Frank Gore, January 22, 2012
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
Frank Gore's genius is clearly speed and the way he moves through obstacles like wind through a tunnel. In that sense, he's very efficient—he's not looking to engage defenders, but rather to find the natural space, however slim it is, where he can blow by. And blow by he does, for an average of 4.6 yards per carry and another 8.4 yards per reception. In total, 10,022 yards from scrimmage in seven years. In other terms, three pro bowls.
And always the question, where is he in his career? Three more years? More? Whatever it is, he will most certainly be—statistically—the runner with the most rushing yards in the team's history.
Garrison Hearst will always be remembered for his 96-yard run with seconds left against the Jets in 1998. "Throws off bodies like Clothes after a marathon," in the words of 49er radio commentator Wayne Walker, who called the game. In five years in San Francisco, he ran for 5,535 yards and 26 TDs and caught another 1,604 yards and seven TDs. In his career, Hearst accumulated 10,031 all-purpose yards.
But what a strange career. Drafted by the Cardinals, he then spent a year with the Bengals (1996) and then after four seasons came to the 'stick and has a great career, which finished in Denver for one year. He earned Comeback Player of the Year twice, perhaps more any other player in the post-glory years, and the Walsh era came to symbolize the spirit of the franchise—his anti-gay slur against former NFL player Esera Tuaolo notwithstanding.
In three years with the 49ers (1992-94), Ricky "Running" Watters ran for 2,840 yards and 25 TDs, and caught 140 balls for another 1,450 yards and eight more TDs. He went to the Pro Bowl each of those three years, and if the stats don't jump off the page, anyone who saw him play will tell you that few other running backs—at their best—played with such intensity, although one could argue that was a particular characteristic of 49er RBs during the Walsh era. He may also be remembered for pregame comments about various opponents. He wrote a book about his experiences called For Who For What: A Warrrior's Journey.
Tom Rathman was the quintessential running back who did the "dirty work," as he proudly called it, and took great pride in being unselfish—picking up blocks on pass plays and running downfield to make more blocks.
As a runner, he was the classic fullback: No finesse, just the straight-ahead Cornhusker roll. As a fullback for eight years with the 49ers, he rolled for 1,902 yards and 26 TDs. Add 2,490 yards receiving and eight TDs.
He was distinguished not only by his fierce determination but by enormous discipline, and he was one who gave 49er teams in those years the image of being nearly invincible.
Known to fans as "superman," in part because he had such a fluid way of spinning out of tackles, as well as his high-knee piston style, Roger Craig was perhaps the most relentless running back in 49er history.
In eight years, he rushed for 7,064 yards and 50 TDs and caught 16 more. In his three-year afterlife with the Raiders and Vikes he only caught one TD and ran for six others. He went to four Pro Bowls, was the offensive AP Player of the Year in 1988 and accompanied the 49ers to three Super Bowls, in '84, '88 and '89.
He was a Hall of Fame finalist in 2010.
Hugh McElhenny, "The King," used to run "like little boys do in their wildest dreams": long stride, high knees, not smooth but relentless. In nine seasons with the 49ers (before a denouement that took him to Minnesota, Detroit and New York, where he finally played on a championship team), he ran for 4,288 yards and 35 TDs. And then 2,666 receiving yards and 15 more TDs. All-purpose yards: 11,375.
He went to six Pro Bowls, was a First-Team All-Pro twice and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970. He was Rookie of the Year and became part of the 49ers' "million dollar backfield" that included Joe Perry and Y.A. Tittle.
Joe "The Jet" Perry is the 49ers' all-time rushing leader. In 14 years, he played in 156 games and ran for 8,689 yards and 68 TDs. That's 5.2 yards per run. He caught another 1,505 yards and 11 TDs. You could argue he was the most like Frank Gore: Not big, not elusive, but he once ran 100 yards in 9.7 seconds. Consider that Darrell Green, whose 40-yard dash time was once recorded at 4.09, ran 100 meters in 10.08 seconds.
In April 2011, at the age of 84, Perry died from complications related to dementia (via Wikipedia):
"A few months later it was reported that his brain would be examined by researchers at Boston University. Perry's wife, Donna, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2011 she thought it was possible her husband suffered the effects of CTE. "When Joe was playing, they'd give them smelling salts and put them back in. Now the equipment is better, and they're looking into ways to protect them. We have to look at what this is doing to our children."
It's worth noting that John Henry Johnson died in June 2011, and his brain was to be examined as well. He played for three years in the Million Dollar backfield, running for 12 TDs and 1,051 yards.