Snarling. That’s the best word to describe the look on 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman’s face just before he was wheeled into the operating room Feb. 4, 2014.
Bowman appears to have taken the Instagram photo, a pre-surgery selfie. He’s wearing a sheer surgical cap and gown that barely makes it around his shoulders, attire that should convey vulnerability.
But his facial expression cuts through the background. It’s not fear or trepidation; it’s defiance. The message seems to be: Bring on the pain, the monotonous rehabilitation, the doubt and all the lost time. I’m ready for it.
The 49ers need that fighting spirit more than ever. The rejoinder to the exodus this offseason that included defensive linchpins Patrick Willis and Justin Smith always has been, “Yeah, but two key defenders are coming back.”
They were Aldon Smith, who was suspended for nine games in 2014 and had only two sacks in the remaining seven games, and Bowman, who tore two ligaments in his left knee during the 2013 playoffs and has been rehabbing since.
With Aldon Smith’s departure, even more focus shifts to Bowman. He and Ahmad Brooks are the only 49ers defenders who started the Super Bowl 21/2 years ago still on the roster.
Each day in training camp, Bowman, 27, goes through warmups with the rest of the linebackers. Then before team-wide drills, he runs to the sideline and puts on a black, plastic brace he admittedly loathes.
The knee brace is a metaphor for the fragility of the franchise. Yes, Bowman is talented enough and feisty enough to rally the staggered 49ers. He suddenly has become the team’s indispensable man. But he’s also playing on a surgically reconstructed left knee.
No 49er was having a better season than Bowman when he was injured in the 2013 NFC Championship Game, and this season, he wants to be a team leader. In the past, he let Willis do the talking for the defense. Now Nick Moody, who has two career starts, might take over for Willis. All eyes in the media and all ears in the locker room are now on Bowman.
No 49ers official is ready to say Bowman has recovered; no one wants to jinx his return. But there certainly have been signs he’s on his way back.
During the first full-squad practice of training camp Aug. 1, Bowman blitzed and put a spin move – brace and all – on Marcus Martin that had the young right guard lunging at air.
“He’s looking 100 percent out there,” Martin said later. “He’s rolling right now.”
On Sunday, Bowman had highlights in quick succession.
On one snap, he darted through the gap between the right guard and right tackle to surprise tailback Reggie Bush in the offensive backfield. A few plays later, Bowman went in the opposite direction, drifting downfield to tip away a pass intended for a tight end.
The only 49ers offseason in recent memory that comes close to this one in turnover is after the 2003 season, when salary cap issues prompted the team to cut some of its most expensive players. In one, painful swing of the ax, longtime veterans Terrell Owens, Jeff Garcia, Garrison Hearst and Derrick Deese were gone.
The 49ers hoped their young talent – Tim Rattay, Kevan Barlow, Kwame Harris and Brandon Lloyd – would rise in their place. Instead, the team went a league-worst 2-14, and those young players soon were cleared out, too.
This season’s team has far better depth and more experience and leadership than that 2004 squad. In the wrenching hours after Aldon Smith was released Friday, for example, Anquan Boldin, Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid stepped forward to address reporters. The 49ers aren’t relying on players as inexperienced as Rattay and as immature as Barlow, Harris and Lloyd.
In that way, it’s very difficult to see the 49ers being as awful and hapless as they were in 2004. With everything that has happened in the offseason, the question is whether they can be any good.
For the answer to be yes, they need Bowman at the center of the locker room and in the middle of the defense.