Who is the greatest RB in 49er history?
Who knows, and you could add, what difference does it make? It's the running back you saw most as a kid. It's whoever you associate with good times, or the one whose courage on the field got you through war time, or when your father died, or when you lost a job.
It's the guy that kept the hope mechanism humming, the one who had the biggest heart.
It was Garrison Hearst when he came back from oblivion—again—to win Comeback Player of the Year in 2001. And how many times has anybody watched his 96-yard in 1998 against the Jets?
Or it was Roger Craig on any play. It was Tom Rathman, not running but laying defenders out.
Or maybe it was Ken Willard (1965-1973). I've included him in the list below by way of comparison overall, although not in the slide show; there's just no film. But he was a great one.
The point here is that we'd agree there's no one metric to decide the matter definitively. There's no way to factor in all the nuances of schedule, scheme, era and skill at each position—and for that matter, those factors at each position for every opponent.
The number of factors is infinite. And that's why you love the game, because it's so complicated and yet so simple, and because running backs more than any other player symbolize the nature of struggle itself, even as they would be the first to say that they couldn't have had done it by themselves...
Here are great '9er RBs. You might not include a few of them for one reason or another. I include Tom Rathman, a personal favorite, even if he's not quite comparable for various reasons. I didn't include William "Bar None" Floyd, who has his fans although he only ran for 2,568 yards in his whole career, 1,970 of that with the 49ers, but he had some electricity and a Super Bowl TD. He was also the only rookie to run for three TDs in a playoff game.
The backs on this short list include Roger Craig, Frank Gore, Garrison Hearst, Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry, Tom Rathman, J.D. Smith, Jr., Ricky Watters, and Ken Willard.
By way of introduction, here are some preliminary stats.
Number of years played: Perry (14); McElhenny (9); Willard (9); J.D. Smith (9); Craig (8); Rathman (8); Gore (7); Hearst (5); Watters (3)
Total yards: Perry (8,698); Gore (7.625); Craig (7.064); Willard (5,930); Hearst (5,535); Smith (4,370); McElhenny (4,288); Watters (2,840); Rathman (1,902).
Average yards per run: Perry (5.2); McElhenny (4.9); Hearst (4.7); Gore (4.6); Watters (4.3); Smith (4.3); Craig (4.2); Willard (3.7); Rathman (3.7)
Average yards per season: Hearst (1,107); Gore (1,089); Watters (947); Craig (883); Willard (659); Perry (621); Smith (486); McElhenny (476); Rathman (238).
All stats referred to in this article come from pro-football-focus.com