San Francisco 49ers: All-Time Top Players for Each Uniform Number, 1-25
The long, dark nightmare of no football is almost over. The San Francisco 49ers report for training camp on Aug. 1, which is only eight days away. We’ll finally have new information to report, rather than just waiting each day to see if a player gets injured or arrested—by that token, it’s been a much quieter offseason than last year.
It gets better, though. We’re just 22 days away from the first preseason game, against the Houston Texans on Aug. 15. While preseason games are a poor replacement for the real thing, it will be the first chance for 49ers fans to see players like Torrey Smith, Reggie Bush and Arik Armstead on a field in 49ers colors.
Last year’s opening preseason game saw Quinton Dial looking very good, foreshadowing his play in the second half of the season as the emergency nose tackle. We’ll get to see who gets to replicate that feat this year as we approach the regular season.
Even better yet, we’re only 52 days away from the regular-season opener against the Minnesota Vikings. The 49ers have to wait until the Monday night doubleheader to start their season, so they’ll be a day later than most of the other NFL teams. Then, we’ll finally get to see how the offseason changes and personnel losses will have affected the 2015 49ers.
With one final week of no new information, most 49ers fans are in full countdown mode, be it eight, 22 or 52 days from when they consider football to “really” be back. However, when I hear those numbers in a 49ers context, I don’t think of training camp or the regular season—I think of Steve Young, Dwight Hicks and Patrick Willis.
While only 12 numbers have actually been retired by the team, almost every uniform number has a great player attached to it when you go back in 49ers history. At the very least, nearly every number brings back memories of a star from the past. Some numbers are easy to pick, like 16 or 80. Others, like 94, have a number of great options to choose from. More are tricky and require deciding which of a handful of kickers or punters is better.
With one last week to go before training camp actually begins, let’s go through history and pick the best 49er to wear each and every uniform number. It’ll be our way of counting down the days until training camp actually starts. Today we’ll handle Nos. 1-25, which includes three retired numbers, arguably the best number in 49ers history in No. 21, and a whole bunch of kickers and punters.
1: Troy Smith (2010)
We’re starting with a rotten number right off the bat, as it’s somewhat immodest to declare yourself “No. 1” on your uniform—especially if you fail to live up to that billing. No 49er has worn No. 1 for more than a season. Gary Anderson was a possibility, as he’s one of the great No. 1's football history, but I’ll go with Smith, who started six games at quarterback in 2010, finishing with a 3-3 record and five touchdowns.
2: Todd Peterson (2003-04)
It’s a kicker battle here, as we compare two years of Peterson with two years of David Akers. Akers made more field goals by a total of 73 to 30, so I wouldn’t fault anyone putting Akers over the top here. However, Peterson’s opportunities were hampered by the poor quality of the team in those years, with the 2004 team being arguably the worst in franchise history. His 81.1 percent field-goal percentage trumps Akers’ 77.7 percent, so I’ll side with Peterson.
3: Tommy Thompson (1995-97)
This number has been a punter’s number, with Thompson and Jim Miller being the only two players to wear it for more than two seasons. Miller has a Super Bowl ring as a member of the 1981 team, but Thompson punted, on average, 1.3 yards farther than Miller did. It’s not much, but it’s two short-term punters; that’s the best you’re going to get.
4: Andy Lee (2004-14)
Is Lee the best punter in 49ers history? His main competition would be Tommy Davis, a two-time Pro Bowler as a combination kicker and punter in the 1960s and the only other punter on the 10-year club. Davis might have been the more valuable player thanks to his double duty, but as far as pure punters go, no one trumps Lee. No one even comes close to matching him at No. 4, with only Max Runager wearing it for more than a couple seasons.
5: Jeff Garcia (1999-2003)
One of the top six quarterbacks in franchise history, Garcia is a three-time Pro Bowler who helped ease the franchise down after the end of the Steve Young era. He averaged 221.7 yards per game as a passer for the 49ers, with a quarterback rating of 88.3. He never really succeeded once he left the 49ers, bouncing from team to team, but for three or four years in the red and gold he put up some crazy numbers as a unit with Terrell Owens.
