25 Most Influential San Francisco 49ers in Franchise History
It is one of the most storied franchises in NFL history. The San Francisco 49ers run from 1981-94 put them as the most dominant team in the league, an amazing record of durability, innovation and clutch execution.
During that time, there came five Super Bowl titles and three more appearances in the NFC Championship game. Every year during that span they were considered a lock to make the playoffs and go deep in the postseason.
Such a storied run, however, makes people forget that this is the oldest major professional sports team in California, whose levels of success stretch back to the 1940s.
Long before Dwight Clark climbed to the sky, and much longer before Steve Young pulled a monkey off his back, the 49ers came to represent a team much like San Francisco—innovative, offensive-oriented but with good defensive players, and somewhat quirky, really.
In light of the team’s success at the start of the 2011 season, it’s a good time to look back on the top 25 most influential 49ers in franchise history.
25: Dwight Clark
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He’s known for “The Catch,” the seminal play that propelled the 49ers into their first Super Bowl, where victory turned into the launching pad for the franchise’s unparalleled 14-year run of success.
His career lasted nine years, pretty good for a late-round draft pick out of Clemson who couldn’t run. But he could run patterns, and he could catch. At 6’4”, he was a load for smaller cornerbacks. He totaled 134 games and 506 receptions, but as important as any was his downfield blocking.
Clark continued with the 49ers post-playing days by serving in the front office.
24: John Henry Johnson
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The 6’2” halfback and fullback out of St. Mary’s College started his 13-year career by playing 1954-56 in San Francisco. He scored 12 TDs in just 38 games with the 49ers, and also added 38 receptions, portending San Francisco’s trend of using their running backs as receivers. He later played six years with Pittsburgh, three with Detroit and one year with Houston. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.
23: Brent Jones
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A castoff of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jones added that third element to San Francisco’s offense, turning it from dangerous to explosive. Taking over as full-time starter in 1989 after the surprising departure of John Frank (he went to medical school), Jones totaled 40 catches, 500 yards and four TDs.
He was 6’3” and 230 pounds, but in coach-speak, he was a tight end who could run and catch. With receivers Jerry Rice and John Frank and all-purpose running back Roger Craig, the Niners offense turned into the league’s most prolific and versatile. In three playoff games to cap off their 1989 Super Bowl season, the Niners outscored their opponents by 100 points.
Jones played 143 games, totaled 417 receptions and made four Pro Bowls in his 11-year career.
22: Cedrick Hardman
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The 6’3”, 255-pound defensive end played a pivotal role in helping the early 1970s Niners get into the playoffs. Under head coach Dick Nolan, Hardman played right defensive end and though no stats exist on ProFootballReference.com, he was always a force to consider. He played 11 years in San Francisco and two more in Oakland.
21: Jesse Sapolu
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He was an 11th round draft pick and was considered a tad slow even though he was 6’4” and 271 pounds. But Sapolu and Randy Cross, and perhaps along with Steve Wallace, represented the success of Bobb McKittrick: quick, athletic and able to move.
The Niners offense installed the West Coast offense built on not only spreading the ball on short passes, but getting off the ball first. Sapolu was able to do that as both center and guard.
20: Bob St. Clair
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At 6’9” and 270 pounds, St. Clair was the first oversized tackle. From 1953-63, his effectiveness at right tackle enabled the likes of Joe Perry and Hugh McIlhenney to enjoy plenty of open lanes, but was also a first-rate pass blocker. The five-time Pro Bowler was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990.
19: Kermit Alexander
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One of the most under-rated players not only in 49er history, but in the league. Along with Jimmy Johnson, Alexander, a UCLA graduate, formed one of the best cornerback tandems in league history. In 1968, he led the league with nine interceptions, and totaled 43 in his 11-year career, the first seven coming in SF.
Alexander was a first-rate punt and kick returner, averaging nearly 24 yards per kick return for his career.
18: Red Hickey
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It was Hickey, newly hired as assistant coach under Frankie Albert, who worked with quarterback Y.A. Tittle and receiver R.C. Owens to create the “Alley-Oop” pass (basically, a throw-it-high pass in which Owens could out-jump the defender.
