San Francisco 49ers: Top 10 Quarterbacks of All Time
The San Francisco 49ers have a rich tradition. The franchise came into existence in the old All-America Football Conference, (AAFC), in 1946. The 49ers were the first professional team in San Francisco and one of the earliest to make the west coast their home.
When the AAFC folded in 1949, the 49ers joined the NFL. In the 65 year history of the San Francisco 49ers, there have been some outstanding quarterbacks to lead this franchise. Here's a look at the top ten best quarterbacks in 49er history.
Honorable Mention: Steve Bono
Steve Bono played five seasons for the San Francisco 49ers, from 1989-1993. He is best remembered as the guy on the sidelines wearing a baseball cap and carrying a clip board.
Bono was a backup to Joe Montana and Steve Young and rarely got the opportunity to play. However, when he did get the chance, he did play well.
In 1991, both Joe Montana and Steve Young were injured. Steve Bono started six games for the Niners that year. He led them to a 5-1 record.
His career in San Francisco includes completing 220 passes in 359 attempts, a 61.3 percentage. He had 7.1 yards per pass attempt, which is very solid.
We will never know how Steve Bono would have done if he had gotten more of an opportunity with the 49ers. My guess is that he would have done very well and although probably not Hall of Fame caliber, Bono would have been very good.
Bono was a member of the 49ers' World Championship team in the 1989 season.
Honorable Mention: Shaun Hill
Shaun Hill was a San Francisco 49er quarterback from 2006-2009.
Although a tall 6' 5", he did not possess a strong arm or classic delivery. Hill's throwing motion often was a three quarter delivery or sometimes even sidearm.
Hill never looked like the prototypical passer, but he won more games than he lost. The 49ers seemed to always be looking for a replacement for Hill, even though he won ten of his sixteen starts.
During his time with the 49ers, Hill had a completion rate of 61.7%, as he completed 322 of his 522 pass attempts. Hill averaged 6.7 yards per attempt and threw 23 TD's with only 11 interceptions.
The touchdown to interception ratio of better than 2:1 was one of the main reasons for his success. Hill typically did not make the key mistake that would get you beat. He managed the game well and played solid, if not conservative football.
The 49ers traded Hill to Detroit, heading into the 2010 season. They then signed David Carr to back up Alex Smith. The 49ers did not want Alex Smith to face the pressure of Hill pushing him for the starting job.
This has turned out to be a huge mistake by the 49ers and may ultimately cost Mike Singletary his head coaching job. Smith has played poorly and David Carr proved in one half of football that he is not the answer.
In my opinion, if the 49ers had played Shaun Hill when Alex Smith struggled or became injured, the Niners would be at least 5-3, instead of 2-6. Shaun Hill never got the respect he deserved from the 49er management and coaching staff. He simply went out and won games.
10. Jim Plunkett
Jim Plunkett was the first overall pick in the 1971 NFL draft by the New England Patriots. When the former Heisman Trophy winner joined the Patriots, they were a very poor team. The abuse that Plunkett endured in New England was legendary.
Plunkett was routinely pounded as the Patriots had a weak offensive line. Being a bad team, New England was often behind, which forced Plunkett to throw frequently, so he took a beating every year.
The San Francisco 49ers acquired Jim Plunkett in 1976. Their hope was that he could come in and elevate their franchise, which had made the playoffs from 1970-1972. He could not.
Unfortunately for Plunkett, the 1973-75 teams had fallen on hard times and the talent level was on the decline. Plunkett started 26 games for the 49ers, from 1976-1977. His record was a mediocre 11-15, which exemplified the mediocre team the Niners had during these two years.
While with the 49ers, Plunkett completed 254-491 passes, for a 51.7% completion rate. Plunkett threw 22 TD's and had 30 interceptions.
Plunkett left the 49ers and went across the bay to Oakland where he ultimately enjoyed his greatest success. He led the Raiders to Super Bowl titles in the 1980 and 1983 seasons.
9. Steve DeBerg
Steve DeBerg played three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, from 1978 - 1980.
During this period, the 49ers were in disarray, following the debacle that was Joe Thomas' GM tenure in San Francisco. DeBerg therefore, was saddled with some horrible teams. In 35 starts at quarterback for San Francisco, DeBerg had a record of 7-28.
DeBerg completed 670 passes in 1201 attempts, for a 55.8 completion percentage. He threw for 7,220 yards at an average of 6.0 yards per attempt.