6: Joe Nedney (2005-10)
Take your pick between Nedney and Mike Cofer in another kicker battle. Cofer’s got the bling going for him, winning two Super Bowls in 1988 and 1989 and being named All-Pro in 1989. Nedney has the consistency—both players kicked between 128 and 129 field goals as a 49er, but Nedney did it in 149 attempts and Cofer took 191 while playing for much stronger offenses.
7: Colin Kaepernick (2011-Present)
Our first active player on the list, Kaepernick’s half-season as a starter in 2012, leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl, probably would have been enough to have him top this list as it was. His career as a 49er is at a crossroads after a down 2014 season, but a 25-14 record as a starter and a career QB rating of 90.6 is nothing to scoff at.
8: Steve Young (1987-99)
Young wins by default, as no other player has ever worn No. 8, nor will anyone ever again—the 49ers retired the jersey in 2008. That makes No. 8 the only number in 49ers history to be worn by exactly one player. Young would have topped the listing here even if hundreds of people had worn the jersey, of course.
9: Phil Dawson (2013-Present)
Another specialist battle between Dawson and punter Barry Helton. Dawson’s only now matching Helton’s time in the jersey, but his 2013 season was the second-most productive kicker season in 49ers history, with 32 field goals and 140 total points, not to mention a game-winning field goal in the Wild Card Round that year.
10: George Mira (1964-68)
Perhaps you prefer punter Klaus Wilmsmeyer, who has a Super Bowl ring with the team from 1994. Or Kyle Williams, the best receiver Trent Baalke has drafted up to this point. I’ll take longtime backup quarterback Mira, who sat behind John Brodie in the ‘60s. When called upon, Mira had a 4-2 record as a starter, throwing more touchdowns than interceptions with a quarterback rating of 70.0. Perhaps this is just my bias toward quarterbacks talking.
11: Alex Smith (2005-12)
Alex Smith is a bust as the No. 1 overall pick, which will color his evaluation for all time, as will his status of not being Aaron Rodgers. If, however, Smith had been picked toward the back of the first round, he’d be remembered more fondly. By the time the 49ers finally got into a stable position with the Jim Harbaugh era, Smith had developed into a decent, no-risk quarterback, and actually finished his 49ers career with a winning record and a couple of dramatic playoff wins. That’s enough to give him the edge over Steve Spurrier, the 49ers’ bust of the third overall pick in 1967, who provided more value as a punter than he did as a quarterback.
12: John Brodie (1957-73)
Another retired number, though Trent Dilfer actually wore it in the 2007 season. Brodie is just a step behind the three Hall of Fame quarterbacks the 49ers have boasted, and he might trump Y.A. Tittle when you consider only the San Francisco portion of their careers. Brodie led the NFL in passing three times, with the peak of his career being 1970, when he was named NFL MVP.
13: Frankie Albert (1946-52)
I’m going to cheat and put Albert here, though he only wore No. 13 in 1952—he was No. 63 before that. Albert was a left-handed scrambler who invented the bootleg play and was a great quarterback for his time—in 1948, the AAFC MVP award was split between Albert and Otto Graham, who might just be the best quarterback of all time, and he received another Pro Bowl nod when the 49ers joined the NFL in 1950. That’s certainly more deserving than the Tom Wittums, Shaun Hills and Tim Rattays of the world.
14: Y.A. Tittle (1951-60)
Tittle is one of three 49ers quarterback to have made the Hall of Fame, though his final years as a New York Giant are probably what put him over the top rather the decade he spent in San Francisco. Tittle had to battle to see playing time with Frankie Albert and John Brodie, but when he was given the actual opportunities to start he was great. He made four Pro Bowls as a 49er and was named the UPI MVP in 1957, back when they were the predominant group handing out MVP awards.
15: Michael Crabtree (2009-14)
While Crabtree never quite lived up to the hype that comes from being the 10th overall draft pick, he put up over 4,000 yards in a 49ers jersey. It looked like he had turned the corner to become a consistently great player in 2012, when he had 1,105 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, but injuries in 2013 and 2014 slowed him down significantly. It remains to be seen if his career can bounce back in Oakland.