Hickey’s innovative ways continued in 1960 by unveiling the “shotgun” formation where the quarterback would stand seven yards behind the line of scrimmage and take the snap from center there.
The legendary Bob Waters, the team’s third-string quarterback, took most of the snaps in the new formation where he could be a threat running or throwing in the 30-22 upset of the Colts.
From that time on, San Francisco was known as an innovative offensive team.
17: Fred Dean
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He was only 6’3” and 230 pounds. He played part-time, usually on passing downs. But it was the addition of Dean midway in the 1981 season that gave the 49ers that extra lift for their inaugural Super Bowl season.
Coach Bill Walsh had figured out things on offense. What neither he nor his assistants could do was scheme their way on defense. But Walsh knew that a rather tepid defense becomes much better when it only has to worry about one thing, the pass.
Sacking the quarterback in the second half became a huge need for San Francisco, and a trade was pulled off with San Diego after the third game of the season.
With Joe Montana and Co. seemingly gliding up and down the field on offense to build early leads, the defense in the second half could forget about the run. And Dean was the primary assassin, getting key sack after key sack to stall the opposition.
The Niners finished the season 13-3 and had home field advantage in the playoffs. Dean, with 13 sacks for SF, was the NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1981 in only 11 games with the 49ers. In 2008 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
One more thing about Dean: He was a comedian. When asked if he ever lifted weights, Dean replied, “Whenever I get the urge to lift weights, I usually go lay down until the feeling passes.”
16: Ted Kwalick
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The forerunner of the tight end better known for pass catching than blocking, Kwalick, at 6’4” could get past the linebackers and outmuscle the safeties. Just call him John Brodie’s security blanket.
From 1973-75, he averaged 46 catches at nearly 16 yard per and totaled 19 TDs. A very good blocker as well, he made the Pro Bowl three times and was named All-Pro in 1974 when he averaged more than 18 yards a catch.
15: Eric Wright
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Much was made of the 49ers drafting Ronnie Lott, Carleton Williamson and Eric Wright with their first three selections of the ’81 draft, but it showed Walsh’s concern for his defense.
They became instant starters, Lott at right corner, Williamson at strong safety and Wright at left corner. Of the three, Wright played the best and longest at his original position (though it has to be said that Williamson was very good but his high-impact hitting wore him out).
In the 1984 Super Bowl victory over Miami, Wright superbly handled any of the Three Amigos that came his way. He was often left in one-on-one coverage with the likes of Henry Ellard, Art Monk and others. He made All-Pro in 1985 when, after his seven-interception campaign in 1983, he recorded only one. Teams stopped throwing his way.
Also, if it wasn’t for Wright grabbing the jersey of Drew Pearson late in the 1981 NFC Championship game, we wouldn’t be talking about Dwight Clark’s catch.
14: Roger Craig
In 1985, he became the first back to have more than 1,000 rushing and receiving yards. Pretty amazing for a former hurdler out of the University of Nebraska who started as a fullback next to Wendell Tyler.
He made four Pro Bowls and was named All-Pro in 1988 when he had 2,036 yards from scrimmage. His best year was ’85 with 2,086.
He could run inside our outside, could pick up blitzers and, obviously was a threat on pass routes. So often Montana would drop back and find no one open and dump the ball to Craig in the flat. He’d make a linebacker miss and then destroy DBs.
(Watch this video of Craig vs. the Rams in 1989.)
Craig became a finalist in 2010 for the Hall of Fame. It’s just a matter of time.
13: Bryant Young
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The former Notre Dame star served 14 years for the 49ers and started 208 games. He was a constant but steadying force in the middle at either right end or tackle or even on the nose. He was a pro’s pro, overcoming a devastating knee injury late in the 1998 season to play again in 1999. Many thought his career was over, but he played eight more years with three appearances in the Pro Bowl.
His career ended in 2007 when the franchise went through turmoil and changes, so it’s easy to forget how great a player Bryant was.
12: Gene Washington
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He made All-Pro three times and finished his nine-year career in SF (followed by one year in Detroit) averaging 18 yards a reception. That he’s not in the Hall of Fame might stand as one of that institution’s bigger oversights.