Steve DeBerg's time at the helm of the 49er offense had some very positive moments, but there were many more negative ones. He threw for 37 TD's, but also had 60 interceptions, a terrible ratio. DeBerg was the classic "play just well enough to lose", type of quarterback.
Steve DeBerg's most valuable contribution to the 49ers was as a mentor to Joe Montana. A very intelligent player, DeBerg was able to grasp the system of Bill Walsh, who became the 49er head coach in 1979.
The 49ers drafted Joe Montana that same year, and he spent his first year and a half watching and learning from DeBerg and Walsh.
Following the 1980 season, DeBerg moved on to Denver, which paved the way for Montana to become the undisputed started for the 49ers. The 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl that season and the rest is history.
8. Elvis Grbac
Elvis Grbac had his share of ups and downs with the San Francisco 49ers. His career with the Niners spanned four years, from 1993-1996.
The 49ers excelled with mobile and accurate quarterbacks, yet they drafted Grbac in the 8th round in 1993. Grbac was a big strapping kid with a strong arm and although he could throw the ball a country mile, he had no mobility. His lack of mobility caused him to never really fit into the Bill Walsh system.
Elvis Grbac primarily served as a back up to Steve Young. He had nine starts for the 49ers and went 6-3, when Young was injured in 1995 and 96.
In his 49er career, Grbac completed 284 passes out of 430 attempts, a 66% completion percentage. He threw for 3,098 yards and his 7.2 yards per attempt was decent. Grbac also threw for 18 touchdowns, against 16 interceptions.
In a clash of politics and football, then San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, Jr., called Elvis Grbac "an embarrassment to humankind", after a particularly poor performance.
7. Steve Spurrier
Many people think only of Steve Spurrier as a successful head coach in the college ranks. Spurrier has been the head man at Duke, Florida, where he won a national championship and currently at South Carolina.
The fact is that Steve Spurrier was also quite a quarterback. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1966 and was the 49ers round one draft pick, number three overall, in the 1967 NFL draft.
Spurrier played nine seasons in San Francisco, from 1967-1975 and was mostly a backup to John Brodie. A good athlete, Spurrier also did some punting for the 49ers.
In 26 games with the 49ers, Spurrier compiled a 13-12-1 record. He completed 441 out of 840 passes, a 52.5 completion percentage. He threw for 5,250 yards, with 6.3 yards per attempt.
Spurrier was a very heady quarterback, but did not possess a strong arm. He threw 33 touchdown passes but had 48 interceptions.
1972 was his best year with the 49ers. John Brodie was injured and Spurrier led the 49ers to the playoffs with a 6-2-1 record over the last nine games of the season.
Trailing in their playoff game against the Vikings, Spurrier was replaced by Brodie, who had sufficiently recovered from his injuries. Brodie led the 49ers to a thrilling comeback win and Spurrier was again relegated to his familiar role on the bench.
6. Jeff Garcia
Jeff Garcia played five seasons for the San Francisco 49ers, from 1999-2003. He was a great find out of the Canadian Football League by Bill Walsh, who liked Garcia's mobility and winning attitude. Garcia honed his talents in the CFL, where he played for five years and took his team, the Calgary Stampeders to the Grey Cup title in 1998.
Garcia's main drawback was that he followed two great Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Steve Young. Garcia could never quite measure up to those two, but who could?
Now, seven years later, after being subjected to the likes of Tim Rattay, Alex Smith, Shaun Hill, J.T. O'Sullivan, David Carr and Ken Dorsey, the 49er faithful appreciate Jeff Garcia and what he brought to the team.
Jeff Garcia started 71 games for San Francisco and had a 35-36 career record. He completed 1,449 passes out of 2,360 attempts, a 61.4% rate. Garcia threw for 16,408 yards at an average of 7.0 yards per attempt.
Garcia was small by NFL standards at only 6' 1" and 195 lbs.. He was not blessed with a strong arm, but had excellent mobility. Garcia also was an accurate passer who was very effective throwing on the run.
Jeff Garcia was a three time Pro Bowl selection, in 2000-2002, for the 49ers. He later, also made the Pro Bowl a fourth time with Tampa Bay, in 2007.
Garcia guided the 49ers to the playoffs in 2000 and 2001. He compiled a 1-2 playoff record in those two seasons.
Jeff Garcia's throws were rarely pretty and he often looked like he was scrambling for his life before making a throw. Nevertheless, Jeff Garcia usually got the job done and he was a winner. The 49ers made a big mistake in letting him go following the 2003 season, as they have not had a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback since.