16: Joe Montana (1979-92)
Hey, it turns out that the best quarterback in NFL history is also the best person to wear No. 16 for the 49ers. Who would have thought it! Montana passed Jim Plunkett as the best 49er to wear this number somewhere early in the 1981 season, and never looked back. The 49ers retired his number in 1997 in what was likely one of the easiest decisions the franchise has ever had to make.
17: Steve DeBerg (1978-80)
We have a quarterback battle here between DeBerg and Billy Kilmer. Both played more seasons out of San Francisco than in it, and Kilmer was actually more of a running back than a quarterback in his time in San Francisco, suffering a broken leg that caused him to miss an entire season. So, I’ll side with DeBerg, who led the NFL in both completions and attempts in 1979 before being replaced by some scrawny rookie out of Notre Dame named Joe Montana. His 7-28 record as a starter for the 49ers can probably be trumped by someone in the future.
18: Gene Washington (1969-77)
The best deep threat receiver in 49ers history, Washington made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons with the 49ers, being named All-Pro in three of those years as well. In nine years in San Francisco, Washington had 6,664 yards receiving and 59 touchdowns, averaging 18.0 yards per reception for the greatest 49ers teams before Bill Walsh and Co. came along. He remains the franchise leader in yards per reception to this day (minimum 50 receptions).
19: Ted Ginn (2010-12)
A surprisingly weak number, despite it being in most team’s quarterback wheelhouse. The best quarterbacks to wear the number, however, were Joe Reed and Scott Bull, both of whom started only seven games. So we’ll instead highlight Ginn, who averaged 11.8 yards per punt return and 23.5 yards per kick return as a 49er, putting up a total of 3,628 all-purpose yards.
20: Garrison Hearst (1997-2003)
Had Hearst not catastrophically broken his ankle in the 1998 playoffs, he might have had a chance to hold all the 49ers rushing records. The fact that he recovered and returned to the team after missing two whole seasons is amazing enough, but he also made the Pro Bowl on both sides of his injury, which is incredible. He finished his 49ers career with 5,535 yards rushing.
21: Frank Gore (2005-14)
All due respect to Deion Sanders, but you need to wear the number for more than a season when you’re going up against the all-time franchise leader in rushing yards. Even without Sanders, however, this number is a great competition, as Eric Wright served as a cornerback for a decade, winning four Super Bowl rings with the team. Gore has to take it, however, as the sole highlight on so many bad teams. It will be weird to see him as a Colt in 2015.
22: Dwight Hicks (1979-85)
A four-time Pro Bowler at free safety, Hicks had 30 interceptions as a 49er on his way to picking up a couple of Super Bowl rings, serving as the veteran presence among a secondary otherwise filled with rookies in 1981. An honorable mention goes to Joe Arenas, one of the top kick and punt returners of the 1950s.
23: Bill Johnson (1948-56)
Another slight cheat, as Johnson switched to No. 53 in 1952, but 53 is overloaded with talent and 23 is not. Johnson was a sturdy, multiple Pro Bowl center for the 49ers in the 1950s, helping pave the way for the Million Dollar Backfield. Marquez Pope would be the pick if you didn’t count Johnson, but even Johnson’s four seasons in the 23 jersey probably is enough to put him over the top here.
24: J.D. Smith (1956-64)
A two-time Pro Bowler coming out of the backfield, Smith rushed for 4,370 yards as a 49er, with over 1,000 yards receiving and some very solid kick-returning numbers. He’s still fifth all time on the 49ers career rushing yardage list, despite the presence of multiple Hall of Famers in franchise history.
25: Dave Baker (1959-61)
A very tough call here, with four solid picks of one degree or another. Baker played only three seasons with the club, but made the Pro Bowl in 1959 and ended up with 21 interceptions, leading the league in 1960. Eric Davis was a starting corner for four seasons with 12 interceptions of his own, being named All-Pro in 1995. Charlie Garner had some great numbers as Garrison Hearst’s replacement in 1999 and 2000. Tarell Brown was a very solid cornerback before he left the team two seasons ago. Take your pick.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.