San Francisco 49ers: Candlestick Park's All-Time Greats Team

Bryan Knowles@BryknoContributor IIIDecember 18, 2013

San Francisco 49ers: Candlestick Park's All-Time Greats Team

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    Candlestick Park will see it's last regular-season game Monday night.
    Candlestick Park will see it's last regular-season game Monday night.NASA

    Monday night’s game against the Atlanta Falcons is more than just the 15th game of the season for the San Francisco 49ers.  It’s more than just the 36th Monday night game held at Candlestick Park as well—it’s the last one.  Barring an unlikely turn of events in the playoff seedings, when the clock hits zeroes on Monday night, Candlestick Park’s time as an NFL stadium will be over.   

    It seems unlikely Candlestick will see the same fate as the 49ers’ old home, Kezar Stadium, whose last game was the 1971 NFC Championship Game.  Instead, a prime-time sendoff for the ‘Stick will have to do.

    In its tenure, the stadium hosted eight NFC Championship Games, as well as two MLB All-Star Games and two World Series.  It survived the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a massive reconstruction in the ‘70s to turn the baseball-only stadium into one fit for the NFL and an embarrassing series of name changes, from Candlestick to 3Com to Monster Park and back again. 

    It saw 30 teams get new stadiums—only Lambeau Field and Soldier Field are older than Candlestick, and both have seen major renovations in the recent past.  It was cold, windy, inconvenient to get to, a nightmare to get out of and basically a dump—a dump that saw some of the greatest moments in NFL history.

    Dwight Clark pulled down "The Catch" there.  Joe Montana helped propel the 49ers to the greatest regular-season comeback in NFL history there, followed up by Jeff Garcia leading them to the second-greatest comeback in postseason history.  The Beatles' last scheduled concert was there. 

    Great things happened within the walls of the stadium.

    In honor of the last season in Candlestick, here are the best players to put on a 49ers uniform during the team’s tenure in Candlestick.  It’s not quite an all-time team; you won’t find Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny or Leo Nomellini here. This just covers the period from 1971 to 2013, when the 49ers called Candlestick home.

Starting Quarterback: Joe Montana

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Joe Montana (1979-1992)

    at Candlestick60-301723269963.84%200081408091.1

    Joe Montana was simply the best ever to play the game. He led the 49ers to four Super Bowls, picking up three Super Bowl MVPs along the way, was named a first-team All-Pro on three occasions and made the Pro Bowl seven times in a 49er uniform. 

    He’s regularly listed as one of the all-time greats.  ESPN listed him as the 25th-greatest athlete of the 20th century, while Sports Illustrated named him the most clutch quarterback in NFL history.

    Sheer numbers aren’t enough to explain just why Montana was so good—it was his ability to handle the intense pressures of the most pivotal moments in the most crucial games. 

    Montana led the 49ers to comeback after comeback, leading 28 game-winning drives in the regular season and another three in the playoffs, including the 1981 NFC Championship Game, which ended with The Catch, and the fantastic game-winning drive to win Super Bowl XXIII.   He seemed to be entirely unaffected by pressure of the biggest stages, never throwing an interception in any of his Super Bowl appearances.

    With the possible exception of head coach Bill Walsh, there simply isn’t a player more associated with the rise of the 49ers to national power status, giving him the edge here as the starting quarterback for this all-Candlestick team.

    In a recent interview about the old stadium, Montana showed little love for the 'Stick, via Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News:

    Candlestick is, when they ask you the worst places you've ever played, for the longest time, our home field was one of the worst places you would want to play. It could not rain for a year and you'd go in there and it'd be soaking wet. Last year, it was the first year I noticed the field where I said, 'Wow, what happened?' They finally figured out the field was below the water table. They used to call it the quagmire, because that's what it was, always wet.

Backup Quarterbacks

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    What's a quarterback got to do to get a start on this team?
    What's a quarterback got to do to get a start on this team?Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Steve Young (1987-1999)

    PassingWin/LossCmpAtt Cmp%YdsTDINTRate
    at Candlestick75-161478227864.88%1871713954100.8

    The number of teams that could have a Hall of Famer like Steve Young on the bench can surely be counted on one hand.  Young led the 49ers to their fifth, and so far final, Super Bowl, and he also won two MVPs in the regular season.  He retired with the highest passer rating of any quarterback and still clings to third on that list.  He also won six NFL passer-rating titles, most in NFL history.