5. John Brodie
I was a young boy and just becoming a fan of the San Francisco 49ers. John Brodie was the first quarterback I watched closely and I came to realize that he was very good.
John Brodie was the 49ers' round one draft pick, third overall, in the 1957 draft. He played his entire 17 year NFL career with San Francisco, from 1957-1973.
Brodie's first four seasons saw him play in sporadically, behind Y.A. Tittle. In 1961, after Tittle was traded, Brodie became the full time starter, a job he would hold for the remainder of his career.
John Brodie started 159 games for the 49ers. He had a 74-77-8 record in those starts. Brodie completed 2,469 passes out of 4,491 attempts for a completion rate of 55%. He threw for 31,548 yards, with 7.0 yards per attempt. Brodie also completed 214 touchdowns against 224 interceptions.
John Brodie led the 49ers to three playoff appearances, from 1970-1972. He was a two time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection.
John Brodie was named MVP of the league in 1970. He also had his number 12 retired by the 49ers.
John Brodie often joked that he never worked a day in his life. Following his career in pro football, Brodie was an NFL color analyst for NBC television. He also played professional golf on the Champions Tour, even winning one tournament.
Although John Brodie's career performance rates a step below Hall of Fame caliber, he was an outstanding leader and a very good quarterback.
4. Frankie Albert
Frankie Albert played seven seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, from 1946-1952. The 49ers played in the All American Football Conference, (AAFC), during Albert's first four years, then joined the NFL, in 1950.
Frankie Albert threw 115 touchdown passes, including 88 in the AAFC, which is a record that will never be broken. Albert also had 98 interceptions.
A left handed passer, Albert completed 831 passes in 1,564 attempts, a 53.1 percentage. Albert threw for 10,795 yards, and had 6.9 yards per attempt.
Frankie Albert made one Pro Bowl and was a four time All-Pro selection. Albert was also co-MVP of the AAFC in 1948, along with another great quarterback, Otto Graham.
Frankie Albert was known as an excellent ball handler and quite adept at hiding the ball and utilizing ball fakes. This helped him run the football and he made the bootleg popular. He ran the ball 329 times for 1,272 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Following his playing career, Albert would go on to coach the 49ers from 1956-1958. He compiled a record of 19-16-1 as the head coach for those three seasons.
3. Y.A. Tittle
Yelberton Abraham Tittle, or Y.A. Tittle, began his career in with the Baltimore Colts, then played for the San Francisco 49ers from 1951-1960, a span of ten years. In the early days, Tittle split time with Frankie Albert, then took over as the undisputed number one quarterback in 1953.
During his time with the 49ers, Tittle threw for 16,016 yards. He completed 1,226 passes out of 2,194 attempts, good for a rate of 55.9%. Tittle also had 7.3 yards per pass attempt. Y.A. threw for 118 TD's and had 134 interceptions.
Y.A. Tittle combined with 49er wide receiver R.C, Owens and made the "Alley Opp" pass play famous. Tittle would throw the ball high up for Owens who utilized his outstanding leaping ability and come down with the ball in the end zone for touchdowns.
While with the 49ers, Y.A. Tittle was one fourth of the "Million Dollar Backfield", which included Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson. All four of these great players are in the Hall of Fame.
Following the 1960 season, as John Brodie was beginning to emerge as a star in his own right, the 49ers traded Tittle to the New York Giants, where he played an additional four very successful years.
Y.A. Tittle was a seven time Pro Bowl selection, four of those coming in San Francisco. He was also a three time All-Pro, including 1957 with the 49ers.
The UPI named Tittle league MVP in 1957, while with the 49ers, and also in 1962. The AP named Tittle the league MVP in 1961 and 1963, when he played for New York.
Y.A. Tittle was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
2. Steve Young
How often does one franchise have a Hall of Fame quarterback, then replace him with another Hall of Fame quarterback? There was no greater pair of quarterbacks over a longer period of time than Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Steve Young came to the 49ers as a brash, somewhat wild player, who often seemed out of control and was known as much for his scrambling as his passing. Initially, Young sat on the sidelines watching Joe Montana and learning the Bill Walsh system.
When Young first got the chance to play, due to a Montana injury, he was often criticized, even by his own offensive lineman. The feeling was that he scrambled too much and the linemen didn't know where he'd be, so it was difficult to provide proper protection.
Following two year stints in the USFL and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Steve Young joined the 49ers in 1987. His career spanned 13 years in San Francisco and played his last game in 1999.
