Patrick Willis is a 49ers team captain, but the man playing next to him may be the 49ers’ MVP this season. Observers who go on the road to cover the team were asked to pick the player they think is most deserving of the honor and to supply a short argument as to why that is so.
Four picked inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who is currently fourth in the NFL with 120 tackles. Will the 49ers’ players agree? They’ll vote for the winner of the Bill Walsh Award – given to the team’s MVP – in the coming weeks.
Eric Branch, San Francisco Chronicle (Bowman): Patrick Willis remains one of the NFL’s top inside linebackers, but he’s now the second-best on his team. With the offense failing to find a consistent rhythm, the 49ers have been led by their defense, and Bowman has headlined a unit which has allowed the third-fewest points in the league. Bowman’s 120 tackles are 46 more than any other 49er, and he’s been at his best in the biggest games. In a backs-against-the-wall win at St. Louis in Week 4, he made up for the absence of Willis and Aldon Smith with a career-high two sacks and a forced fumble. Bowman set the tone in a bruising 19-17 win against Seattle on Sunday by knocking Russell Wilson into San Mateo on the game’s third offensive play.
Cam Inman, San Jose Mercury News (Justin Smith):
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Smith is the gritty ambassador of a defense-driven team, representing the ability to power past opponents and help teammates in need. We all saw how valuable Smith was a year ago, when his arm injury handicapped the defense. He looks like he’s at full strength again. Smith is the defense’s true captain, letting his actions speak for him, though apparently he had a gem of a rallying cry against the Seahawks. If stats are your thing, consider that Smith overwhelmingly leads the defense with 73 quarterback pressures and 49 quarterback hits. A distant second behind those marks is Ray McDonald (42 pressures, 28 hits).
Tim Kawakami, San Jose Mercury News (Bowman): Pretty easy call for me: Bowman has been the best, most consistent player on the 49ers’ defense vs. the run, rushing the passer, even in coverage ... and the 49ers’ D is why they’ve managed to hack out nine wins while the offense has teetered and tottered.
Matt Maiocco, CSN Bay Area (Bowman): This season – even more than others – it’s all about the 49ers’ defense. And while a lot of guys on the defense are having very good seasons, one All-Pro player is having his best season. That player is Bowman. He is doing a little bit of everything for the defense. After Aldon Smith took his leave of absence with the 49ers on a two-game losing streak, Bowman came through with a virtuoso performance on the road against the Rams. The 49ers needed a pass rush, and that’s what he supplied. He’s been consistently impressive the entire season as he completely steps out from Willis’ shadow in the middle of the 49ers’ defense.
Ted Robinson, KNBR (Frank Gore): The saying is, the 49ers go as Gore goes. This year, the 49ers went only when Gore went. A stagnant offense in Weeks 2 and 3 revived when Gore broke big runs at St. Louis. Defenses game-plan around Gore. His blocking is unsurpassed among lead running backs. Late-season changes see him used more as a receiving outlet. Bowman is the defensive MVP, and Anquan Boldin’s importance cannot be understated. Gore has been essential.
Bill Williamson, ESPN (Bowman): There is no clear-cut favorite, but this team has been defense dominant, so I think I have to pick from a pool of defenders. That leads me right to Bowman. He is quietly one of the best defensive players in the NFL. He is the glue of a star-studded defense. When Patrick Willis was hurt earlier in the season, Bowman took over as the leader and hasn’t stopped. He’s made big play after big play, and he’s a tackle machine. He affects every aspect of the defense.
Matt Barrows, The Sacramento Bee (Boldin): Yes, the 49ers’ defense has outshined – by a wide margin – the offense. But imagine how bad that offense would have been without Boldin? For three quarters of the season, he was Colin Kaepernick’s only wide-receiver target. Boldin rose to the occasion to the tune of 915 receiving yards and is on pace to top Michael Crabtree’s 1,105 yards last season. What’s more, Boldin has become a fiery leader on the field, putting the 49ers on the offensive against aggressive secondaries like Seattle’s. Free-agent receivers usually have one-and-done seasons in San Francisco. Boldin is MVP worthy and should be kept around.
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