Every week I will be delving into each team’s franchise history to shine the spotlight on a player who never received the recognition he rightfully deserved. All teams have players who come into the organization, work hard day in an day out, do everything that’s asked of them, and ride off into the sunset with little to no fanfare. This series is meant to give these players their due diligence.
Bryant Young: San Francisco’s Blue Collar Defender
Now calling a four-time Pro Bowler and one-time All Pro defensive tackle underrated may seem like a stretch, but hear me out. Bryant Young came into the league and immediately won a Super Bowl as a rookie. The remainder of his time in a 49er uniform wasn’t nearly as fruitful. Let’s take a deeper look into his career and why he isn’t mentioned when rattling off the greats at his position.
Winning a Super Bowl as a rookie, one can only go downhill from there
Young was drafted by San Francisco out of Notre Dame with the seventh overall pick in the 1994 NFL Draft. When a player is taken that high, he is expected to be a contributor from day one. The Niners got all they could ask for in Young. He started all 16 games as a rookie, recording 6 sacks and 45 tackles, while also forcing and recovering a fumble, according to Pro Football Reference.
The rookie notched a sack in his first career postseason outing against the Chicago Bears in the team’s 44-15 blowout victory. Three weeks later, he won a Super Bowl title two days after turning 23 years old. Talk about reaching the pinnacle in a hurry.
Despite the team’s success, Young was overshadowed in a stacked defense that year which featured 4 Pro Bowlers, including Dana Stubblefield who played on the opposite side of the defensive line. And how much spotlight can a player actually garner when they play in the same unit as Deion “Prime Time” Sanders?
Unfortunately for Young, his first season would not be a harbinger of things to come. San Francisco would only go on to win three more playoff games in his next 13 seasons.
The Niners’ defense Bryant played on was at its peak from 1994 to 1997 when the team never tanked lower than sixth in points allowed. From 1998 until Bryant’s retirement following the 2007 season, the defense under head coaches Steve Mariucci, Dennis Erickson and Mike Nolan only tallied a top ten defense once (2001). In the other nine seasons, the defense ranked outside of the top 20 seven times.
When a defense struggles that mightily, even a diamond in the rough gets overlooked.
Young turns the corner
During the 1996 season, Young went from being just a cog in the defense to establishing himself as an integral part. He turned in his most dominant defensive effort with 11.5 sacks, 76 combined tackles and 2 safeties. The effort earned him his first Pro Bowl nod and his lone All Pro consideration.
Young turned in three multi-sack games and had a three-game streak with sacks during the ’96 season.
In the playoffs that year, he would turn in the final two post-season sacks of his career in the Wild Card round against Philadelphia. The defense pitched a 14-0 shutout, thanks in large part to Young spending a large amount of time in the Eagles backfield.
A week later, MVP Brett Favre and the Packers offense proved to be too much for San Francisco’s defense to overcome. Green Bay prevailed 35-14 on their way to eventually winning the Super Bowl.
Despite the postseason disappointment, Young had established himself as a stalwart piece of the Niner defense, as he would be for years to come.
Living in the Shadows
As mentioned above, Bryant was lost in the shuffle of a dominant defense during his early years in the league. The biggest factor taking the attention off of him might have been Stubblefield, who won Defensive Player of the Year in 1997, despite Young being considered by many to be the best overall talent at the position.
Around the same time, Hall of Famer Chris Doleman was racking up double digit sack seasons in San Francisco, and Ken Norton Jr. was flying around the defense. Young just worked in the background, doing his job week after week.
In 1999 he enjoyed his second Pro Bowl season after notching 11 sacks, just a year after going down with a broken leg. He was awarded Comeback Player of the Year for his efforts, and seemed to be destined for the spotlight.
Young then made back to back Pro Bowls in 2001 and 2002, despite turning in statistically poor seasons by his standards. Those would turn out to be what we’ll call his final “appreciated” seasons in the Bay Area.
While nearing the tail end of his career, more younger and flashier defenders took the spotlight from the blue collar defensive tackle.
In his third season on the team, linebacker Julian Peterson was turning heads on defense in 2002 and 2003, snagging consecutive Pro Bowl nods and All Pro first-teams status in the latter season.
By 2004, it was too late in Young’s career for a renaissance. At 32 years old, he was on the downward slide of his career. He didn’t let that stop him from punching in and out every day and putting in just as much work as the next guy. Young would go on to start 61 of the last 64 possible games in his career.
The defensive impact he had in his thirties pales in comparison to his peak years, but putting together 20 sacks in his final three seasons is certainly commendable.
The Final Verdict
Bryant Young sustained an impressive career spanning 14 seasons with San Francisco. These days, that longevity for a non-quarterback with a single squad is impressive. He started 208 games for the franchise. Fewer than 300 players in NFL history have started over 200 games in the league. Young is one of even fewer to accomplish the feat with one team.
Over the course of his career, he logged 614 combined tackles and 84.5 sacks. At the time of his retirement, his sack total placed him fourth all-time among defensive tackles, trailing only Trevor Pryce and Hall-of-Famers John Randle and Warren Sapp. He still ranks in the top 50 on the all-time career sacks list.
On a franchise level, Young ranks first on the 49ers all-time sack list in the team’s official media guide, however it only tabulates stats since 1982, when sacks became an official stat. In reality, he still only trails 1970s defensive ends Tommy Hart and Cedric Hardman.
To really see how much Young meant to the team, look no further than the wall in the team facility dedicated to the Len Eshmont Award. The award is given out annually to the player who “best exemplifies the ‘inspirational and courageous play’ of Len Eshmont, a member of the original 1946 49ers team.” Young’s picture is hanging on the wall eight separate times, a team best by a longshot.
Young was recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters as part of the 1990’s All-Decade Team as a second-team defensive tackle. He’s the only defensive tackle on the team not in the Hall of Fame (Cortez Kennedy, Randle and Sapp).
In his first season of Hall of Fame eligibility, Young was named one of the 127 preliminary nominees, but missed the cut of the 27 semifinalists. This past season, he again missed the semifinal cut. Fellow defensive lineman who are eligible include Jason Taylor, Simeon Rice, Fred Smerlas and Leslie O’Neal.
The 49ers defender great didn’t put up gaudy numbers. He wasn’t the flashiest of players. He didn’t play on a handful of Super Bowl-winning teams. Overall, Young didn’t do much to necessarily draw attention to himself. His motivation was winning and helping his teammates succeed.
While it’s every player’s dream to make it to Canton, Young is one of the guys who probably doesn’t need the accolade to feel accomplished. He loves the game of football and he played the game with heart and passion for a long time.
It remains unclear whether Young will make it into the Hall soon, if ever. And while folks outside of San Francisco may not appreciate the hard work and dedication he put in, I’m sure almost all of the Niner fans who watched him suit up for 14 years undeniably believe he deserves to be enshrined.
reddit user /Raoke
Dude was a beast that won a Superbowl in his rookie season and still stuck with the team through the dark times (Ericson era). He was the undisputed heart of the defense that dominated but just couldn’t get back to the glory days in the mid-late .
reddit user /hyde04
Bryan Young and Dana Stubblefield were my favorite combo. My most memorable play is Niners Playing the Cowboys. Its 4th and goal on the one yard line. Niners on Defense. The ball is snapped. Aikman hands the ball off to Smith. Then Bryan Young and Dana Stubblefield make the stop.
reddit user /greebytime
Lost $100 bet I made that BY would be a Hall of Famer, and I made it thinking it was easy money on my part. Whoops.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.