This is the latest post in Kurt’s continuing series to identify the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player of All-Time. For an explanation of his methodology for choosing each franchise’s ultimate franchise player, and then how you and he will choose the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player from that list, click here.
Welcome to the San Francisco 49ers edition of NFL Ultimate Franchise Player. This is perhaps the most fun segment in the entire series considering it contains icons who spent the majority of their careers in scarlet and gold ranked first, fourth, and 11th all-time.
Before I begin, if I could just briefly get on a soapbox on something…
Obviously doing a list of a franchises best players, in any sport, is not new. Once such ranking I saw recently ripped off (and admittedly so) the ‘Approximate Value’ rankings from Pro Football Reference.
The authors accepted an incredible undertaking in ranking players in a sabermetric-type system, explained here. In many cases they do a great job in determining if Player ‘A’ was better than Player ‘B’.
But the 49ers list has a few hiccups.
Joe Montana is ranked fifth. Ronnie Lott is listed seventh. Steve Young is listed third.
You’re trying to tell me Ronnie Lott is only the seventh best 49er? And Montana, at number five, is behind Steve Young?
There are numbers, there are stats, and then there is common sense.
How many rings does Steve Young have? How many does Montana have? I’m as big a fan of Steve Young as anyone, but I think Steve Young himself would tell you that the legacy of Montana is larger.
I get that comparing someone who played in the trenches for 15 years a couple generations ago to a more recent running back who was on top of his game for 6-7 years is imperfect, maybe even impossible. But it is a fun challenge, and that is what has been fun about doing this Ultimate Franchise Player Series over the past year-plus.
In the case of the 49ers, there is a small consensus of names that stand out above the rest … and one name that stands out above everyone.
Before I unveil my 49ers brackets, keep in mind two things:
- There are a lot of great pre-Bill Wash names out there, even dating back to the 1950s when the 49ers had many outstanding teams that never won an NFL Championship but were annual contenders.
- Then there is the currently emerging Jim Harbaugh crop. It’s kind of hard to slot them now, but feel free to revise this list around 2018-19. I have a feeling there will be some names who will be much closer to the top by that point.
Finally, because of time constraints I am sticking to the usual 32-player team field, so there will be omissions. If there are any names that I have egregiously left out, please feel free to chime in on the comments below – it’s what really makes the articles just as much as what I personally say.
DICK NOLAN BRACKET
#1 Ronnie Lott (CB/S 1981-90, HOF) v. #8 Michael Carter (NT 1984-92)
With Joe Montana and Jerry Rice obviously both earning number one seeds, Ronnie Lott gets thrown into the time machine into the Nolan Bracket, even though he never played a game in Kezar Stadium. Although he has four rings with the Niners, Lott gets dinged slightly for only spending ten years with the team. Many forget that Lott was still an All-Pro in 1991 as a member of the Los Angeles Raiders.
Michael Carter is my last man in, but he has his own unique claim to fame. Carter is the only man to ever earn an Olympic Gold medal (1984 shot put) and a Super Bowl ring within a 12-month period. Carter himself would make All-Pro once and the Pro Bowl on three occasions.
#4 Leo Nomellini (DT 1950-63, HOF) v. #5 Joe Perry (RB 1950-63, HOF)
Two Hall of Famers who were both part of the first 14 years of the Niners’ NFL existence – Joe Perry in fact spent 16 years with the franchise, starting in 1948 when the team was still part of the All-American Football Conference.
If you want to start a World Football Classic and need a Team Italy, Leo is your first pick. He was actually born there before his family immigrated to Chicago. Leo the Lion was a six-time All-Pro selection during the 1950s.
The most interesting fact about Leo? While moonlighting as a pro wrestler in the Bay Area during the off-season, one of his early tag team partners in 1952 was named Hombre Montana. That would be four years before the other Montana was born.
Joe Perry had amazing longevity as a running back, and at one point was the league’s all-time leading rusher when he finally hung it up. Joe has his own second sports profession: he was actually a PBA bowler following his football days.
Hugh ‘The King’ McElhenny brought the hot sauce to the Million Dollar backfield during his career, even though he only once carried the ball more than 120 times once.
All you need to know about Bob St. Clair (right) is that he stood 6’9” and also ate raw meat. For his era he was a man amongst boys, and he dominated the O-line at the height of his career.
#2 Jimmy Johnson (CB 1961-76, HOF) v. #7 Charlie Krueger (DT 1959-73)
A combined 31 years of pro football experience in this pairing, all of them spent in San Francisco.
