The San Francisco 49ers have had a tough offseason with three players of particular stature departing the team. Patrick Willis and Justin Smith both retired, and Frank Gore departed in free agency for the Indianapolis Colts. They have been the heart and soul of this team for much of the last decade, and their departures mark the beginning of a significant changing of the guard. There are still some notable veterans on the roster, but this offseason has shown how quickly things can change.
Someone brought up an interesting question on Twitter with regard to the historical stature of Gore, Smith and Willis.
The 49ers have retired 12 numbers in franchise history. That group includes 8 (QB Steve Young), 12 (QB John Brodie), 16 (QB Joe Montana), 34 (RB Joe Perry), 37 (DB Jimmy Johnson), 39 (Hugh McElhenny), 42 (DB Ronnie Lott), 70 (DT Charlie Krueger), 73 (OT Leo Nomellini), 79 (OT Bob St. Clair), 80 (WR Jerry Rice), 87 (WR Dwight Clark).
I don't expect the 49ers to retire to many more numbers because they have a 53-man roster and a 90-man preseason roster to deal with. They will double up offensive and defensive numbers during the preseason, but it seems like they would want to avoid doing that too much. And of course, retiring a jersey should be reserved for the best of the best.
The easy answer to this is No. 21 given Gore's career, and the fact that he holds the franchise's career rushing record. Of course, if the team does decide to retire another jersey, it could happen before Gore given that he is still playing. They would not retire No. 21 until after Gore retired, and that could be another couple years. But I do think Gore is the most deserving of those three to have his jersey retired. That is not to take away from what Willis and Smith have contributed over the years, but Gore is a step above everybody who has worn a 49ers jersey over the last decade.
The good thing though is that the 49ers have their franchise Hall of Fame. They can recognize players who have not had their jersey retired by induction into the team Hall of Fame. The qualifications for induction are fairly open-ended: "outstanding production and performance on the field, key contributions to the team's success, and/or the embodiment of the spirit and essence of the San Francisco 49ers."
I could see all three eventually inducted into the 49ers Hall of Fame, but jersey retirements are a different story. 21 is not a jersey we see frequently retired, but if anybody is deserving, it is Gore. Willis comes in second for me, but the fact that his career was cut short by injury might keep him from getting the jersey retired. It could happen, but he is in more of a gray area. And while I think Justin Smith was a dominant defensive lineman, seven years with the 49ers might not be quite enough.
But I'm sure there is plenty to debate about all that!