On Monday morning, I was fortunate enough to sit down and talk football over the phone with 49er legend Roger Craig. While I was expecting a more formal question and answer type interview, what I got instead was some great conversation and a ton of insight on everything from the 49ers of years past to what's happening with the team today. Here's what he had to say:
WZ: First off, I'd like to thank you on behalf of everybody at the Webzone for taking the time to speak with me today.
WZ: There are a lot of 49er fans that have only seen you on highlight reels, and heaven knows you have a lot of them. Is there any one play in particular that you remember most fondly?
Roger: I'm not a "stat" kind of guy that worries about individual plays. I'm more of a guy that enjoyed being an extension of a play. That's how I was taught. Bill Walsh was a great teacher...he never made us feel that one play was geared to one guy. Everybody played a big role on every play...even if it was a play action fake. I took real pride in that, because it was a big part of our system...it set up the run and the pass. If I did my job on a play action fake, then I would free up Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Brent Jones, John Frank or Russ Francis down the field. That's what I focused on...being an extension of the offense and doing whatever it took for us to win.
WZ: That actually leads into my next question. I can remember watching the 49ers play back in the day, and it seemed that you guys were just head and shoulders above the rest of the league. What was it that separated you guys from everybody else?
Roger: Well...what we did was...we worked our butts off. We paid the price. What was unique about the 49ers organization was that you had leaders on that team that would go the extra mile. That extra mile would be after practice...Jerry Rice and I doing sprints after practice...Jerry Rice and I catching balls after practice...or Ronnie Lott tackling the mustard machine (a tackling machine)...Joe Montana throwing timing routes...or Joe Montana and I doing play action faking. We worked on our skills to be the best, and we felt that we were supposed to win. That was the norm. That was embedded in us. Eddie DeBartolo gave us all the resources in the world. Bill Walsh was the conductor. He had great assistants that believed in his system, and they taught us. We had great communication. We put the team first. Winning championships was everything. That's what made us unique.
WZ: You were on three Super Bowl winners. It seems to me that all three of those teams: 1984, 1988, and 1989 had a different character to them. Would you agree?
Roger: Yup. I think every last one of our Super Bowls had a little character. We weren't a team that kept the same veteran guys. Bill Walsh was able to assemble a new team for all of his Super Bowl titles. That even goes for George Seifert. It's kind of cool how the team has reinvented itself throughout all of its Championships. Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers...that's just the same group of guys that stayed together. Same with the Dolphins and the Packers back in the day. The 49ers were able to almost build a new team each time, which was just awesome.
WZ: As far as an NFL career goes, you've pretty much done it all. You were a Pro Bowl runner, the NFC MVP in 1988, and a 3-time Super Bowl champ. Looking back on a successful career like that, is there anything that you regret or anything that you wish would have gone a different way?
Roger: Well...I'm the type of guy that laid it on the line. One thing that I can say to myself is that every year of my career, I was in the best shape I could possibly be in. I made it happen. Of course, there are times that you wish you could have played better, or wish things would have gone a better way, but you can't really harp on that. You've got to move on. I played the game for a long time and I understand that things happen here and there, but you've just got to move on. I wish things could have been better, but that's just the way the ball bounces. Sometimes you win a 3-pointer, and sometimes you miss a 3-pointer. It doesn't define you as a person just because things don't go your way all the time. The main thing for me was consistency, and that's one thing I can pride myself on. I was consistent thought out my whole career...otherwise I wouldn't have played in 11 consecutive playoffs.
WZ: I may be wrong here...I know you went to the Pro Bowl as a tailback, but you went to the Pro Bowl as a fullback, too, right?
Roger: Yeah. That's right. I'm glad you mentioned that because people don't talk about that. When I went as a fullback, I started in the same backfield as Walter Payton. That was my ultimate dream-come-true. It was the biggest accomplishment of my life to start in the same backfield with a legend like Walter Payton. The week that I was with him at the Pro Bowl, I picked his brain. I was like a little Chihuahua and he was a Bulldog, and I just followed him around. He gave me advice about life, how to think positive, how to be a professional football player, he gave me workouts...it was awesome. Then Bill Walsh moved me to halfback and I made it in at halfback. People don't talk about it, but I was a fullback at my first Pro Bowl.
WZ: You seemed to have your best games against some of the league's best teams. For instance, you had a huge game against the Vikings in the '88 playoffs. Looking back at everybody you played against, is there a defense, or a defender in particular that you looked at as the most talented or the toughest to run against?
