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Grant Cohn: Faces of the 49ers franchise

Face of the franchise is an intriguing concept when it comes to the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners have so many faces of the franchise, you have to break the faces down by decade. Let’s arbitrarily start with the 1980s when the 49ers finally came into their glory.

And let’s not count coaches. Otherwise, Bill Walsh, George Seifert and Jim Harbaugh would dominate the list.

Let’s not count owners, either. Otherwise, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. would dominate the entire column.

This list is strictly players only.

1980s

1. Joe Montana. The face of professional football in the ‘80s, and the greatest quarterback ever. Roughly 10 years after Montana retired, Bill Walsh watched a tape of him and fell in love all over again, as if watching him play for the first time. “Every pass was perfect, exactly where it had to be,” Walsh told a reporter.

2. Jerry Rice. Not just the greatest wide receiver ever, the greatest football player ever. Owns at least 30 NFL records, including receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895) and touchdowns (208). In 1987 alone, Rice made 22 touchdown catches in 12 games. No one ever will match that accomplishment.

3. Ronnie Lott. One of the greatest competitors in the history of American sports. Earned a Pro-Bowl selection every season in the ‘80s except ‘85. After ’85, Lott had the tip of his left pinkie finger amputated to avoid a long recovery which probably would have forced him to miss games in ‘86.

4. Roger Craig. The first running back ever to gain 1,000 yards rushing and a 1,000 yards receiving in the same season. The 49ers’ leading receiver and best offensive weapon on the 1984 Super Bowl team that went 18-1 including the postseason. They drafted Rice the next year.

Honorable mention: Charles Haley. A Hall of Famer, and the only player in NFL history who’s won five Super Bowls. Probably a better player than Craig. But Haley never was the face of the 49ers. They traded him in 1992 to the Dallas Cowboys because he was known to create disturbances on the team.

1990s

1. Steve Young. A late-bloomer, Young spent the mid-‘80s bouncing from team to team. The Niners signed him in ’87, he sat behind Montana for four seasons while he developed his craft and, by ’92, Young had become the best player in the NFL. When he retired in ‘99, he was the most efficient passer in NFL history (96.8 passer rating).

2. Jerry Rice yet again. He spans the decades. Rice hit his prime in 1990 when he was 28. That was the first season he caught 100 passes. From ’93 to ’96, he averaged 110 catches and 14 touchdowns per season. In ’97 when he was 35, he tore his ACL and missed 14 games. The next season, he caught 82 passes and scored nine touchdowns – the third-best season ever by a receiver older than 35. Who had the two best seasons of receivers older than 35? Rice, when he was 39 and 40.

3. Bryant Young. The 49ers’ best player of the late ‘90s, even better than Rice and Steve Young during that time. In his prime, Bryant Young was one of the best players in the entire league. In 1998, he had 9.5 sacks in 12 games before teammate Ken Norton broke Young’s leg by accident during a game. It looked like a career-ending injury, but Young returned the next season, played 16 games and went to the Pro Bowl. He missed only four games the rest of his career.

4. Brent Jones. One of the best tight ends of the ‘90s. Great hands, great ability to get open and, once he had the ball, he was almost impossible to bring down. Having him was like having another wide receiver on the field, but big.

Honorable mention: Harris Barton. An All-Pro right tackle in ’92 and ’93, and a Super Bowl Champion in ’94, Barton protected Steve Young’s blindside. Most blindside pass-protectors play on the left side of the offensive line to protect a right-handed quarterback. Barton was unique.

2000s

1. Terrell Owens. After Rice, Terrell Owens might be the greatest receiver ever. He certainly belongs in the discussion. He was one of the greatest runners after the catch, a fearless player over the middle. As opposed to Randy Moss, who didn’t have the stomach to take the hits from linebackers and safeties.

2. Jeff Garcia. Maybe the most underrated player in franchise history. Along with Owens, Garcia carried a team with a poor running game, a poor offensive line and a poor defense. Still, Garcia became one of only a handful of NFL quarterbacks ever to throw at least 30 touchdown passes two seasons in a row. Neither Montana nor Young ever accomplished that.

3. Frank Gore. After Garcia left in 2004, the Niners had seven consecutive sub-.500 seasons. Their biggest (only?) bright spot during that period was running back Frank Gore. Every Sunday seemed like Gore against the world – 11 defenders on the other team selling out to stop one guy, No. 21.

4. Alex Smith. When you think of the 49ers’ brutal run in the mid-to-late-‘00s, you think of quarterback Alex Smith, the scapegoat for all the losing. Fans scapegoated him. Even his own coach, Mike Nolan, scapegoated him. Smith carried that burden with dignity. He was the perfect brave humble face for an era of disappointment.

Honorable mention: Patrick Willis. He played only three seasons in the ‘00s – the Niners drafted him in ’07. But he was great from the beginning, making a league-leading 174 tackles as a rookie.

2010s

1. Patrick Willis. In 2011, 49ers’ head coach Jim Harbaugh compared Patrick Willis to Willie Mays, the greatest baseball player of all time. According to Harbaugh, both were five-tool players. Willis could tackle in close quarters, tackle in open space, cover tight ends, run from sideline to sideline and blitz.

2. Justin Smith. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Smith with the fourth pick in 2001. He never earned a Pro Bowl selection with them – he was a disappointment. The Niners’ signed him in 2008, converted him to a 3-4 defensive end and, from 2009 to 2013, Smith went to five straight Pro Bowls. He was so good he freed up teammate Aldon Smith who became an All-Pro player in 2012.

3. Frank Gore yet again. Gore broke his hip in 2010, an injury that can end a running back’s career. But it didn’t end Gore’s. He went to three Pro Bowls in a row from 2011 to 2013. He was the focal point of the Niners’ offense every season he was on the team.

4. NaVorro Bowman. As great as Willis was, Bowman might have been slightly better for three seasons – 2011, 2012 and 2013. Those years, when the Niners went to a Dime defense (six defensive backs and only one inside linebacker), they typically would leave Bowman in the game and bring Willis to the sideline.

Honorable mention: Colin Kaepernick. The only quarterback in franchise history to lose the Super Bowl. He has not improved since losing that game – he may have gotten worse. But he’s only 27, and it’s unclear how good he can become. Which might make him the perfect face for the 49ers right now. Their future is equally unclear.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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