He was only 6’2” and 185 pounds, but no one could cover him. With TE Ted Kwalick running the middle and running back Vic Washington keeping linebackers tight, no wonder John Brodie found Gene Washington so often. The early 1970s 49ers offenses were some of the most potent in the league.
In both 1970 and ’72 he finished with 12 TDs, the latter being a league-best. In 1974 he had only 29 catches but again led the league with a whopping 21.2 yards per. Always a classy guy, the Stanford grad went on to work for the NFL.
11: Charlie Krueger
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Fifteen years in the trenches, all of them at defensive tackle for the 49ers, he was a major force in the middle. Jerry Kramer, in his book Instant Replay, considered Krueger his toughest foe, partly because of Krueger's size (6’4”, 256) but also because his friendly chatter between snaps broke Kramer’s concentration.
He had two Pro Bowl seasons for the 49ers but many considered him one of the best defensive linemen of the 1960s.
10: John Brodie
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A 17-year career in the NFL? Just doesn’t happen anymore unless you’re a kicker. Even then. Looking back at Brodie’s career, you forget how great he was. He threw for more than 3,000 yards twice (1965, ’68) and nearly did it again in ’70. He led the league in passing those three years.
He racked up 30 TDs in the 12-game campaign of 1965 while completing nearly 62 percent of his passes, this at a time when 50-percent was considered standard.
Yet Brodie represented the best and worst of the 49ers during the late 1950s, through the ‘60s and into the early ‘70s. The 49ers of those years were considered “soft” by opponents even though they had such great defensive players as Charlie Kreuger and Dave Wilcox and Jimmy Johnson.
The big thing is that they couldn’t win key games, so much of the frustration landed on the shoulders of No. 12. Brodie’s peak came during the amazing run of the Green Bay Packers, who were hard to beat during the ‘60s.
The best chance came in 1972. Brodie led the Niners to a 12-point lead with less than two minutes remaining in the divisional playoff game against the Cowboys, only to suffer a devastating comeback by the Cowboys.
Brodie finished 74-77-8 as a starter and completed 55 percent of his passes. He totaled 214 TDs and 224 interceptions, many of which came in desperate comeback attempts. He was a warrior.
9 : Hugh McElhenny
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A Hall of Famer, perhaps the best known back among the 49ers “Million Dollar Backfield,” he played along side Joe Perry, John Henry Johnson and Y.A. Tittle. McElhenny averaged five yards a carry and gave defensive players shortness of breath on every attempt.
Swift and shifty, McElhenny could break a run at any time. As a rookie in 1952, he set the league standard in longest run from scrimmage (86 yards) and longest punt return (94). He averaged seven yards a carry. He went on to make five Pro Bowl appearances.
8: Joe Perry
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In his 16-year career as a fullback, Perry set marks that in even today’s offense-first game the stars would find it difficult to match.
In 1953-54, he totaled 365 carries and a little less than 2,200 yards for six yards a carry and 18 TDs. This was when there was a 12-game schedule.
Perry played 16 years, all but two for the 49ers, and rushed for nearly 10,000 yards and added 2,000 more receiving. As a fullback, that was unheard of, but it also portended another San Francisco fullback who would rack up similar numbers (Roger Craig). Perry went into the Hall of Fame in 1969.
7: Ronnie Lott
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Lott did so many things for the 49ers—cover, support the run, lead—but his enduring effect will be his toughness. It’s more than having a surgeon remove the tip of his pinky finger; it was infusing the defense with a mental toughness that gets overlooked in those successful 49er teams of the 1980s.
They were known for the offensive skills, but the 49ers rarely gave up 100-yard games on the ground, and this was when they had to play Eric Dickerson of the Rams twice a year. The Niners ranked high in stats like yards per rush attempt and points, but because they often had a big lead other teams would gain yards after the outcome had been decided. But they always ranked among the league’s best in points allowed.
Lott started at left corner and then made the move to safety in 1985 and a year later he led the league with 10 interceptions. He had 63 in his career.
At safety, Lott became sort of a head-hunter found later in the likes of Rodney Harrison, but it harks back to the 1960s in guys like Larry Wilson of the then St. Louis Cardinals. Wilson was a great ballhawk but also a vicious hitter. So was Ken Houston of the Oilers and Redskins. So was Lott. A Hall of Famer as well.
