As bad as life has been for the San Francisco 49ers lately — with mounting injuries, an absent superstar and a disappointing 2-2 start — they have had some positive news. The most noteworthy is the play of inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. He has been overshadowed at times and overlooked far too often because of San Francisco’s star power on defense. But as the 49ers work through their issues, he’s quickly changing the debate about who the best linebacker in football really is.
Bowman’s exceptional teammate, Patrick Willis, has held that title over the last few years, but Bowman has made a strong case to be considered even better. The fourth-year veteran leads the 49ers in tackles (34). He ranked second in the NFL in that category last year (with 148) and had 143 stops in 2011. Most important, Bowman has been leading the 49ers’ defense when they’ve most needed somebody to embrace that role this season.
The people who watched the 49ers’ 35-11 win over St. Louis last Thursday understand this. With Willis sidelined by a groin injury, nose tackle Ian Williams on injured reserve and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Aldon Smith just starting an indefinite stay in a rehabilitation facility, Bowman went off. It wasn’t merely that he produced serious numbers (six tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble). It was that everything he did seemed timely, as if he knew exactly when to give his team a jolt of energy.
Bowman later said that somebody “had to step up” and that he “was just playing [his] game,” but that’s also how he operates. No fanfare. No fuss. Just fantastic production at a position where he has quietly become one of the game’s rising stars. “My big word has been ‘maintain,’ ” Bowman said during a recent interview that will air in an “E:60” story later this month. “I don’t want to get complacent. I don’t have any stats or statistics I’m trying to reach. I just want to win, and if I go out there and give it my all every single game, I’m going to have a good game.”
It’s not hard to see why Bowman is now only starting to earn some acclaim. Despite being voted first-team All-Pro in each of the last two seasons — and earning his first Pro Bowl nomination last year — he has been one component in a defense that hasn’t lacked for big names. Willis has been a Pro Bowl player since he entered the league in 2007. Justin Smith is one of the best defensive tackles in football. Aldon Smith has produced 38 sacks in 35 career games. Bowman, on the other hand, has been a bit like the girl next door: The more people notice him, the better he looks.
Bowman didn’t become a starter until 2011, and even then his elevation on the depth chart seemed like a gamble to outsiders. The 49ers had veteran Takeo Spikes playing alongside Willis the previous season, and Bowman was only an unheralded second-year player. Bowman was a young kid looking to make a name for himself. It didn’t hurt that his pride had been wounded after he became a third-round selection. As Bowman said, “I thought of myself as a good linebacker when I came out. But the NFL didn’t.”
It took one opportunity for Bowman — while filling in for an injured Spikes against Arizona in the 2010 season finale — to see how far he could go. “I wanted to find out if I could play at this level,” said Bowman, who is listed at 6 feet and 242 pounds. “Because I kept hearing I was short, wasn’t tall enough, wasn’t big enough. I wanted to know if I could play at this level. I went out and had eight tackles. And that’s all I needed. Every day after that I knew I could play. All I had to do was put the work in and I was going to be all right.”
Bowman has been more than fine. He won league-wide praise when he became a starter in 2011, after the 49ers decided against re-signing Spikes. His biggest fans saw him as an eerie clone of Willis, an instinctive tackling machine who had a knack for the big play and a freakish quickness that served him well during his days as an AAU basketball teammate of NBA star Kevin Durant. Those same people should see even more in Bowman today. After all, it was his defensive effort in that NFC title game that put the 49ers in position for their first Super Bowl berth in 19 years.
The Falcons, trailing by four, were down to their last scoring chance of that contest, a fourth-and-4 from the 49ers’ 10-yard line with 1:13 remaining. When they came to the line of scrimmage, Bowman sensed a deviation in the Falcons’ tendencies. Instead of finding Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez across from him in the slot, Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White had taken Gonzalez’s place. It should have been a mismatch. Bowman turned it into a pass deflection that became the defining play of his career.
Said Bowman: “I knew something was about to happen. A linebacker on a receiver? It had to be something that they were trying to do with me right there. So I just broke down, got ready and did what I do. Nothing crazy was going through my mind. I just wasn’t going to let him score or catch the ball.”
One team source later said the Falcons considered Bowman to be the 49ers defender they most had to fear on that afternoon. It was a surprising statement then but one that makes plenty of sense today. The 49ers may be battered and bruised and bombarded with all sorts of questions about whether they can hang with this year’s other championship contenders. But one thing they don’t have to worry about is Bowman. His place in the game is already set for years to come.