once becoming so angry that he climbed up on a coach’s desk and took … a dump … in some form of protest. I appreciate anybody who stands up to The Man, even if he has to squat to do it.)
14. Bob St. Clair: St. Clair tough-guy stories are legendary and outlandish. Real old-timers rave about his toughness with stories that have nothing to do with football. One guy said St. Clair was such a blood-thirsty ineman in the 1950s that he ate his steak raw. Another tells the story of a 49ers’ hunting trip where St. Clair shot a bird, then popped the head off it and chowed down. I suspect he could block and tackle, too.
13. Eric Wright: Everybody who lived through the initial rush of Super Bowl seasons will respond, almost immediately with: “…best cover corner in the game.” Wright was a great cover corner and, like Taylor, wasn’t granted the acclaim he deserved because he had a more noteworthy sidekick.
12. Charlie Krueger: A defensive tackle in the 1960s and 1970s who wore a two-bar facemask that protected almost none of his big, red face. I suspect he’d have had a bulbous, red nose whether he played football or not. He plugged the middle for years with some otherwise lackluster defenses. His status was elevated when the 49ers picked up his kid brother Rolf Krueger, and we got to realize that not all Krueger boys were created equal.
11. Randy Cross: He anchored the O-line at three different positions during the rise from the pits to the Super Bowl years. And, I believe, Cross was considered too small to succeed in the NFL at all. He’s as much a face of the 49ers glory days as anyone I can think of today.
11. Patrick Willis: You didn’t really think..? He has become the organization’s gold standard for linebackers. If the list gets tweaked in another two years, he’s liable to be on top of it. Willis is amazing. Imagine the atrocious 49ers’ clubs (pre-Harbaugh) without this guy roaming sideline to sideline? A friend text-messaged me during a game late in 2009: “Does Willis really make EVERY tackle?”
10. Jimmy Johnson: The cornerback was just a stud back in the day when I would flip back and forth between televised NFL games and televised AFL games on Sundays. His brother Rafer Johnson was an Olympic decathlon champion. Jimmy’s in the Hall of Fame. Athletic genes.
9. John Brodie: It hasn’t been that long since I first yielded the point that Brodie really didn’t come close to measuring up to Montana and Young. Brodie made the 49ers of my youth tolerable and entertaining. Brodie’s teams weren’t very good, that’s all. I won’t recite Brodie’s stats, but check them and…I’m sure there’s some modern-day formula that will give him the status he deserves among the greats. It’s beyond absurd that he’s not in the Hall of Fame. (On a personal note, Brodie showed up to play a round at the golf and country club where my mom worked in 1967. She telephoned me at home to ask if there was a 49ers’ player named, “Broggie.” I said, “Yeah…Brodie, John Brodie…he’s my favorite player…the quarterback.” She said, “Well, he’s out here falling down drunk at 11 o’clock in the morning. Should I get his autograph?”)
8. Frank Gore: He wasn’t even on the list of 25 when I first produced it, but now he’s the all-time leading rusher in team history and has survived some terrible seasons to be one of the historic leaders and tough guys on a team that has reached the NFC title game in consecutive seasons. Given nothing but that Gore has multiple knee surgeries at Miami and will wind up with a Hall of Fame career makes it unthinkable to leave him out of the upper echelon of all-timers today.
7. Steve Young: Might be my favorite 49ers personality. If I was choosing the 49er I hoped my sons would grow to be like, it’d be Young. (Save that he dyes his hair for ESPN work.) The grace with which he handled Joe Montana’s apparent refusal to acknowledge Young’s existence was commendable. That touchdown run against the Vikings merged two of my 49ers’ favorites—Young on the run and Lon Simmons at the microphone.
6. Fred Dean: He was as much the foundation of the initial Super Bowl teams as Montana. Bill Walsh gained fame for the West Coast Offense, but he said over and over that nothing was more important than generating a pass rush late in a game. Dean, a Hall of Fame defensive end, did it and did it better than anybody. He started with the Chargers and the 49ers and looked to San Diego to try to catch lightning in a bottle on the defensive front often—acquiring Louie Kelcher and Gary “Big Hands” Johnson. (“Big Hands” and Kelcher had little impact.)
5. Bryant Young: It’s hard to believe that No. 97’s still not going to lineup at defensive tackle in the fall of this year. He played for the Niners for 14 years…on one Super Bowl team, on the 1990s All-Decade Team. He was the last link to the Super Bowl era by the time he retired. His value increases with every season that the 49ers try to find a lineman anywhere near as good as he was.
4. Dave Wilcox: The University of Oregon outside linebacker was the best player on the terrible 49ers’ teams that greeted me when I started following the NFL. For years, I hoped I’d someday look like Dave Wilcox. The guy looked like an over-muscled Boy Scout in his photo in Street & Smith and other football annuals. Checked online and read that his nickname was “The Intimidator.” Never once heard him called that—and I was a rookie when he was in 1964, then graduated from high school the year he retired. Wilcox was 6’3″, 241 pounds when that made him a giant outside linebacker. After getting postseason honors and enjoying a role in the 1970s playoff teams, Wilcox earned a spot in the Hall of Fame.
3: Joe Montana: Gosh, I can’t believe I’m ranking him No. 3. I loved the guy…and we’re age-group peers. I can’t engage in hero worship of a man my age, but…yes, I did. I’ll admit it. Saw Joe with his wife on the sideline of the Notre Dame-Stanford game a couple years ago and spent the entire first half saying, “Joe’s here,” and telling wildly exaggerated Super Bowl era stories to my three sons. Still, there was no better big-game quarterback. He’s No. 3 on this list, but No. 1 in my heart and on the list of all-time great NFL quarterbacks. (The fact that Joe pinched the ass of a waitress in a Napa Valley eatery—a friend’s sister—had nothing to do with him falling to No. 3. Only made him more of a hero.) Had to swallow hard and admit that if he was the greatest 49er in history, they couldn’t have replaced him with a guy (Young) who won a Super Bowl and followed him into the Hall of Fame.
2. Jerry Rice: There are books and Web sites devoted solely to why Rice is really the greatest player in NFL history. I couldn’t agree more with any of them. Seriously. For a guy who played a position that required another guy throw him the football before he could do anything, Rice was simply out of this world.
1. Ronnie Lott: When he was drafted out of USC, he made the transition to cornerback and the 49ers won the Super Bowl in his rookie year. He was a ferocious hitter, a team butt-kicker, and an inspirational leader. Neither Rice nor Montana ever had their finger stuck in a facemask during a game—only to insist that the tip of it be amputated so he could keep playing. Lott’s a Hall of Famer who played the corner and both safety positions for some of the greatest teams in NFL history. Like it or not, we know Terrell Owens could’ve maybe gotten near Rice-like status briefly, if T.O. could’ve kept his yap shut. Montana’s the best QB in NFL history, but some people argue that Steve Young is right there behind him. Some 49ers’ star has done as much, or more, than the best who preceded him. Lott, however, is the 49ers’ irreplaceable legend. The guy had a body part cut off in order to stay in the game!