As the 49ers prepare for their first game of the season against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, Sept. 14, it’s obvious they face an uphill battle.
No longer are the 49ers considered one of the NFC’s best teams. Analysts are predicting a steep decline in 2015 following a disastrous offseason in which so many key players – and a very successful head coach – disappeared.
Yet the return of one player, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, gives the 49ers hope that San Francisco’s defense can be much better than many believe.
Bowman, who sat out all of last season after being one of the NFL’s most dominant defensive players in 2013, looked like his old self in game action this summer.
In his first three plays against the Dallas Cowboys, he was in on three tackles. In his next game, against the Denver Broncos, he was all over the field, showing his usual wide-ranging form while playing the entire first half. He had nine tackles and two sacks in those two quarters, and even the Broncos told him during the game how happy they were to see Bowman back healthy and active after knee surgery. Yet he said he wasn’t satisfied and promised to continue working hard until he believes he’s back to being the player he was before.
“Yeah, they’re letting me know that I’m playing well and I’m a heck of a player,” Bowman told reporters after that game. “Nobody knows what I feel and how I feel, and I hold myself at a very high level. All those things are great. But until I please NaVorro, I’ll keep working.”
Bowman will start alongside Michael Wilhoite at the inside linebacker spots against the Vikings. It gives the 49ers some stability at the position – and hope – following the offseason retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland. Plus, the situation at outside linebacker also is cloudy, following the departure of Aldon Smith and the questionable status of Ahmad Brooks. Getting a healthy Bowman back in the middle of the defense is something defensive coordinator Eric Mangini can build on.
Head coach Jim Tomsula said he noticed early in training camp that Bowman was moving just as he used to before the injury, and that’s when he knew Bowman would be ready to be Bowman again.
“Probably about the third day out there,” Tomsula told the media. “He hit a sudden burst and I said, ‘Ah, OK.’ And I saw him smiling. He knew he did, so that was nice.”
Kevin Patra of NFL.com noted that Bowman’s return could be a sort of “X factor” on a team that wants to prove it isn’t dead.
Wrote Patra: “After all the offseason departures, including linebackers Chris Borland and Patrick Willis retiring, Bowman looks like a man who decided, ‘No worries, I got this myself.’ The 49ers went through a tumultuous offseason. Seeing Bowman fly around the defense is a reminder everything isn’t so bad.”