Image Credit: Associated Press
This week the NFL put out their All-Decade team for the years of 2010-2019. Four San Francisco 49ers made the cut, with running back Frank Gore, offensive tackle Joe Staley, linebacker Patrick Willis and cornerback Richard Sherman making the list. Let’s take a look at what these four men did the past ten years to earn this honor, as well as three players who deserved to make it and got snubbed.
Frank Gore: the “Inconvenient Truth” or who I like to call the light breaking the darkness. Drafted in 2005 in the third round after tearing both of his ACLs in college. Gore turned out to be the best back coming from an absolutely stacked early-2000s University of Miami backfield that also featured Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee. Gore was the sixth RB drafted and he now has the third most rushing yards in NFL history, and if he continues playing, has an outside shot of finishing with the most in NFL history. Gore was the engine that kept the 49ers offense moving through the early Alex Smith years.
In the decade, he broke off five 1,000-yard seasons, including 1,100 or more from 2011 through 2014. He had a career resurgence in Indianapolis, nearly hitting a thousand yards in 2015, hitting the mark in 2016, and then barely missing it in 2016. Later, with the Dolphins, he just kept beating out younger fresher backs to keep the lead back share of carries. Although he left the team after the Harbaugh years, he will forever be one of 49er fans’ favorites and should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, whenever he is forced to hang up his cleats.
Drafted in the first round of 2007 with pick number 28, Staley has held down the left tackle spot for nearly his entire career. One of the most likeable players in the locker room, he has been a fan favorite from the beginning. Staley is the only player who was a part of both of the 49ers’ Super Bowl teams of the decade. One of the best memories of Staley is catching passes in Jim Harbaugh’s offense. A true leader, instead of seeing Mike McGlinchey as a possible replacement, Staley immediately took him in under his wing. When Staley finally decides to hang up his cleats, he will be found somewhere behind the camera making people laugh.
Willis is the best linebacker to ever don the red and gold jersey. If it wasn’t for foot injuries cutting his career short, he might be considered the greatest LB ever to play in the NFL. The first round of the 2007 draft was a goldmine for the 49ers, as they also drafted Willis with the eleventh pick. All Willis did was go on to put together seven of the most dominant season for a MLB. He earned Pro Bowl honors every year, except his injury-shortened final season. He was also named All-Pro in nearly each of these seasons.
Willis put up huge tackle numbers in his seven-and-a-half seasons, totaling 950, with 60 of those for a loss. He also had 20.5 sacks and 41 quarterback hits, pretty solid numbers for a middle linebacker for that short period of time. Willis was snubbed last season from being a first-ballot HOF choice. The only reason this was even possible was that his career was so short. Willis will get in at some point, and he absolutely deserved to be on this all-decade team.
Sherman spent most of the decade tormenting 49ers wide receivers. Drafted in the fifth round of the 2011 draft by the Seattle Seahawks, Sherman had 8 interceptions in both his second and third seasons in the league and was named All-Pro in the 2012, 2013, and 2014 seasons. Sherman was at one time most remembered by 49er fans for shutting down Michael Crabtree in the NFC Championship Game at the end of the 2013 season, but after leaving the dark side and signing with the 49ers in 2018, he has become a fan favorite. His leadership in the 49ers’ locker room has been invaluable and his support of teammates has been unmatched. Although his being on the All-Decade team is more about what he did while playing on the Seahawks, he’s successfully had a great second act in the 49ers secondary.
The All-Decade Snubs
NaVorro Bowman, linebacker
Bowman was drafted in the third round in 2010. The perfect match to put next to Willis, the duo was the best linebacker tandem in the NFL. Bowman was so great that in 2013 the debate about the best MLB in the NFL was all about the 49ers. Bowman had 143, 148, and 145 tackles from 2011to 2013. Some people believe he was on course to be an even better LB than Willis, but then his career was derailed against the Seahawks in that same NFC title game in which Sherman shut down Crabtree. After shredding his knee making a goal line strip of Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse, Bowman missed the 2014 season. In 2015, he came back and had his highest tackle total (154) of his career, and then he ruptured his Achilles tendon in Week 4 of the 2016 season against the Dallas Cowboys, which caused him to miss the remainder of that season. The rebuilding 49ers released him in 2017. For the decade Bowman made the All-Pro team four times (2011-2013, 2015) and if he wouldn’t have had injuries, he may have gone down as the best LB of the decade. There is no doubt Willis and Bowman were the best LB duo in the NFL, and both deserved to be on the All-Decade team.
Justin Smith, defensive tackle/end
The “Cowboy” was the piston that made Aldon Smith’s sack engine go. A free agent signing for the 49ers in 2008, Smith started his career with the Cincinnati Bengals. Smith averaged six sacks a season from 2010 until he retired at the end of the 2014 season. Smith was an iron man, playing 16 games in all but two of his 14 seasons, (his rookie year, when he played 15, and 2012 when he played 14). Smith was so dominant that he was actually voted to the All-Pro team at two positions, DT and DE in 2011 and 2012. He was by far one of the most imposing defensive linemen of his era, eating up double teams and stuffing the run at every opportunity. He and Aldon, the “Smith Brothers,” wreaked havoc together, helping make the 49ers’ defense one of the most deadly to opposing QBs. His ability to eat up double teams and play his role on the defensive line helped Willis and Bowman become the tackle machines that they were. He was selected to five straight Pro-Bowls from 2010 through 2014. In 2011 he finished third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. Although a player like Ndamukong Suh had more headlines, Smith surely was more important and was ultimately more valuable than Suh to his team and scheme. Smith was snubbed from the All-Decade team, but hopefully he is one player who isn’t snubbed from the Hall of Fame.
Andy Lee, punter
Yes, we are talking about a punter. Lee was one of the bright spots on the 49ers teams during the mid-to-late 2000s dark years. He began the 2010s as the best punter in the game, earning all pro honors in 2011 and 2012. His best season was 2011, when he averaged 50.9 yards per punt, tops in the NFL. On a team that relied on a strong defense and special teams, Lee was a big part of the game plan, his punts changing the field position in the Niners’ favor. He played for the 49ers from 2004 through 2014. In 2018, while playing for the Arizona Cardinals, Lee led the league in punts (94), yards (4,568), and average (48.6). Lee wasn’t only able to boom punts, but could also place the opposing team in the corner coffin seemingly at will sometimes. One of the longest tenured 49ers by the time Harbaugh helped lead the franchise back to the Super Bowl, Lee was one of the most consistent punters in the NFL over the past decade.
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