6: Dave Wilcox
L-R Dave Wilcox, Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott
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Some might think this is a reach, but long-time NFL followers understand that Wilcox was one of the best ever at his position, left or weakside linebacker. In reality, the 6’3”, 241-pound star out of Oregon was really just an amazing natural athlete—strong, fast, agile and possessing a great sense of the ball.
Wilcox could tie up a bull like Colt tight end John Mackey or turn around and run with the elusive Gale Sayers of the Bears. He was one of the team’s best pass defenders when linebackers were hardly expected to do much more than get in the way,
He started 132-of-153 games and was slowed one year due to injury. He made the Pro Bowl six times and was named All-Pro twice, yet it wasn’t until 2000 that he was inducted into the Hall of Fame—36 years after his last game.
5: Jimmy Johnson
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There seems to be this unchecked consensus among today’s avid NFL fans that Deion Sanders was and always will be the best defensive back who ever lived. And those who have watched the game closely for years—such as coaches—roll their eyes. Sanders had phenomenal skills and indeed played to a high level and was lucky to get to Dallas where he won two titles after getting his first in SF, but he wasn’t the best ever.
For those who know, that claim might be split three ways—Dick Night Train Lane of the Detroit Lions, Herb Adderley of the Packers and Jim Johnson of the 49ers.
Johnson played 199 games at left cornerback for the Niners; after about the first 30, he hardly ever saw the ball. When you hear today about Sanders “taking away a side of the field,” well, Johnson did that for the 49ers from 1963-73. He couldn’t be beat.
Oh, his numbers aren’t great; he didn’t lead the league in anything, except maybe respect. He had 47 interceptions in his 16-year career and ran two of them back. If they had thrown more his way, he would have had more chances. I mean, other teams didn’t even begin to scheme against him. They just looked for other ways to get the ball downfield.
Johnson made the Pro Bowl five times and was a four-time first-team All-Pro selection. He went into the Hall of Fame in 1994.
4: Steve Young
It is a testament to Steve Young that he overcame frustration and lack of playing time early in his career in San Francisco that he went onto to become one of the most proficient QBs ever. But then, it’s easy to forget that Young might be the most athletic quarterback in league history.
In his prime, Young was nearly as fast as Michael Vick ever was but his passing skills were exponentially better. He had the moves of a shifty running back but also the strength of a linebacker. And he was tough, perhaps too tough considering the six major (well, maybe more) concussions he suffered.
That his career passer rating of 101.7 in San Francisco is something that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers might come close to reaching. Might. The ’94 team that Young led to the Super Bowl title ranks among the top five teams in the history of the league. There was a lot of talent—Rice, Taylor, Jones, Watters—but it all started with No. 8.
I could go on and on about Young’s stats but you can see them here: www.pro-football-reference.com/players/Y/YounSt00.htm./ :
Here’s a Steve Young story you’ll never find on the internet.
The Scene: 1987, cold, meaningless preseason game, Cowboys vs. 49ers. Young enters the game in the second half. Struggles some, and, with the team at midfield, throws a short pass in the left flat where a 49er receiver should have been. But he wasn’t.
Dallas defensive back intercepts in stride and heads towards the goal line—the 40, the 30, the 20 and...Young tackles him from behind. He ran down the DB like he was a cheetah on the veldt. I know. I was there covering the game.
Amazing spirit, amazing ability who learned to become the quintessential quarterback. Hall of Fame in 2005.
3: Jerry Rice
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Well, arguably the best coach in the last 40 years called him the best football player in the game. Not receiver. Player. That is something to put on the resume.
But before we pontificate on whether Jerry Rice was indeed the best football player of his era, which might make his ranking of No. 3 on the 49er list seem rather peculiar to some, we have to get into a philosophical discussion, the NFL equivalent of which came first, the chicken of the egg.
To wit: Did Bill Walsh and his West Coast offense make stars out of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, et al, or did they make his West Coast offense the formidable attack that still forms the foundation of most NFL teams today?
The answer is really a little of both. What has to be said is that Montana was the perfect QB for that offense—quick of feet and head, accurate, smart. But before Rice, it was like Montana was shooting at defenses with a .22 squirrel gun. And he did it very well, winning two Super Bowls.
