Head Coach: Buck Shaw
Starting Quarterbacks: Y.A. Tittle, Jim Powers
Best Players: DT Leo Nomellini, FB Joe Perry, HB Hugh McElhenny
Most of the teams on this list are from the ‘80s and beyond; that’s when the 49ers really became the franchise we know and love. They made multiple playoff appearances in the early ‘70s, but those don’t really hold up compared to the Walsh and Seifert eras.
In the 1940s, the 49ers were the second-best team in the old All American Football Conference, behind the Cleveland Browns. They were one of three teams picked to join the NFL when the AAFC folded, and continued to build on their success against the tougher competition in the new league. The ’53 squad was the culmination of those early teams, really coming into full bloom for the first time. They didn’t make the playoffs, but the playoffs were a different beast back then; only the top two teams in the league advanced directly to the championship game. The 49ers were one game behind the Detroit Lions in the NFL’s Western Division; that kind of record today would give the 49ers a home playoff game, but was just another year back in the ‘50s.
Credit the Million Dollar Backfield—or, since John Henry Johnson wouldn’t join the team until the next season, the $750,000 Backfield. It was future Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle’s first season as a starter; he responded with a Pro Bowl season and an incredible, for the time, 20 touchdown passes, with over 2,100 yards through the air. Fellow future Hall of Famers Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny provided a powerful one-two punch on the ground. Perry was the bruiser, leading the league by rushing for over 1,000 yards on the ground; he retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. McElhenny was the more elusive runner, picking up 977 yards from scrimmage as a rusher and receiver. There was a lot of future tacky gold Hall of Fame jackets in that backfield. They were joined on offense by Gordie Soltau, who had 620 receiving yards while also handling kicking duties, as well as stars of the team’s early years like Bruno Banducci, Bill Johnson and rookie Bob St. Clair on the offensive line, as well as right end Billy Wilson.
On defense, the ’53 49ers boasted the greatest 49er player ever, before the ‘80s came along and raised that bar—Leo “The Lion” Nomellini. A 10-time Pro Bowler, nine-time All-Pro, member of the NFL’s 50th anniversary team—and ten-time tag team champion as a professional wrestler—Nomellini starred at both offensive and defensive tackle for the 49ers in their early days, this year making the All-Pro team at defensive tackle in the 49ers’ 5-2 front. He was joined in the Pro Bowl by rookie Art Michalik, as well.
This was the 49ers’ best squad ever until Bill Walsh came to town. You have to give some respect to the men who did it first.