The 10 Greatest 49ers Of the 1990s
As a product of the '80s, many of my early sports memories come from the early '90s. Most notably, the 1992 and 1993 NFC Championship games the 49ers lost to the Dallas Cowboys. In 1994, as an already grizzled 'Niners cynic expecting another Cowboys romp, I watched as Steve, Jerry, and the gang toppled the hated Cowboys and steamrolled the hapless Chargers.
Though this would be the only title of the decade, the Maroon and Gold fielded some of the most talented teams the league had ever seen. Over the next 10 slides, I'm going to break down the 10 Greatest 49ers of the 1990s.
My criteria is as follows: 1.) Direct impact on wins and losses. 2.) Longevity with the team. 3.) Loyal fan following. 4.) Career stats.
Let's get started with number 10...
10. Deion Sanders
Though with the team for less than a full season, Primetime was arguably the most valuable new addition in a season in which the 'Niners won the Super Bowl.
With a revamped lineup featuring Ken Norton Jr, Gary Plummer, Bart Oates, and Ricky Jackson, Primetime served as a shutdown corner, freeing up FS Merton Hanks to play sideline to sideline. In the 12 games he started, Deion has 6 INTs, 3 of which he took to the house. One of them against his former team, the Atlanta Falcons, came immediately following an on-field fist fight with former teammate and friend Andre Rison.
Sanders embodied the new look 'Niners, filled with swagger and showboating, ideals that had been the antithesis of the Bill Walsh-era teams. Today, he is considered by many to be one of the greatest defensive backs to ever live.
9. Jesse Sapolu
One of six 'Niners to be a member of the '84, '88, '89, and '94 Super Bowl teams, Sapolu anchored the offensive line for fourteen seasons.
The 49ers center gained national accolades in the '93 season, reaching the Pro Bowl for the first time (he would be named to the Pro Bowl team the following year as well). He was also a First Team All-Pro selection in the '94 and '95 seasons.
During the four full seasons between '90 and 93, Sapolu didn't miss a start. Though often overlooked when discussing the team's greatest players, his career spanned the rise of two separate 49ers dynasties. He will be forever considered an all-time great among 49er faithful.
8. Merton Hanks
Known across the country as the safety with the long neck and awkward celebration dance, Hanks was known in the Bay Area as a consistently great performer during the middle to latter half of the decade.
His most outstanding season came during the '94 Super Bowl campaign (with Deion Sanders occupying one half of the field), when he paced the team with 7 interceptions, including a back breaker against the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game. Hanks would make the Pro Bowl in the '94, '95, '96, and '97 seasons and finish his career with 33 picks.
He matched his flash with endurance, not missing a start between the '93 and '98 seasons. Hanks left the 49ers in 1998 as the greatest safety in franchise history not named Ronnie Lott.
7. Ken Norton Jr.
The first player in NFL history to win three consecutive Super Bowls, Ken Norton Jr. was a key addition to the 'Niners '94 Super Bowl squad.
After tallying 86 tackles in his first season with the Maroon and Gold, Norton Jr. took off, including a 127 tackle season in 1996. An iron man, Norton Jr. didn't miss a single start in his seven full seasons with the 49ers.
He was named to the 1995 and 1997 Pro Bowl teams, and the '95 1st Team All-Pro squad. Like the players that arrived with Norton Jr. in '94, Ken brought a cockiness that bordered on arrogance (for example, boxing the goal post pads after scoring a TD, an homage to his father, the great boxer Ken Norton Sr.), an attitude that propelled the 49ers to a second straight decade of dominance.
6. Ricky Watters
In the mold of a versatile Roger Craig, Ricky Watters was the ultimate West Coast Offense tailback. A triple threat, Watters could pound the ball between the tackles, beat defenders to the sideline, and catch the ball out of the backfield as well as anyone ever did.
As a rookie in 1992, Watters rushed for over 1,000 yards, added 43 receptions for over 400 yards, and scored 11 total touchdowns. Over his three complete seasons with the 'Niners, including the '94 Super Bowl team, Watters combined for no less than 1,275 all-purpose yards and 11 TDs in a season.
For his career, Watters would make the Pro Bowl five times and be named to three All-Pro teams. Unfortunately, his stint with the 'Niners was relatively brief, keeping him from cracking the top 5 of our list.
5. Brent Jones
The greatest tight end in the history of the 49ers franchise was a gawky local boy from Santa Clara. Spending the majority of his career as Steve Young's road trip roommate, Jones developed a connection with Young that few had seen or understood.
Amassing almost all of the 49er tight end records during the first half of the 90s, Jones would be named to the Pro Bowl four times during the decade. His two best years came in '93 and '94. In '93, Jones had a career high 68 catches and 735 yards. The following year, Jones had a career best nine touchdowns. Know for his insistence on hurdling defenders, Jones was a fan favorite, though like many of his teammates, flew largely under the national radar.
A team leader for a decade, Jones goes down in the record books as a 'Niner all-timer.
4. Terrell Owens
One of the most polarizing players in the history of the league, T.O. was a dominant force in his first four years with 49ers. His third season, in 1998, culminated in 67 catches for 1,097 yards and 15 total touchdowns.
His season stats were dwarfed by "The Catch II," one of the great moments in 49ers history. Owens caught a pass from Steve Young between four Packers defensive backs to defeat Green Bay in the 1999 NFC Wild Card game, immediately immortalizing him with 49er faithful forever.
In four seasons with 49ers in the 1990s, Owens had 223 receptions for 3,307 yards and 30 touchdowns. Not bad for a player who is arguably the wide receiver of the NEXT decade, the 2000s.
3. Bryant Young
The face of the 49ers defense for more than 13 seasons, Bryant Young was one of the most consistent performers in the history of the franchise.
Starting every game from the moment he stepped on the field with 49ers in their 1994 Super Bowl campaign, Young eclipsed a number of 49er defensive line records. Often playing under the radar, BY was named to four Pro Bowl teams and one First Team All-Pro team.
For his career in the 90s, which spanned from '94 to '99, Young had 48 sacks and 293 tackles. A three time Len Eshmont award winner in the 1990s, given to the most inspirational and courageous player on the team, BY was a consummate pro and one of the greatest players to ever wear the Maroon and Gold.
2. Steve Young
More than just No. 2 on our countdown, Steve Young did the impossible: filled the shoes of Joe Montana.
Setting nearly every 49er quarterback record during the 90s, Steve Young was among the all-time greats at the position. Amassing nearly 2,400 completions, 30,000 yards, and 232 touchdowns in the 1990s, Steve Young was undoubtedly the quarterback of the decade.
His greatest individual performance came in Super Bowl XXIX, when he set a Super Bowl record with six touchdown tosses, a record that may never be broken. He retired in 1999 with the highest career quarterback rating ever over the course of a career. In 2005, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
1. Jerry Rice
The. Greatest. Ever.
Regardless of era, team, or position, Jerry Rice is the greatest human being to ever put on a football uniform, and the 1990s were his heyday. In a career that saw Rice amass nearly 23,000 receiving yards, 1,550 receptions, and 200 touchdowns, Rice is the benchmark for any Hall of Fame receiver. He is as synonymous with San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge or Rice-a-Roni (no pun intended). Jerry would ultimately be named to 13 Pro Bowls, 10 First Team All-Pro teams, and in 2010, will without question be a first ballot Hall of Famer.
Jerry Rice, the greatest 'Niner of the '90s. As if you didn't know that was coming.