    Jeff Garcia (1999-2003)

    PassingWin/LossCmpAtt Cmp%YdsTDINTRate
    at Candlestick23-14732117962.09%7987542389.2

    It’s hard enough taking over for one legend, much less two, but the Gilroy, Calif.-born Jeff Garcia made the transition from the glory days a less painful one.  He led the 49ers to two playoff appearances and picked up a trio of Pro Bowl nods in his time at Candlestick Park, fighting off draft picks like Giovanni Carmazzi and Tim Rattay. 

    He also led the 49ers to one of their biggest comebacks ever in the 2003 playoffs. Down 38-14 to the New York Giants with 18 minutes left in the game, Garcia led the 49ers to 25 unanswered points to win the game.

    Alex Smith (2005-2012)

    PassingWin/LossCmpAtt Cmp%YdsTDINTRate
    at Candlestick25-14-1666110260.44%7681533185.8

    Embattled quarterback Alex Smith ended his stay at Candlestick with the third-most quarterback wins, fourth-most completions, fourth-most yards and fourth-most touchdowns in the stadium’s history.  While he never lived up to the lofty expectations placed on him when he was taken with the top overall selection in the 2005 draft, Smith finally found success in a San Francisco uniform in 2011, leading the team to the NFC West title and NFC Championship Game. 

Starting Running Backs: Roger Craig and Wilbur Jackson

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    Still one of the most versatile players in NFL history, Craig may get in the Hall of Fame yet.
    Still one of the most versatile players in NFL history, Craig may get in the Hall of Fame yet.George Rose/Getty Images

    Roger Craig (1983-1990)

    Rushing Win/LossAtt Yds TD Rec YdsTD 
    at Candlestick 49-209734034 25282 2394 

    According to Wikipedia, Roger Craig was the first player in NFL history to rush for and receive for at least 1,000 yards in the same season—a feat only accomplished one time since.   His versatility as a weapon in the short passing game of the West Coast Offense led to him being named NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1988.  His teams made the playoffs every single year of his NFL career, and he made the Pro Bowl both as a running back and as a fullback.

    Craig is a semifinalist for the NFL Hall of Fame this year, and a player with his credentials deserves all the consideration in the world—yet he’s only been a finalist once, in 2010.  His contributions led to three Super Bowl championships for San Francisco, and the lack of credit he’s received at the highest levels is really too bad, being overshadowed by the fantastic passing game. 

    No story of the 1980s 49ers would be complete without Craig.

    Wilbur Jackson (1974-1979)

    Rushing Win/LossAtt Yds TD Rec Yds TD 
    at Candlestick 14-223791560  679 623

    I’m sliding back to the ‘70s for my starting fullback and going with the underappreciated Jackson, the first ever African-American to get a scholarship at the University of Alabama.

    He was shifted to fullback in the NFL thanks to the presence of Delvin Williams, but the duo turned into a very productive backfield for some pretty sorry 49ers teams in the late ‘70s.  He was named NFC Rookie of the Year in his ’74 season by the Sporting NewsThough injuries cost him most of the ’75 and ’78 seasons with injuries, Williams racked up some solid career numbers and developed into a powerful blocker.

Backup Running Backs

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    Count the rings--Ricky Watters could run with the best of them.
    Count the rings--Ricky Watters could run with the best of them.George Rose/Getty Images

    Delvin Williams (1974-1977)

    Rushing Win/LossAtt Yds TD Rec YdsTD 
    at Candlestick 11-143131512 939406 

    Williams was named to the Pro Bowl in the 1976 season, where he ran for over 1,200 yards, setting what was, at the time, the 49ers' single-season rushing record.  He also held what was then the single-game rushing record for San Francisco, rushing for 194 yards in one contest.  He was traded for Freddie Solomon in ’78, lowering his career numbers in San Francisco.

    Ricky Watters (1992-1994)

    Rushing Win/LossAtt Yds TD Rec YdsTD 
    at Candlestick 23-43961770 2179 898 

    The 49ers’ starting running back in Super Bowl XXIX, Watters missed his entire 1991 rookie season with injuries.  The three years he was healthy enough to play, however, he made the Pro Bowl three straight times, leading San Francisco in scoring and yardage each year, as noted by Wikipedia

    Watters was known for constantly running his mouth—but then backing that up on the field, week in and week out.

