Now that we’ve figured out the 49ers’ WR Mt. Rushmore (“figured out” may be a stretch with the whole Terrell Owens quandry), it’s time to move to our next position: cornerback. Compared to wide receivers, judging cornerbacks’ careers is a little tricky because other than interceptions there aren’t many easy counting stats to point to. However, that could make the argument more fun because you can make a case for a player in a variety of ways — the quality of the defense and pass rush they played with, what their role was with the 49ers (did they cover No. 1 receivers?) and their willingness to tackle and stop the run are a few examples.
I also added in “approximate value,” a stat used by Pro Football Reference that measures a player’s impact. The AV numbers I included were from each player’s seasons as a CB in San Francisco, but several of those scores include production as a punt/kick returner and/or some time at safety.
Lowell Wagner (1949-55): 31 INT, 5 fumble recoveries, 1 defensive TD, 38 AV
Awards/Accomplishments: Second-Team All-NFL in 1952 (NY Daily News); 5-year starter at CB
Rex Berry (1951-56): 22 INT, 8 fumble recoveries, 3 defensive TD, 43 AV
Awards/Accomplishments: Second-Team All-NFL in 1955 (Newspaper Ent. Assoc.); 5-year starter at CB
Abe Woodson (1958-64): 15 INT, 15 fumble recoveries, 76 AV
Awards/Accomplishments: 2-time First-Team All-Pro; 6-year starter at CB
Jimmy Johnson (1961-76): 47 INT, 7 fumble recoveries, 2 defensive TD, 1 safety, 141 AV
Awards/Accomplishments: Hall of Famer; 4-time First-Team All-Pro; NFL 1970s All-Decade Team; 13-year starter at CB
Kermit Alexander (1963-69): 36 INT, 23 fumble recoveries, 1 defensive TD, 50 AV
Awards/Accomplishments: Second-Team All-Pro (1968 – UPI and NY Daily News); 5-year starter at CB
Bruce Taylor (1970-77): 18 INT, 10 fumble recoveries, 52 AV
Awards/Accomplishments: 1970 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year; 8-year starter at CB
Ronnie Lott (1981-85*): 23 INT, 5 fumble recoveries, 4 defensive TD, 126 AV (55 AV as a CB)
Awards/Accomplishments: 4-time Super Bowl winner (CB/S); First-Team All-Pro (1981), 5-year starter at CB
*Lott’s years, stats and awards are as a CB only unless otherwise noted.
Eric Wright (1981-90): 18 INT, 5 fumble recoveries, 2 defensive TD, 63 AV
Awards/Accomplishments: 4-time Super Bowl winner; First-Team All-Pro (1985); 6-year starter at CB
Don Griffin (1986-93): 22 INT, 9 fumble recoveries, 56 AV
Awards/Accomplishments: 2-time Super Bowl winner; 7-year starter at CB
Eric Davis (1990-95): 12 INT, 6 fumble recoveries, 2 defensive TD, 37 AV
Awards/Accomplishments: Super Bowl winner (1994); First-Team All-Pro (1995); 4-year starter at CB
Jimmy Johnson was inducted to the Hall of Fame and played cornerback at a high level for longer than anyone else in franchise history. No list is complete without him. Eric Wright clearly makes the Mount as well. He won four rings, made the game-saving tackle on Drew Pearson in the 1982 NFC Championship Game against the Cowboys (after Dwight Clark made “The Catch”), and was one of the top cornerbacks in the league from the moment he was drafted through the ’85 season.
After Johnson and Wright is where this argument could spill in a hundred different directions. One could make an argument for Wagner or Alexander (who made the hit that ended Gale Sayers’ career), as they both had more than 30 interceptions. However, could Wagner cover receivers who played in the last 30 years? I have no idea, the guy also played for the New York Yankees (the football Yankees). Abe Woodson was named First-Team All-Pro twice, but that was probably based more on his skills as a returner, and Alexander was also a returner.
One could accuse me of recency bias, but I’m of the opinion that Johnson is plenty from the pre-Super Bowls era. It’s harder to play cornerback now than it’s ever been (which is why I think Tarell Brown is one of the most underrated players on the team), but it was also harder to play cornerback in the 1980s and ’90s than it was to play in the ’50s and ’60s. Thats’s why my final 49ers’ CB Mt. Rushmore looks like this:
- Jimmy Johnson
- Eric Wright
- Ronnie Lott
- Don Griffin
Why Lott? Yeah, this means he’ll make two position Mt. Rushmores. If you’re angry about this, take it up with Ronnie. Didn’t think so. In all seriousness, even though Lott’s best season of his cornerback was his rookie year … that was an incredible year, and he wasn’t exactly a slouch through the ’85 season.
Why Griffin? He and Tim McKyer started the entire 1986 season as rookies, a la Lott and Wright in 1981. Only Lott and Wright were drafted in the first two rounds in ’81, while McKyer and Griffin were taken in the third and sixth rounds, respectiviely. McKyer was flashier, a brash personality who gambled more often. But Griffin was the clear No. 1 corner when they played together, and a much steadier player.
Sorry, no Deion. One of the best cover men in history, but this is a 49ers’ Mt. Rushmore. Let him have all the top-50 NFL players of all-time lists and all the TV time he wants, but I can’t etch his name in fictional granite after just one year in San Francisco.