From 1987-1990, Steve Young played sporadically, relieving Joe Montana when injuries shelved the 49er starter. Due to an arm injury to Montana, Young started the majority of the 1991 season, but he too went down with an injury in the ninth game. Steve Bono played well in his absence and Young would not return until the 15th game, when Bono was injured.
The 49ers missed the playoffs in 1991 for the first time since the 1981 season. Steve Young was the quarterback in 1992, as Joe Montana's injured arm was slow to recover. Young led the Niners to the NFC championship game, a loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Prior to the start of the 1993 season, Joe Montana was traded and the 49er offense was in Young's capable hands for the next seven years. Young learned how to be an effective pocket passer and also utilized his tremendous running ability more judiciously.
As Steve Young continued to gain more command of the 49er offense, he became an elite quarterback in the league. In the 1994 season, Young guided the 49ers to victory in Super Bowl XXIX, over San Diego. He was named Super Bowl MVP, as he became the first player to lead his team in passing and rushing in a Super Bowl.
Steve Young enjoyed a tremendous career with the 49ers. He started 124 games for San Francisco and compiled a record of 91-33. He was on three Super Bowl championship teams, but two of those were as a back up to Joe Montana. Young's crowning achievement came in that Super Bowl XXIX victory.
As a 49er, Steve Young threw for 29,907 yards, on 2,400 completions in 3,648 attempts, a 65.8% mark. Young's yards per attempt of 8.2 was also extremely high. He threw 221 touchdown passes and had only 86 interceptions.
During his time with the 49ers, Steve Young was also a prolific runner. He ran for 3,581 yards and had 37 rushing touchdowns. As I noted earlier, it was when he actually became a better pocket passer and chose his spots to run, did Young become a superstar.
Steve Young was a seven time Pro Bowl and six time All-Pro selection. He was also the NFL's MVP in both 1992 and 1994.
Steve Young was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005 and his number 8 is retired by the 49ers.
1. Joe Montana
Arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, Joe Montana ranks at the top of the long list of outstanding signal callers in San Francisco 49er history. Not blessed with a rocket arm and not overly fleet of foot, Montana was an incredibly accurate passer, had excellent pocket awareness and was the leader of the 49er offense.
Joe Montana was a round three draft pick in 1979, out of Notre Dame. After sitting on the sidelines as a back up to Steve DeBerg for most of his first two seasons, Montana became the full time starter in 1981. The rest, as they say, is history.
Montana would be a 49er for 14 seasons, from 1979-1992. Under the tutelage of Bill Walsh, Montana mastered Walsh's west coast offense perfectly. His accuracy was legendary, as he not only hit his receivers, he hit them in perfect stride, so they could maximize their run after the catch yardage.
So accurate was Montana and so good were his receivers, that 49ers often had entire practices when the ball never touched the ground on offense. The offense structured by Bill Walsh was a perfect fit for Montana. He had enough mobility to escape pressure, he was an extremely accurate passer and he had a great football mind.
Joe Montana started 139 games as a 49er and went 100-39 in those starts. As a Niner, Montana had a completion rate of 63.7%, as he completed 2,929 passes out of 4,600 attempts. Montana threw for 35,124 yards and 7.6 yards per attempt. He also completed 244 touchdown passes and had only 123 interceptions.
Not a prolific runner, Montana had excellent pocket presence and could run when he needed to. During his time in San Francisco, Montana ran for 1,595 yards and 20 touchdowns. His nimble feet also bought him time to extend plays and find open receivers, which he did to perfection.
Joe Montana's expertise as a field general and leader were also unparalleled. He led San Francisco to four world championships, winning Super Bowls in the 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1989 seasons. Montana was named MVP in three of those Super Bowl victories.
An eight time Pro Bowler and six time All-Pro, Montana was also the league MVP in 1989 and 1990. As the popular Tina Turner song goes, Joe Montana was "Simply The Best".
Joe Montana had his number 16 retired in San Francisco and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the year 2000.
San Francisco 49er Quarterbacks Crafted a Legacy That Will Live Forever
The San Francisco 49ers have a truly great quarterback tradition that is unrivaled. The team has been blessed with three members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in Joe Montana, Steve Young and Y.A. Tittle.
The 49ers also had three other top notch quarterbacks that were only a few steps steps short of the Hall of Fame in Frankie Albert, John Brodie and Jeff Garcia.
Gone are the glory days of Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Steve Young, but the memories and their accomplishments will live forever. There has never been a team in the history of the NFL to win five Super Bowl championships and never suffer a defeat in that ultimate game.
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