Patrick Wills. Dwight Clark. Terrell Owens. Tom Rathman. Brent Jones. Bryant Young. Frank Gore. Jesse Sapolu. Roger Craig. Steve Young. So many iconic names, so many tremendous memories, and many of them are in our personal top-three 49ers list. But, who truly are the greatest 49ers of all time, and what's the case for their ranking?
Based on who wasn't listed above, there should be no surprises for who the top three greatest 49ers of all time are.
#3 Ronnie Lott (CB/USC - Pick #8, 1st round, 1981)
4 Super Bowl titles
10 Pro bowls
6 First Team All-Pros
189 career games
20 career playoff games
63 interceptions (5 seasons in the Top 10)
1146 tackles (4 seasons in the Top 10)
16 forced fumbles (5 seasons in the Top 10)
Statistics can't even come close to measuring Lott's impact on the field, and on the 49ers. Lott played in an era where you were allowed to destroy wide receivers, and he was the definitive hitter of the 1980s. He played every snap with a perfect balance of smarts and reckless abandon like few had done before or since. Statistics also can't measure the impact he had on a barren 49ers secondary, which Walsh completely overhauled in the 1981 Draft. Lott was the leader of the 49ers defense from the first day he suited up for them, until his last. The defense of the 1980s 49ers never got the respect it deserved, they were an absolute force of nature. In the four Super Bowls Ronnie Lott played in, his defenses only allowed 21, 16, 16, and 10 points. The signature moment of those defenses was "The Stand" in Super Bowl XVI. Lott may be #3 on my objective list, but if you asked me who my all-time personal favorite 49er is, it's Ronnie Lott by a country mile, and I know the majority of 49ers fans from the 1980s agree with that sentiment.
#2 Joe Montana (QB/Notre Dame - Pick #82, 3rd round, 1979)
4 Super Bowl titles
8 Pro Bowls
3 First Team All-Pros
192 career games
Career passer rating of 92.3 (13 seasons in the Top 10)
273 passing touchdowns (8 seasons in the Top 10)
40,551 passing yards (9 seasons in the Top 10)
Career average of 211.2 passing yards per game (10 seasons in the Top 10)
63.2% passing completion % (12 seasons in the Top 10)
28 game-winning drives (6 seasons in the Top 10)
26 comebacks (10 seasons in the Top 10)
Joe Cool. The Comeback Kid. The iconic NFL champion in the 20th century. Responsible for "The Catch" and "The Drive." Delivered the first Super Bowl to the 49ers, and changed the perception of the 49ers from a joke to the Team of the '80s. He mastered Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense. He delivered clutch moments, made it look easy, and looked so darn cool doing it. His era of QBing was also very different, as offensive linemen weren't valued like today, it was still a run-first league, and defensive players could absolutely murder a QB (plus hold & destroy WRs). He put up insane numbers, was the definition of clutch, and went 4 for 4 in Super Bowls. Joe was so loved by 49ers, we still rooted for him as a Chief, and dreamed of a Niners vs. Chiefs Super Bowl. Injuries robbed Joe of what would have been an even greater career, if that's even possible to conceive. Joe's legacy is this...if you need one QB, for one drive, to win it all...it's Joe Montana.
#1 Jerry Rice (WR/Mississippi Valley State - Pick #16, 1st round, 1985)
3 Super Bowl titles
13 Pro Bowls
10 First Team All-Pros
284 career games
1549 receptions (12 seasons in the Top 10)
22,895 receiving yards (12 seasons in the Top 10)
Career average of 75.6 receiving yards per game (12 seasons in the Top 10)
197 receiving touchdowns (12 seasons in the Top 10)
208 total touchdowns
There are times where statistics don't do a player's career justice, and then there are Jerry Rice's eye-popping stats. Not to mention, he complied his numbers when defenses absolutely mugged and obliterated WRs. His work ethic was second to none. His route running was as precise as it gets. His hands were pure gold. His 40 time before the 1985 Draft wasn't the best, but he ran like a hungry cheetah chasing a gazelle once the ball was in his hands. Jerry Rice is not only the best receiver of all time, the greatest 49er of all time...he is the greatest NFL player of all time.
Looking back on the careers of these three 49ers is simply an embarrassment of riches.
The 49ers were fortunate enough to have arguably three of the top 10 NFL players ever, on the same team (and with an equally great coach and front office). Thanks to these three legends, San Francisco has five Lomarbdis to look fondly upon, as well as the entire Camelot era. These three 49ers all hold special places in our hearts, and all of them are rightfully 49er fan favorites.
...but objectively, it's Ronnie Lott at #3, Joe Montana at #2, and Jerry Rice at #1.
Media courtesy SI, AP Images, USA Today Sports Images