With Rice, that gun became a .30-06—larger bore, higher velocity, much more damage capability. (Then when they got Taylor, it was like the whole thing went fully automatic.)
Joe Montana and Jerry Rice went front-and-center on America’s NFL landscape in January 1989, capped by that breathless Super Bowl-winning drive down the field against Cincinnati. Rice ended the game with 11 catches, two of which came on that drive when it seemed everyone in the stadium knew that Montana was looking for No. 80.
That Montana hit Taylor for the game-winning touchdown was set up by the fact that Rice went in motion across the formation and spread out the defense for an easy throw-and-catch TD.
There aren’t enough electrons on this website to fit all the attributes Jerry Rice brought to the game, much less the class he brought to the Raiders for four years, except to say he made the most out of his talent and his chance. Amazing player. Hall of Fame last year.
2: Bill Walsh
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In retrospect, the issue with Bill Walsh was what took so long for people to realize his genius? But overlooking brilliance in engineering, teaching, business and all facets of life is a trait of mankind.
Walsh, more than anything, transformed a franchise. It was loser-ville. In 1978, with a snotty rich kid given a pro football team as something to do, Walsh inherited an EPA Super Fund site of a team (O.J. Simpson on board, folks) led by GM Joe Thomas.
Three years later, they had the best record in the league and the Lombardi Trophy in their hands. Seven years later he would retire, too soon in retrospect, with three Super Bowl titles and a legacy that few coaches have ever matched.
In the last eight years he won seven of 10 games. He went 10-4 in the playoffs and went 3-1 in NFC title games, the lone loss still a sore point due to some very favorable officiating in the last minute that helped the Redskins in 1983.
Walsh’s legacy ultimately comes down to a platform, a stage that he built on which the best ever have performed—Rice, Young, Montana, Craig, et. al. The 49ers from 1982 until only very recently were the kings of the San Francisco Bay Area—automatic home sellouts, highest-rated games on local and many times national TV, an organization viewed favorably for its class and its innovation.
We looked forward to watching their games in person the way an opera buff anticipated Pavarotti or a rock fan longed for the first Keith Richards riff. We welcomed them into our homes, nodding again and again as an offense continued to befuddle those mean, evil defenders. That was Bill Walsh. Hall of Fame.
1: Joe Montana
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He almost became a point guard at South Carolina. Think about that. But he liked football. So at the end he got a bone from the Irish. There he was the seventh-string QB at Notre Dame. He was too small. No arm strength. Nice feet though. Pretty heady.
So when it comes down to selecting the Most Influential Player in the storied, 50-year-plus history of the 49ers, No. 16 comes to mind. Because he won. And continued to win. And wanted to win more.
Montana finished with four Super Bowl titles. And when it comes to measuring who is the best quarterback of all time, that ultimately is the measure. It’s not who throws the most TDs or yards or makes the most money, it’s the person who wins the most.
To do that, and this is where the true measure of a QB is seen, that person has to make everyone in the huddle and on the team believe that they are going to win. That is the difference. Joe Montana wasn’t the best athlete but he won the most titles of his era. So did Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr. There they are. Not the biggest or fastest or best arms, just the most blue ribbons.
So forget the 63.7 completion percentage in his 10 years in SF, or the 92.3 rating or the 2-to-1 TD-interception ratio. The only stats he has to show are those four Lombardi Trophies not to mention three Super Bowl MVP awards, Hall of Fame 2000.
Here’s a story told to me years ago by a close friend who attended a large party with Montana. The festivities included table tennis and the chance to play against one of the world’s best table tennis players. You know, one of those guys you see in the Olympics standing 12 feet behind the table trading slam after slam.
Montana plays him. The table tennis pro wins. Montana wants to play again. TT Pro obliges, score is a little closer but not that close and pro wins again. Montana, now burning a little hot, wants to play again. Right now. They do. Pro wins. Montana wants to play again. Right now.
You see the point. Montana would have stayed there until he won. It’s that undying competitive spirit that set him apart, and it was that spirit that inflated the confidence levels of all. Walsh may have built the platform but he could not have achieved the full realization of his vision without Montana's skills. That's why he's No. 1.