    Garrison Hearst (1997-2003)

    Rushing Win/LossAtt Yds TD Rec YdsTD 
    at Candlestick 33-66423043 1397 957 

    Hearst is one of only two players to win the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award twice, which means that he was both very good and had bad luck with injuries.  By the time he left San Francisco, Hearst held the records for most yards in a season and most yards in a game, both occurring in his fantastic 1998 year. 

    He went over 2,000 yards from scrimmage that season, and who knows what would have happened had he not suffered severe complications during surgery to repair a broken ankle.  It cost him two entire seasons in his prime.

    Frank Gore (2005-2013)

    Rushing Win/LossAtt Yds TD Rec YdsTD 
    at Candlestick 42-27-112285739 33198 1602 

    You can’t have an All-Candlestick team without the man who holds the all-time 49er records for attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.  A four-time Pro Bowler, Gore suffered early in his career on some of the worst 49er teams ever put together, but he's just kept plugging away since then.  At age 30, he shows few signs of slowing down.

Starting Wide Receivers: Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens

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    Jerry Rice is heads and shoulders above any other receiver in NFL history
    Jerry Rice is heads and shoulders above any other receiver in NFL historyJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Jerry Rice (1985-2000)

    at Candlestick97-3672110401102

    Could there be anyone else listed No. 1?  

    Jerry Rice is the all-time leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns, and he either holds or held essentially every significant receiving record in both the regular season and postseason.  He twice was named Offensive Player of the Year, 10 times was a first-team All-Pro and he made the Pro Bowl 12 times in a 49ers jersey.  He was the MVP of Super Bowl XXIII.  NFL Films named him the best NFL player of all time, period, when counting down the top 100 players in NFL history.

    In his time in San Francisco, Rice rarely missed any regular-season games.  Three were due to the 1987 players strike—a season in which he still managed a then-record 22 touchdowns—while the rest came in 1997 due to a torn ACL and MCL. 

    There have been other receivers who have played at the high levels Rice was able to, but no one in NFL history has been as good for as long as Rice was.

    Terrell Owens (1996-2003)

    at Candlestick47-16322480848

    The second starting receiver slot could go to a number of players, but Owens is the selection.  A member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s, he had an ego and an outspoken personality matched only by his production on the field. 

    Taking over as San Francisco’s prime receiver when Rice went down in the 1997 season, Owens crafted a career that saw him reach the top five all time in both receiving yards and touchdowns.  His most memorable moment—at least positively—in a 49ers uniform came in the 1998-99 Wild Card Game against the Green Bay Packers, when he caught the game-winning touchdown to finally beat the Pack after three straight seasons of defeat in the postseason. 

    While his off-the-field antics and touchdown celebrations color his perception, there’s no doubt that Owens is a surefire Hall of Famer.

Backup Wide Receivers

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    The 49ers have had quite the fleet of receivers in their day
    The 49ers have had quite the fleet of receivers in their dayOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Gene Washington* (1971-1977)

    at Candlestick22-25-1135258225

    Washington joined the 49ers in 1969, meaning his early seasons were played at Kezar as opposed to Candlestick.  Even throwing those season out, though, you'd still have a two-time All-Pro and Pro Bowler.  Washington led the 49ers in receiving six seasons out of seven in his ‘70s tenure with the team and helped lead it to its only playoff appearance in the Candlestick-era before Bill Walsh showed up.

    Freddie Solomon (1978-1985)

    at Candlestick32-24176271228

    The 49ers won Super Bowls before Jerry Rice showed up, and Fabulous Freddie Solomon was a key cog in Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense during the early part of the ‘80s.  Solomon still finds himself in the top 10 in 49ers history in every major receiving category, and he still holds the franchise record for best receiving average in a single season, averaging 21.4 yards per reception in 1983.

    Sadly, he passed away in 2012 at only 59 years of age.

    Dwight Clark (1979-1987)

    at Candlestick43-23298405928

    If Clark had caught only one pass in his NFL career, he might have still made this list. His catch in the 1981-82 NFC Championship Game is the moment that started the 49ers’ dynasty. 

    Of course, Clark is much more than one reception—a multiple-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro, he actually led the NFL in receptions in 1982, as well as the 49ers in every year from 1980 through 1984.

