San Francisco 49ers

Harbaugh says realistic return for Bowman is midseason

Even now, more than a month since the play occurred, people approach 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and tell him how heroic it was.

Harbaugh’s brother-in-law, Tom Crean, went so far as to show the footage to his Indiana basketball team for inspiration.

“People were saying he knew he got hit, you could see his face grimace and he wasn’t going to let his team down and let the ball come loose,” Harbaugh said Thursday.

The play everyone is still talking about occurred in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 19 when linebacker NaVorro Bowman wrenched the ball from a Seahawks receiver but at the same time suffered a grisly knee injury that knocked him from the game and required surgery.

The grit Bowman summoned in that moment is the reason Harbaugh said it’s possible the linebacker, who is currently rehabilitating the knee in Florida, could make it back for the first game of the 2014 season.

“I wouldn’t count NaVorro Bowman out of anything,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a supreme athlete, a world-class athlete among world-class athletes. The way he moves, his strength, his powers of healing. I wouldn’t count him out of anything.”

Still, Harbaugh said a more likely scenario for Bowman is to put him on the physically-unable-to-perform list in the summer, as was the case with Michael Crabtree last year, and bring him back at some point during the season.

“Realistically, halfway through the season (or) something like that would be more realistic,” he said. “But I never underestimate NaVorro Bowman.”

Bowman suffered tears to the ACL and MCL ligaments in his left knee when wide receiver Jermaine Kearse was driven into the joint, which bent awkwardly and left Bowman writhing in pain. Orthopedic surgeon James Andrews repaired it on Feb. 4, and recent pictures and video clips on Instagram show the linebacker in the early stages of his rehabilitation.

The prognosis for such an injury is six to eight months. But Harbaugh said the team will be cautious with Bowman, who signed a five-year extension last year and was voted the 49ers’ MVP by teammates, even after he’s medically cleared to play.

“We’ll take good care of NaVorro Bowman,” the coach said. “That would be the smart thing, wouldn’t it?”

Bowman’s potential absence creates a good offseason battle to replace him.

The top candidate, Michael Wilhoite, filled in for starter Patrick Willis early in 2013 and played well. He likely will compete against Nick Moody, a sixth-round pick last April. The 49ers also could use one of their 12 upcoming draft picks at the position.

Harbaugh also said defensive end Tank Carradine, who did not play a snap in his rookie season, had a procedure to remove a “mass of scar tissue” from his surgically repaired knee.

“He wasn’t able to straighten out his leg before that,” Harbaugh said. “Then they took that out and his leg went straight. He looks like a different guy now, since that procedure. Just what we saw when he did practice with our football team, and now this procedure that’s been done, I’m even more excited. I think he’s going to have a great offseason and look forward to his progress very, very much.”

Harbaugh said he expects Carradine to be able to take part in the team’s offseason program that begins April 21.

Carradine suffered an ACL tear at the end of the 2012 season when he was at Florida State. The 49ers used a high second-round pick on him in April with the hope he would be able to contribute late in his rookie season. During practices in November, however, coaches did not think he was generating maximum power from his knee and decided to shut him down for the rest of the season.

He is expected to part of a rotation on the defensive line next season, and the hope remains is that he eventually can take over a starting role from veteran Justin Smith.