Jimmy Johnson may be only the fourth most famous Jim Johnson in sports (Cowboys/Hurricanes coach, NASCAR driver, old Eagles defensive coordinator), but he is the player who takes the number two slot in the Pro Football Reference Approximate Value Ranking. Johnson earned most of his Pro Bowl recognition late in his career and was paired with Kermit Alexander through the 1960s.
Charlie Krueger was the eighth overall selection in the 1958 Draft, and he played at both end and tackle throughout his career.
That is six Hall-of-Famers from this bracket alone, five from the earlier days of the franchise.
BILL WALSH BRACKET
#1 Joe Montana (QB 1979-92, HOF) v. #8 Randy Cross (OL 1976-88)
Joe may not have passed the eyeball test physically coming out of Notre Dame, but he proved to be exhibit A for a player who plays better when the lights go on rather than in gym shorts on the practice field.
Maybe Randy Cross has annoyed you over the years as a television commentator, but he had his own solid 13-year career that culminated with the Niners Super Bowl 23 championship.
#4 Y.A. Tittle (QB 1951-60, HOF) v. #5 Dave Wilcox (OLB 1964-74, HOF)
As I explained during the NY Giants edition of UFP, Tittle had a decent car to drive with the Niners, but had incredible weapons towards the end of his career with New York. That said, Tittle was a four-time Pro Bowl selection in San Francisco.
Wilcox was a disruptive force against both the run and the pass during his era, and tight ends had a near impossible time getting off the line. At 6’3”, 240 lbs, Wilcox was always fundamentally sound in his assignments.
#3 Dwight Clark (WR 1979-87) v. #6 Harris Barton (OL 1987-96)
It’s surprising that neither player got much Pro Bowl recognition during their respective careers.
Dwight Clark only played nine years and only made the Pro Bowl twice. But Clark helped launch the 49ers dynast when they played the five-time NFC Champion Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC title game – ‘The Catch’ would ultimately put San Francisco on the football map for good.
Harris Barton likewise did not have a significantly long career. But at its peak, he was the best offensive tackle in the game. Going up against Reggie White back in the day was an epic battle.
#2 John Brodie (QB 1957-73) v. #7 Tim McDonald (SS 1993-99)
The number three overall pick in the 1957 Draft, John Brodie now gets lost in the shuffle among San Francisco 49ers QB greats. Brodie spent his entire 17-year career with the organization and later found a second career as a pro golfer on the Champions Tour.
Tim McDonald was an elite safety who spent the first half of his career with the Phoenix Cardinals before joining the Niners. For his career McDonald intercepted 40 passes and recovered 16 fumbles.
GEORGE SEIFERT BRACKET
#1 Jerry Rice (WR 1985-2000, HOF) v. #8 Dwight Hicks (S 1979-85)
Nothing much more needs to be said about Rice. He Gretzkyed the NFL record books and is the obvious number one overall seed.
When the Niners came out of nowhere to become the class of the NFL during the 1981 season, Ronnie Lott was one of the emerging stars, but it was the entire secondary that made an impact. A second member of that secondary has to make my brackets, and Hicks earned four consecutive Pro Bowls at the height of his career.
Two very tricky players to work into my field.
Deion is already locked into my final 64-player bracket as an automatic bid for being the Atlanta Falcons UFP. The Niners were fortunate enough to have Deion in 1994, the year baseball went on strike, so he was available the entire year. Deion picked off six passes that season, three for touchdowns and over 300 yards in INT return yardage.
I knew my fantasy football team was doomed after Hearst took a 96-yard run to the house in overtime in the Niners 1998 season opener. That was the start of his 1,570 yard rushing season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
Listed as questionable for the team’s first-round playoff game versus the Packers that year, Hearst would rush for 128 yards that day in the Niners’ dramatic last-second victory, but he re-aggravated the injury late in the contest.
Hearst was going to gut it out on the field for the Niners’ Divisional Playoff game in Atlanta a week later, but he suffered a horrific ankle injury being tackled on his first carry. Suffering circulation/bone death complications in the aftermath, Hearst spent two years on IR before rushing for over 1,200 yards in 2001, earning Comeback Player of the Year honors for a second time.
#3 Bryant Young (DL 1994-2007) v. #6 Brent Jones (TE 1987-97)
Bryant Young was a number seven overall pick who spent his entire 14-year career with the Niners, recording 89.5 sacks mostly from the defensive tackle slot, twice having double-digit sack seasons.
Brent Jones was a solid, dependable, if never spectacular, tight end who earned four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances from 1992-95.