    John Taylor (1987-1995)

    at Candlestick48-19201306226

    Taylor could have been the No. 1 receiver for a lot of teams when he was playing, but he found himself playing second fiddle to the greatest of all time.  No matter—his catch and scoring the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XXIII might have also qualified him for this list.  Taylor made the NFL’s All-Decade Team in the 1980s as a weapon both as a receiver and as a punt returner.

    Michael Crabtree (2009-2013)

    at Candlestick26-7-1140197116

    Too soon to put Crabtree in this company?  Perhaps.  However, just looking at how much his absence affected the 49ers pass offense this season should give you some idea of his value, just five years into his NFL career.  The only wide receiver not on this list with more yards in Candlestick Park is J.J. Stokes, and Crabtree’s had to carry much more of the offense than Stokes ever did.

Starting Tight End: Brent Jones

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    Three Super Bowl rings pushes Jones over the top.
    Three Super Bowl rings pushes Jones over the top.George Rose/Getty Images

    Brent Jones (1987-1997)

    at Candlestick65-15278351121

    It was a very close call at the tight end position, but, when in doubt, count the Super Bowl rings. Brent Jones was part of three Super Bowl-winning teams, giving him a slight edge.

    He was an All-Pro every year from 1992-1994, and he added a Pro Bowl appearance in each of those years and 1995 as well.  

    Jones is miles above every tight end that came before him, both as an offensive weapon and as a blocker.  Working his way up the ranks after being released by Pittsburgh Steelers in 1986, he quickly became indispensable to the 49ers' offensive attack. 

    While his place atop the 49ers tight end rankings may be coming to an end thanks to Vernon Davis, Jones' contributions will not soon be forgotten.

Backup Tight Ends

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    Is Davis already the best 49ers tight end ever?
    Is Davis already the best 49ers tight end ever?Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Ted Kwalick* (1971-1974)

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    Kwalick is another player who predates Candlestick Park and comes from an era when both passing and tight ends were used very differently.  He never topped 55 receptions in a season, never reached 800 yards receiving and never hit double-digit touchdowns, but Kwalick was still named to the Pro Bowl every year from 1971 to 1973, and he was named a first-team All-Pro in 1972.  He also scored the first touchdown in Candlestick Park history.

    Vernon Davis (2006-2013)

    at Candlestick40-19-121330623

    Is Davis already the best tight end in 49ers history?  You could make the argument for it without too much difficulty.  He’s 40 yards away from breaking Jones’ record for receiving yards as a tight end and is an altogether different sort of physical specimen. 

    Since being sent to the locker room by Mike Singletary in 2008, Davis has stepped his level of play up and is one of the best tight ends in the NFL today.   The tight end position is much more of a weapon now than it was in the ‘80s, explaining some of the numerical differences, but Davis is well on his way to becoming the best tight end the 49ers have ever had.

Starting Offensive Line: Barton, McIntyre, Sapolu, Cross, Wallace

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    The 1988 offensive line was the best San Francisco ever had.
    The 1988 offensive line was the best San Francisco ever had.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    By sheer coincidence, the five starters on this team were all in the lineup for Super Bowl XXIII—it was the end of the career for some of them and only the beginning for others, but for one season, the best linemen Candlestick Park has ever seen all played together.

    Harris Barton (1987-1996)

    Barton, a two-time All-Pro, was runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 1987, a rarity for an offensive lineman.  He started for the 49ers most recent three Super Bowl teams and played both tackle and guard in different seasons, proving his versatility.  He also didn’t miss a single game through his first five seasons in the league, proving his durability.

    Guy McIntyre (1984-1993)

    McIntyre took home three Super Bowl rings as well, in addition to his three All-Pros and five Pro Bowls.  He was a fixture at left guard for half a decade, once he finally had a chance to crack the deep offensive line depth of the Super Bowl years.

    Jesse Sapolu (1984-1993)

    Sapolu bounced between guard and center in his 49ers career, playing wherever he was needed most.  He’s one of only six 49ers to own four Super Bowl rings with the team, and he’s the only one to do it on the back end with Super Bowl XXIX.

    Randy Cross (1976-1988)

    The old man of the ’88 group, Cross played both tackle and guard for the 49ers for over a decade, through the bleakness of the late ‘70s and into the first three Super Bowls of the Walsh era.  Three Pro Bowls and three All-Pros round out his resume.

