With the biggest game yet to be played, it's premature to compare this 49ers team to any of San Francisco's five Super Bowl winners. But it's also human nature to want to break down the 49ers to see how they stack up by position with past champions.
"This is like comparing the Space Shuttle to the jet that broke the sound barrier. Two different times," said Dr. Harry Edwards, the Berkeley psychologist who worked for the 49ers for more than 30 years and is now employed by the NFL.
"Today, players are watching DVDs of the game they just played on the airplane as they fly back home," Edwards said.
True, today's NFL player is bigger, stronger and faster than the ones of 20 years ago. But great players are just that. They can't be defined by and contained in any one era. They are great anywhere, anytime. No example of this is more obvious than Ronnie Lott, who last played for the Jets 19 years ago. The Hall of Fame cornerback-safety played 10 years in San Francisco. He is the best defensive back to ever play for this team, and for my money, the best defensive back in NFL history. He has no equal on the current 49ers.
Yesterday is not as deficient as it might seem.
"I would take Roger Craig over Frank Gore, as great as Frank is," said Hall of Fame tight end and NFL analyst Shannon Sharpe. "Roger ran for a 1,000 yards and caught passes for 1,000 yards in a single season. That's a special player. And I would take every placekicker the 49ers had on any of those five Super Bowl champions over David Akers (2012)."
Conversely, each of eight former players and analysts I talked to picked today's Andy Lee over any punter in 49ers history.
So the number of current special teams players, either punter or placekicker, who could have started on the five Super Bowl winners: ONE.
On offense, Willie McGinest, the retired Patriots linebacker and NFL analyst, said there's no comparison between the current group of 49ers wide receivers and the ones of those five winners.
Said McGinest, "Randy Moss is at the end of his career and Michael Crabtree is emerging. We don't know yet how good he will become. Either way, these guys aren't Jerry Rice and John Taylor."
And no one interviewed for this column said Colin Kaepernick is the equal of Joe Montana and Steve Young. But this is where the conversation about comparative talent becomes interesting.
"Is Colin a better athlete than either Jerry or Steve?" I asked Jerry Rice.
"Well, Joe had those skinny legs," Rice said with a grin, "and Steve could run, of course. But you can see this guy is a combination of both. He doesn't hold the ball. He throws a tight spiral. You pick your poison when you play him. And you don't expect this young kid to have so much composure."
Reading between the words, Kaepernick has an upside that might scale the face of Half Dome. Of course, Kaepernick has to win multiple Super Bowls, starting with Sunday's. He also has to play at least a full season and stay healthy.
"But remember what Kaepernick is doing this year that those other guys didn't do," McGinest said. "Those guys played with all-star casts."