NEW ORLEANS — After the 49ers had dispatched the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game, earning the privilege of playing in Super Bowl XLVII, Patrick Willis was asked for his perspective on the game-preserving pass deflections by fellow linebackers Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman.
Willis looked to his left and called out amid the hubbub: “Hey, Ahmad. Aldon. Let me ask you something. You All-Pro?”
Brooks, closest to Willis, looked bewildered. “Am I All-Pro?” he parroted. “Yeah.”
“All right,” Willis said, turning back to the reporter. “That's what he was supposed to do. Aldon Smith, that's what he's supposed to do. Na-Vorro Bowman, that's what he's supposed to do. Myself? I had nothing spectacular, but that's what I'm supposed to do. You know what? Our linebacker coach, he never let us see he's excited, because he always tells us, 'You know what? You're just doing your job.' ” In other words, greatness is expected of the 49ers' linebacking unit. And it's greatness they frequently deliver.
This year, three of the four — Willis, Bowman and Smith — were voted onto the NFC Pro Bowl roster. And all four of them received some sort of All-Pro designation, a rarity in NFL history. The conclusion is clear: The 49ers have the best group of linebackers in the league.
“Everybody has something that they're really good at,” Smith said of the foursome, “and most of us that are good at what we do are at the top of the list of people that do it. So I think that would be put us at being the best linebacking corps.”
Considering the All-Pro designations, maybe it's time to go a step further. Perhaps we should be asking if these guys form the best linebacking unit in NFL history.
First, let's consider the competition. Opinions no doubt vary widely on the subject, but the debate would have to include these classic sets of linebackers (stated year may represent a longer period).