    Steve Wallace (1986-1996)

    Wallace might be best remembered for the large Styrofoam-cushioned helmet he wore on top of his regular helmet—perhaps something to look into to help prevent concussions nowadays. But he is on this team for his play, not his fashion sense. 

    Amazingly, according to Wikipedia, in his career with the 49ers, as well as his one year with the Kansas City Chiefs, four years at Auburn and five years in middle and high school, Wallace’s teams never had a losing record.

Backup Offensive Line

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    John Ayers (1977-1987)

    Ayers held down the left guard position starting in 1979 and never let it go—from that point on, he only missed six games as a 49er, starting both of their first two Super Bowl victories.  Overshadowed by some of the other names he played with, Ayers never made the Pro Bowl.

    Derrick Deese (1994-2003)

    Deese did get one Super Bowl ring, in his first year starting in 1994, but he really developed as a team leader in the years following.  He was versatile too—though his primary position was tackle, he filled in throughout the line as necessary, including center.

    Ray Brown (1996-2001)

    Brown only made one Pro Bowl, in his last season in San Francisco in 2001, but his impact was felt long before that.  After coming over from the Washington Redskins after the 1995 season, he started all but one game for the 49ers—a consistent anchor at the left guard position.

    Jeremy Newberry (1999-2005)

    Every team needs a backup center, and Newberry is the second-best in the Candlestick era.  He made two Pro Bowls after taking over from Chris Dalman in 2000 and was named to the All-Pro team in 2002.  He’s also a three-time Bobb McKittrick Award winner, given to the 49ers' top offensive lineman.

    Joe Staley (2007-2013)

    Staley’s got a ways to go to crack the all-time starting lineup considering this squad doesn’t even include pre-Candlestick greats like Forrest Blue or Bob St. Clair, but he’s had a stellar start to his career.  He's been to two Pro Bowls already, and he could easily earn another one this season.

Starting Defensive Line: Smith, Carter, Stubblefield, Young

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    George Rose/Getty Images

    Justin Smith (2008-2013)

    Since Smith has come over to San Francisco from the Cincinnati Bengals, he’s been an absolute stud at multiple positions along the defensive line.  In 2011, he was named to the All-Pro team at both defensive end and defensive tackle. 

    And it’s not just what he produces on the field, though his 37.5 sacks in a 49ers uniform have helped, it’s the attention he draws when he’s out there that makes him so valuable.  You just have to watch Aldon Smith’s disappearing act when Smith missed time in 2012 to know how crucial he has been to this 49ers squad.

    Michael Carter (1984-1992)

    Carter wasn’t just a nose tackle—he was an all-around athlete, having won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics in the shot put.  According to Wikipedia, he was the only person to win an Olympic medal and a Super Bowl ring in the same season—an impressive feat that remains true today. 

    The three-time Pro Bowler never racked up huge stats, because nose tackles don’t do that.  His 6.5 sacks in 1988 were an incredible number for someone who, by design, is often double- or even triple-teamed.  He was a hoss in the middle of the field.

    Dana Stubblefield (1993-1997; 2001-2002)

    Stubblefield’s peak was short but bright.  In 1997, he was the Defensive Player of the Year, racking up 15 sacks and three forced fumbles.  All in all, he managed 46.5 sacks for San Francisco and a huge free-agent payday, after which his performance fell off of a cliff.  Still, in those first five seasons in the Red and Gold, Stubblefield performed at a level few others have matched.

    Bryant Young (1994-2007)

    Young was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s and made the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams four times apiece.  For over a decade, he was a constant. From the Super Bowl-winning team in 1994 though the doldrums of the 2-14 seasons in 2004 and 2005, you could count on him to be a force to be reckoned with, amassing 89.5 sacks over the course of his career. 

    After breaking his leg horrifically at the end of the 1998 season, Young came back without missing much of a beat, earning Comeback Player of the Year honors, as documented by Wikipedia.  He was the last active 49er who was a member of one of San Francisco’s Super Bowl teams.

Backup Defensive Linemen

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    The 49ers' defensive line bench isn't deep, but it's talented
    The 49ers' defensive line bench isn't deep, but it's talentedGeorge Rose/Getty Images

    Dwaine Board (1979-1988)

    Board’s first three seasons came before the sack was an official NFL statistic, but we know that from 1983 through 1985, he managed double-digit sack numbers each and every season.  Board has the fourth-most sacks in 49ers history, and he added a Super Bowl ring as a defensive line coach to go along with the three he received as a player.