Roger: Well, not one guy, because everyone is pretty talented at this level. But the group of linebackers that I hated playing against the most was the New Orleans Saints: Vaughn Johnson, Sam Mills, Rickey Jackson, and Pat Swilling. I'll never forget those guys. Ever. Those four guys had my number. Whatever yards or inches I gained against them, I earned. I can remember two years in a row, I got hit by Sam Mills and ripped open my forearm, and the next season he tore my tricep. That's how hard that guy could hit. Those four guys were definitely underrated. Those four were the best group of linebackers I ever faced...and I'm talking about Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, all those guys. That group was by far the most underrated group of backers to play the game. That's not to say that I didn't respect the other guys...Singletary was a madman out there. He could scare a bear out of the woods with those eyes of his.
WZ: That's funny, because it seemed to me that eyes were what you two had in common. Have you had a chance to catch up with him since he's taken over as Head Coach?
Roger: Oh yeah. I talk to him from time to time, and tell him he's doing a great job. He's bringing the Niners back. His guys respect him. He's definitely what the 49ers need. He's a disciplinarian, a guy who will get in your face and call it like he sees it and players respect that. Here is a guy that won Super Bowl and is a Hall of Famer...he made it happen, so they better respect that. A guy who has really benefited from his approach is Vernon Davis. He sent him to the locker room two years ago, and least season he made the Pro Bowl. That just goes to show that what ever Coach Singletary is doing, it's working. He's doing a great job.
WZ: Obviously, you know what makes a top notch running back in the NFL. What do you think of Frank Gore?
Roger: I think he has everything that it takes to be the dominant running back in the league. He's proven that. He's rushed for over a 1,000 yards for the last four years. That's fine and dandy, but I think that he should aim higher than that. Let's focus on "How am I going to get my team to the Super Bowl or the playoffs?" Those are the things that I would be thinking about if I was Frank Gore. I'm not saying that Frank's not a team player...he works his butt off. I know Frank wants to win, I can see it in his eyes and in the way he plays...but there are some things he might have to give up to make his team better. Now, I'm not saying "don't give Frank the ball", because you have got to give Frank the ball. He's a dominant running back that has what it takes to go the distance every time he touches the ball. But there are things that he might have to do that go with schemes. These days, teams are going with running back by committee. Teams are using three backs to counter defenses, so that you can't just key on one guy. Look at the Giants last Super Bowl win with the earth, wind and fire running backs (Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Derrick Ward). They kind of changed the game as far as running back by committee. Other teams are emulating that. The Cowboys (Barber, Jones, and Choice) have three running backs, the Saints (Bell, Bush, and Thomas) just won a Super Bowl using three backs. Teams want to keep their backs fresh and give different looks, and that's where I think the 49ers are headed. I think it will make Frank more dominant. There are three seasons in one NFL season: You have your first 8 games, your second 8 games, and the playoffs. I would rather have Frank prepared for the second and third seasons than the first season, you know? I'd be good with it if I was playing right now...but we ran more of a two back system in my day with Tom Rathman and me. It's good to have a little change of pace.
WZ: One of the biggest issues of the off season, and something everyone seems to be talking about is Alex Smith. You played with two of the best quarterbacks ever to take a snap from under center. Where do you see Alex heading based on what we all saw last season?
Roger: I think Alex has what it takes. When he took over the starting job, he was a young buck, and I don't think he was ready for that stage yet. I think about Montana, and he wasn't 20 years old when he took over the starting quarterback position for the 49ers. He waited two or three years before he finally stepped into the limelight. Alex was basically thrown to the wolves early. I think he's more mature now, and he's ready to be the quarterback the 49ers are looking for. He just needs to get into his rhythm, and play football. This could be his breakout year, I think.
WZ: As we head into the draft, what do you see as the 49ers most glaring need?
Roger: Well, I think the team has all of its skill positions set. You've got Gore, you've got Coffee, so you've got your running backs set. You've got Crabtree, Davis and the team just picked up Ted Ginn Jr. from Miami. That guy has some jets. So my thing is...get some beef up front. Get some beef up front to protect Alex and open up some holes for Frank. And if you can't get beef on the offense, the get it for the defense.
You can never get enough big boys up front...they win the games for you. You win the game in the trenches. Focus on the line, and everything else will come together. If you do your homework, you can find skill positions in the second and third rounds. I came out of the second round...and I'm just one step away from the Hall of Fame.
WZ: And with that, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. And speaking of the hall of fame, we're all knocking on wood, and we've got our fingers crossed for you.
Roger: Thanks, man.
***Important note for all fans and would be anglers out there***
With a little help from the folks at WFN Bay Area, some lucky 49er fan out there could win a televised fishing trip with the 49ers' legendary superback (and angler extraordinaire), Roger Craig. For details on how to enter, click here . If you'd like to meet Roger, he'll be signing autographs at Hi's Tackle Box, located at 40 Chestnut Street in South San Francisco, on Saturday, May 22nd.