We took a bit of a hiatus from the NN all-time 49ers team, but we're back today with what should be a hotly-debated position. In our last vote, Steve Young ran away with the backup QB position, securing 92% of the vote. I think there are some arguments for Y.A. Tittle and John Brodie, but Young is obviously an extremely worthy selection.
Next up I thought we'd take a look at the 49ers all-time running back position. While the QB position has a special place in 49ers history, the franchise has had an impressive run of high quality running backs, dating all the way back to the AAFC days. Joe Perry was the franchise's first great running back and still holds the franchise rushing lead if you include the AAFC years. He was soon joined by Hugh McElhenny in the Million-Dollar Backfield (John Henry Johnson was no slouch himself).
In running through the list, I left off J.D. Smith and Ken Willard. Smith had a solid run in the late 50s and early 60s, while Willard was a solid, albeit not great, running back in the late 60s and early 70s. After a slow stretch to close out the 70s, Roger Craig joined the team in 1983 and put together an impressive stretch in the mid to late 80s in which he was the first truly combo back, providing rushing and receiving skills.
I did leave Ricky Watters off the list. He had a strong run from 1992 to 1994, but I probably would have left him off even if we did not have the required four year wait period. He was very solid, but it was an very limited amount of time. Garrison Hearst took over in 1997 and overcome devastating injuries to twice win the Comeback Player of the Year award.
And of course, he was eventually followed by Frank Gore. I'd say he has been a fairly adequate running back.
Head after the jump for a look at each of the five running backs on our ballot.
Joe Perry (1948-1963): Perry is a Hall of Famer and the franchise's all-time leading rusher. Frank Gore surpassed his NFL yards, but Perry retains his lead in overall yards when you combine his time in the AAFC. Although Perry is generally listed as a fullback, the 49ers used the position in a much different manner at that point. That 49ers backfield was ridiculously stacked and was referred to as the Million Dollar Backfield. It consisted of Perry, Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson, all future Hall of Famers. Perry was the first back to gain 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons and when he retired, he was second on the NFL's all-time rushing list to Jim Brown. He finished his career with 11,744 combined yards.
Hugh McElhenny (1952-1960): McElhenny was the 49ers first round pick in 1952 and was immediately a hit on the field. He won Rookie of the Year, along with back to back Pro Bowl and 1st Team All Pro appearances his first two seasons. Over the course of his career, McElhenny went to six Pro Bowls and finished his 49ers career with 4,288 rushing yards, 2,666 receiving yards and 50 total touchdowns. McElhenny was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970.
Roger Craig (1983-1990): Not a whole lot needs to be said about the man who is now #3 in rushing yards, #2 in rushing touchdowns, #3 in receptions and #9 in receiving yards. Before Marshall Faulk, there was Roger Craig. In 1985, Craig became the first running back to finished with 1,000 rushing AND receiving yards. The previous season he became the first player ever to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl. Roger Craig went to 4 Pro Bowls and was the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1988 as he finished with 2,036 total yards. Craig still stands as the only running back to ever lead the NFL in receptions in a season. He finished his career with 13,143 total yards and 73 total touchdowns.
Garrison Hearst (1997-2003): I don't know of anybody who doesn't like Garrison Hearst. One big reason is this short little run. Hearst finished his time with the 49ers with 5,535 rushing yards. That number would have likely been quite a bit higher if not for the nasty broken ankle he suffered against Atlanta on the first play from scrimmage in the Divisional playoffs. He developed the necrosis condition that led to Bo Jackson's retirement and seemed finished, although the 49ers kept him on the roster. Two years later, Hearst came back and rushed for 1,206 yards, winning his second Comeback Player of the Year award. The next two years saw him slowly phased out of the offense, replaced by the immortal Kevan Barlow.
Frank Gore (2005-present): Gore is entering his eighth season with the 49ers, seven of which he has been the team's starting running back. In that time he has set the 49ers single season rushing record and twice led the team in receptions. His most impressive stat might be the fact that he became the first 49ers running back with four straight 1,000 yard seasons. He had five in six seasons, and would've had six straight had he not injured his hip in 2010.
Gore is at the top of the 49ers career rushing list for NFL yards, and is #2 in 49ers franchise history (dating back to the AAFC). The stats are sometimes inconsistent between Pro Football Reference and 49ers.com, but as far as I can tell, Gore sits 1,064 yards behind Perry for the all-time 49ers franchise rushing lead. Although the 49ers will continue to cut into Gore's workload in 2012, he has a solid shot of passing Perry this season.