#2 Roger Craig (RB 1983-90) v. #7 Jeff Garcia (QB 1999-2003)
Roger Craig has surprisingly only made it once as a Hall of Fame finalist, in 2010. The peak of his career is when he broke 1,500 yards rushing/2,000 yards total in the Super Bowl 23 season of 1988.
Following the man who followed the man, Jeff Garcia had quite a tall order taking over for Steve Young around the turn of the century. Garcia wound up with a decade-plus run in the league himself, not bad after beginning his career cutting his teeth in the Canadian League.
Garcia’s playoff resume includes the memorable 39-38 comeback win over the Giants in 2002. Like Joe Montana, Garcia was much better on Game Day than the measurables in the program.
JIM HARBAUGH BRACKET
Steve Young’s #81 ranking on the NFL All-Time Top 100 list is a bit low. He had a 100+ QB ranking six times in his career, and that does not even account for the threat he was on the ground. He easily earns the final #1 seed.
Coming off his second All-Pro selection in his three year career, Bowman gets into this field. He and Patrick Willis have become an impenetrable duo.
#4 Frank Gore (RB 2005-present) v. #5 Vernon Davis (TE 2006-present)
Lasting until the first pick of the third round after an injury-plagued college career, Frank Gore has worked out pretty well. With 8,839 rushing yards through the 2012 season, Gore now ranks 34th on the all-time NFL rushing chart.
Vernon Davis still has a bit of an under-achiever label, only making the Pro Bowl once in his first seven years. Still he has averaged 54 catches in the past six years and has scored five times in as many career playoff games.
#3 Terrell Owens (WR 1996-2003) v. #6 Colin Kaepernick (QB 2011-present)
If you were worried that T.O. was somehow going to be omitted from this field, there he is. Owens spent his first eight years in SF, and was the best receiver in the game from 2000-2003, scoring 51 times. If you take out the controversy and the circus act, Owens easily remains the second-best receiver in Niners history, and actually one of the all-time greats at the position period.
Kaepernick is the obvious Wild Card in the field. Time will tell how much he ultimately compares with Young and Montana. This much is known: the danger of the ‘read-option’ has a good chance to change the dynamics of the game forever.
#2 Patrick Willis (ILB 2007-present) v. #7 Justin Smith (DE 2008-present)
With five All-Pro nominations in his first six years, Willis is on pace to reach the lofty summit currently occupied by Rice/Montana/Lott/Young, that is obvious.
Justin Smith is getting long in the tooth, spending his first seven years with the Cincinnati Bengals. His play has elevated since joining the Niners, making the Pro Bowl in each of the last four years. Justin’s star won’t climb much higher but he has definitely been part of the defensive unit’s rise the past few years.
49ERS UFP SELECTION
The top four is strictly chalk. It is the Mt. Rushmore of the Niners, although Patrick Willis could be chiseling his own piece of stone with another 5-6 dominant years. At this point, Willis’ resume is not quite enough for an at-large berth in the overall 64-player field.
Steve Young goes out at #4, and I have his RPI right on the fence for an at-large berth. Ronnie Lott finishes at #3. At #11 all-time on the NFL Top 100 list, he looks good for an at-large bid.
That leaves Montana and Rice for 49ers’ UFP. Both will not only make the final field, but will both likely be number one seeds.
But who is number one in Niners history? That brings us to the eternal argument of Joe versus Jerry.
Joe won two Super Bowls before Jerry. Jerry won a Super Bowl after Joe. But Joe should get extra consideration for excelling in the most important position in the game, and also in the clutch.
Here is my tie-breaker:
I could bypass Montana and go with a Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Johnny Unitas, Aaron Rodgers, or a number of others at quarterback, without too much of a drop-off.
The same is not true at wide receiver.
Consider receiving yards, where Jerry Rice is first with 22,895 yards (some obviously post-SF). Number two on the list is Terrell Owens at 15,934 and Randy Moss (who also became a Niner) at 15,292.
Then there’s the receiving touchdown record, which Don Hutson held seemingly forever with 99. Jerry Rice has 197 TDs receiving, 208 overall. Among receivers, Moss and Owens are a distant second/third with 157 and 156 respectively.
With all due respect to the quarterback position, there is a gently falling slope following Montana. After Jerry Rice, it is a large cliff to number two. Point is: Jerry is in his own stratosphere in regards to his position, and along with Michael Jordan perhaps the best athlete of his generation.
Joe Montana would be a solid choice as the 49ers best player ever, but I absolutely have to go the other way on this.
My selection as the San Francisco 49ers Ultimate Franchise Player is…