Since it seems as if we’ve probably seen the last of Dashon Goldson with the San Francisco 49ers, I thought it’d be a nice time to measure his impact in a historical sense. Okay, there’s a chance he’ll be back. After all, he was supposedly gone after the 2010 season only to come crawling back on a one-year deal. Then the 49ers kept him for 2012 by applying the franchise tag on him (I wonder if they called him and said, “You’re ‘it,’ Hawk!”). They didn’t tag him this year, and it seems like he’s generating interest from a lot of other teams.
If indeed he does leave for a team like Cincinnati, Buffalo or somewhere else, where does he rank amongst all the excellent safeties in franchise history? After all, the 49ers have been blessed to have several fantastic ones over the years. Here’s my top-10 list, feel free to disagree (or even agree!). I included the “Approximate Value” of each player from Pro Football Reference from their time with the Niners. It isn’t a perfect statistic, but it’s a decent way to measure a player’s career accomplishments.
10. Jeff Fuller (AV: 22)
Is this a sentimental pick? Perhaps, as Fuller only started for two full seasons (1987-88) and part of a third until his career ended on a spinal cord injury in 1989. It was the first time a player was left paralyzed in a game I was watching, and as a child it was very disturbing. And since Fuller was one of my favorite players, it was even more difficult to take. Fuller would end up being able to walk again, although he lost the use of one of his arms. Eddie Debartolo set up a fund to pay Fuller $100,000 per year for the rest of his life, which I guess is the silver lining there. I believe Fuller would’ve had a pretty outstanding career if it weren’t for that injury — he was one of the hardest-hitting safeties of his day (the Lott/Fuller safety tandem was truly fearsome) and he accumulated 10 interceptions, 9 sacks and a safety in his career.
9. Tony Parrish (AV: 30)
He deserves this spot just for his incredible 2003 (a league-leading 9 INTs and some brutal hits of his own). Like Goldson, Parrish was also a Washington Husky. Sorry, my wife made me write that.
8. Dave Baker (AV: 30)
Baker only played three seasons (1959-61) after being drafted fifth overall out of Oklahoma, but he made those years count. He had 10 interceptions in his second year (21 overall in his short career) before going to the Army. Instead of coming back to the NFL after his military stint, he became the athletic director at Southern Nazarene University.
7. Carlton Williamson (AV: 45)
Kind of got lost in the shuffle since he was in the same secondary with three famous 49ers who helped lift the team to prominence in 1981. However, Williamson’s performance as a rookie that season should not be forgotten, and he also intercepted Dan Marino in Super Bowl XIX.
6. Mel Phillips (AV: 59)
I never saw this guy play (obviously, since he played from 1966-77), but anyone who can play safety for 12 years for the same team is alright in my book. As David Fucillo of Niners Nation wrote in a similar post more than three years ago, “He is listed as having 12 interceptions, but some of those older numbers are a little less reliable.” So let’s go ahead and say he had 40 interceptions.
“The Hawk” was/is an intimidating presence, and has had a nice run over the last four seasons. He’s never been all that great at catching wayward passes, and he accumulated far too many personal foul penalties over the years, but if he does indeed leave there will be several 49ers fans who’ll be quite angry. Goldson’s an interesting case because he has the size of a modern safety (it’s weird how small he is up close in terms of weight compared to how hard he hits) but isn’t quite as strong in coverage as NFL teams require in this pass-happy age. The thing I respect most about his game is the lack of regard for his own safety. It takes a truly unique kind of person to play the way he does.
4. Tim McDonald (AV: 53)
Adding McDonald in 1993 allowed the 49ers to switch Merton Hanks to free safety and allow the team to forget that awful first round pick of Dana Hall in 1992 (also from Washington, which shows not all Huskies are secondary studs). When I think of McDonald I don’t think of any specific plays or hits. He didn’t intercept a lot of passes, either. What McDonald represented was leadership and consistency, and he only missed one game in his seven years with San Francisco. McDonald actually had a better career than either of the next two names on this list, but we’re ranking 49ers safeties … not the best safeties who happened to spend time with the 49ers.
3. Dwight Hicks (AV: 60)
Led the league in interceptions in 1981 with nine as the oldest man in the 49ers’ rookie-laden secondary (Hicks was 25 that year). Hicks accumulated 30 INTs in his career and made several All-Pro teams; in 1981 he was named first-team by Pro Football Weekly and second-team by the stingy, good-for-nothing Associated Press.
2. Merton Hanks (AV: 67)
The man who now fines players for socks that are too short was an elite safety, particularly in 1994 and 1995. Known for his “Chicken Dance” and long neck as much as anything else, Hanks had a nose for the ball. He intercepted 26 passes in his last five years with the 49ers, and recovered 10 fumbles in his eight seasons in San Francisco. While playing with great teammates like McDonald, Eric Davis and — for one year — Deion Sanders helped, Hanks at his peak was an incredible player in his own right.
1. Ronnie Lott (AV: 126)
It’s almost sad that the pinkie-chopping story got so huge. It’s a great example of toughness and selflessness, but Lott was a transcendent player who was about much more than partial amputations. He was about more than big hits too. But man, were his hits thunderous. It was a treat to be able to watch him play for his entire career, and he was a five-time first-team AP All-Pro with the 49ers (and once with the Raiders, too). Even though he spent his first four-plus years with the 49ers as an elite cornerback, he transitioned to free safety with ease and immediately became the best in the league at his position during his time. Check that — the best of all time.