The San Francisco 49ers' Elite: Rating the Top 25 Niners of All-Time
It's chic to say that Jerry Rice is the greatest player in NFL history.
(OK. You nod your head in agreement and think of your favorite Rice moment in a 49ers' uniform.)
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.
(You mumble, "This writer’s an idiot!" or "LMAO!")
I've only followed the 49ers since 1964, so I'm a little fuzzy on the guys who played in the 1950s. From 1964 forward, though, I remember them all. (Long pause. Deep sigh.)
And, well, I don't think Rice is the greatest 49er of all time.
(Don't hate me for being old, er, mature.)
I don't think Super Joe is No. 1 either.
(And, yeah, I feel like I should apologize while the typical 49ers shrieks, "Of course! Patrick Willis! Yeah...dude...he kicks ass..." )
Ah, just read my list, the Top 25 49ers of all time. Don't agree? Make your own list.
25. Dwight Clark: "The Catch" alone merits him the 25th spot.
24. Randy Cross: He anchored the O-line at three different positions during the rise from the pits to the Super Bowl years.
23. John Taylor: Love the guy! Returned kicks. Tough as nails. The TD reception and run on Monday night against the Rams is mentioned at family dinner every Thanksgiving. Too bad he played opposite Rice. He didn't get the acclaim he deserved...just lived every kid's dream and caught the game-winning TD pass in the Super Bowl. Now, I think, he drives a truck.
22. Joe "The Jet" Perry, (tie) Ken Willard: 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. And, Willard's son made a compelling case for the star of the 1960s to join running backs with stats like his in the Hall of Fame.
21. Billy Wilson: An old-time offensive end from 1951-1960, who also played defense from 1952-1956. His career receiving numbers compare favorably to Fred Biletnikoff, Charley Taylor, Lance Alworth and Gene Washington. Played when the club wore white helmets with no stripe.
20. 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 the nearby Safeway selling autographed photos of himself in his Oakland Raiders' uniform.)
19. 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 Eric Dickerson. I pushed back...and accidentally pushed Washington. Incidental contact.
18. Leo Nomellini: 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 offseason work as a pro wrestler made him a Bay Area icon back when people read newspapers.
17. Roger Craig: Here's where modern day fans start to cringe. Craig was a great back, but the 49ers won Super Bowls with Lenvill Elliott and Wendell Tyler at halfback, too. And, really, his 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.
16. 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 the Dallas 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 Green Bay. Harris got caught in the summer camp parking lot taking a whiz on a sports writer's car.)
15. Patrick Willis: You didn't really think..? He might become the organization's gold standard for linebackers, but not yet. Imagine the last few 49ers' clubs without this guy roaming sideline to sideline? A friend text-messaged me during a game late in 2009: “Does Willis really make EVERY tackle?”
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 tough lineman 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. 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.)
11. 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. 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.
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. His brother Rafer Johnson was an Olympic decathlon champion.
9. John Brodie: It hasn't been that long since I yielded the point that Brodie really didn't come close to measuring up to Montana and Young. 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. (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. 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. 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.
7. Hugh “The King” McElhenny: I really miss nicknames, and he had two! “The King” trumps “Hurryin’ Hugh.” He had more than 11,000 all-purpose yards, most with the 49ers. He’s a Hall of Famer who was voted All-Pro five times. I’ve only seen him on grainy black-and-white film footage, but it’s clear he was more elusive and stronger than Craig or Frank Gore. Hugh earned a spot on the NFL’s 1950s All-Decade team. “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 bomb.
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!
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