    Chris Doleman (1996-1998)

    Based on his entire career, Doleman would easily be a starter on this squad—he’s a Hall of Famer for a reason.  Of course, he only played three seasons for San Francisco, and that’s what we have to judge him on.  Doleman racked up double-digit sacks in each of those three years and made the Pro Bowl in 1997, proving the old man still had something left in the tank.

    Aubrayo Franklin (2007-2010)

    It can’t just be sackmeisters; you need a backup interior lineman on the squad as well, and Franklin was the best in the Candlestick era.  In only four seasons with the club, he anchored the nose tackle spot about as well as anyone in the league, bar none.  His contract eventually outweighed his usefulness, however, and he was allowed to walk after the lockout in 2011.

Starting Linebackers: Haley, Willis and Turner

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    Willis is already the best linebacker in 49ers history.
    Willis is already the best linebacker in 49ers history.Stephen Lam/Getty Images

    Charles Haley (1986-1991; 1998-1999)

    Haley has been a Hall of Fame finalist for the past four years, and it’s not hard to see why.  He’s the only man in NFL history to have five Super Bowl rings as a player—two with San Francisco and three more with the Dallas Cowboys

    Just counting his time in a San Francisco uniform, Haley amassed 66.5 sacks, enough for second all time behind Bryant Young. 

    His outbursts off the field may be be holding him back from Hall enshrinement, but his outbursts on the field made opposing quarterbacks crumble.

    Patrick Willis (2007-2013)

    Willis took the mantle of best 49ers middle linebacker almost instantly upon arriving in 2005, and he has only grown since then.  He's earned both Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors each of his first six NFL seasons, and another Pro Bowl seems likely in 2013. 

    Willis is the heart and soul of the San Francisco defense and seems well on his way to a Hall of Fame career.  He is the best linebacker in 49ers history, regardless of era or position.  Who knows where his ceiling lies.

    Keena Turner (1980-1990)

    When in doubt, count the rings—Turner’s four Super Bowl rings put him in a very elite club.  Although he only made the Pro Bowl once, in 1984, he was a regular contributor to the underrated 49ers defenses throughout the ‘80s. 

    Turner is probably the player who benefits most from this article being about an all-Candlestick team as opposed to an all-time team, as players like Matt Hazeltine find themselves sidelined.  That shouldn’t diminish his production, however, as he was a key cog for over a decade.

Backup Linebackers

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    Between Willis and Bowman, the 49ers are set for a long time.
    Between Willis and Bowman, the 49ers are set for a long time.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Dave Wilcox* (1971-1974)

    Wilcox would be a starter on an all-time team, but, again, this is Candlestick-era only.  Elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000, the majority of his impact for the 49ers came in his seven seasons in Kezar.  He was still an All-Pro in 1971 and 1972, though, and he made the Pro Bowl from 1971-1973.  Even just the tail end of his career is enough to make this squad with flying colors.

    Skip Vanderbundt* (1971-1977)

    Another Kezar-era great, Vanderbundt played across from Wilcox and, together, they formed a fantastic tandem on the outside for the first really successful 49er teams, both at the end of the Kezar era and the beginning of the Candlestick one.  The cutoff date allows him to get a bit closer to Hall of Famer Wilcox than he normally would be; Vanderbundt was solid through and through but not quite as transcendent as Wilcox was.

    Ken Norton Jr. (1994-2000)

    Before Willis came along, Norton held down the middle linebacker spot on most all-time 49er teams.  The first player to win a Super Bowl ring in three consecutive seasons, Norton had seven solid seasons after coming to San Francisco. His best was the ’95 season, as he not only made the Pro Bowl but was also named All-Pro. 

    Altogether, Norton averaged nearly 80 tackles a year in a 49ers uniform, patrolling the middle through the end of the 49ers' solid years in the ‘90s.

    NaVorro Bowman (2010-2013)

    With a combination of a stellar start to his career and the lack of a third solid inside linebacker to name here, Bowman makes the list after only four seasons.  They’ve been four fantastic seasons, though—he’s been every bit Willis’ equal, named All-Pro in both 2011 and 2012. 

    The future is bright for Bowman, and he’s still developing, so he could get even better soon.  That’s a scary thought for opposing offenses.

Starting Secondary: Lott, Johnson, McDonald, Hanks

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    Few players come tougher than Ronnie Lott did
    Few players come tougher than Ronnie Lott didOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Ronnie Lott (1981-1990)

    An easy choice for a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Lott is a member of the All-Decade teams of both the ‘80s and ‘90s, as well as a member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team.  He made the Pro Bowl in all but one year of his 49ers career and pulled down 51 interceptions, putting him sixth all time in that arena. 

    There was no one tougher than Lott, either. The famous story about him having his finger amputated so he could play gets spread around a lot, but all you need to see is a highlight video of some of his bone-crushing hits to know why opposing offenses feared him so.

    Jimmy Johnson* (1971-1976)

    Johnson is the final great from the Kezar era to make the Candlestick squad, so most of his Hall of Fame career is discounted for this particular list.  The back end of it, however, still includes two first-team All-Pro selections and three Pro Bowls, showing he could still play. 

    No less than Paul Zimmerman, arguably the greatest football writer of all time, found room for him on his all-century team, calling him one of the best cover cornerbacks to ever play the game.  That’s good enough for me.

    Merton Hanks (1991-1998)

    From 1994-1997, Hanks was a perennial Pro Bowler.  Replacing Lott at free safety, he quickly settled into a groove, ending up fourth on the 49ers interception rankings with 31.  Hanks might be best known for his neck-wobbling pigeon-dance celebrations, but he could back that up with excellent quality play on the field.  He was a true playmaker at the free safety position.

    Tim McDonald (1993-1999)

    A three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro with San Francisco, McDonald helped clamp down the defensive secondary during Super Bowl XXIX.  He and Hanks formed a top tandem in the secondary, blowing up receivers with solid tackles and catching the resulting missed throws.  McDonald brought in 20 interceptions of his own during his 49ers career, providing solid value for seven seasons.

Backup Secondary

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    The 1981 draft saw three members of this secondary
    The 1981 draft saw three members of this secondaryGeorge Rose/Getty Images

    Bruce Taylor (1971-1977)

    A Pro Bowler in the inaugural season in Candlestick, Taylor’s 15 interceptions are only part of the reason he makes the team.  He was also a valuable punt returner, never an easy proposition in the shifting winds of Candlestick.  He was Defensive Rookie of the Year in Kezar’s last season, and while he never reached that height again, he was a solid back for many years.

    Dwight Hicks (1979-1985)

    Four-time Pro Bowler Hicks was part of the best secondary the 49ers ever had.  From 1981 to 1985, Hicks, Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson shared the secondary, and Hicks, the only veteran on the squad, was the leader from the beginning.  In 1984, all four made the Pro Bowl, one of only two times an entire secondary has been so honored.

    Eric Wright (1981-1990)

    Not to be confused with the nickelback by that name that the 49ers currently employ, Wright was one of the best cover cornerbacks of the 1980s. 

    He is one of only five 49ers to play on all four Super Bowl teams in the ‘80s, and it’s because of him that The Catch is so fondly remembered. The Cowboys had time to go on an ensuing drive, and Wright had to make a touchdown-saving tackle to keep the 49ers' victory intact.  Without that, The Catch would be a footnote.

    Carlton Williamson (1981-1987)

    Perhaps the weakest of the four backs from the ‘80s, Williamson still earns a spot on this squad without too much difficulty.  A two-time Pro Bowler, he brought down 17 interceptions in his 49ers career before an injury ended it prior to the 1988 season.

    Don Griffin (1986-1993)

    Griffin essentially replaced Eric Wright at cornerback and ended up carving out a solid career for himself, ninth all time on the 49ers; interception list with 22.  He earned two Super Bowl rings in the back-to-back victories in 1988 and 1989.

Kicking Game

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    Ray Wersching (1977-1987)

    It’s never easy to kick in the swirling winds that play through Candlestick Park, but Wersching handled them the best, adjusting for the times.  He made 72.8 percent of his field-goal attempts and was the kicker of record on the first two Super Bowl squads, giving him the nod.

    Andy Lee (2004-2013)

    Lee’s not just the best 49ers punter, he’s one of the best punters in NFL history, bar none.  His 46.1 yards per punt figure is seventh all time in the NFL, and his 2011 season saw him finishas one of only seven players ever to average more than 50 yards per punt.  Don’t think he’s just booming them, though; Lee is also an expert at avoiding touchbacks.  I’d argue him over any other punter active today.