Patrick Willis likened the toe injury that ended his 2014 season to a rapidly deteriorating tire: At some point, he said, you’re going to take your foot off the gas pedal and eventually your performance will decline.
“That’s kind of the way I’ve been playing for the last few years,” the 49ers inside linebacker said Tuesday. “I know a lot of people may not see it or at times saw a certain thing that was uncharacteristic, but that’s all because I was trying to find a way to compensate, to be able to continue to go out there and play. And it just got to the point where I couldn’t put the torque or the force that I needed to continue to grow and be a better linebacker.”
The 49ers placed Willis, 29, on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday, and he will have surgery on his left big toe next week.
The news dampened the sense the 49ers were becoming revitalized just as they start an uphill run for a playoff spot. Willis’ deactivation came on the same day linebacker Aldon Smith was reinstated by the NFL and a day after defensive end Ray McDonald avoided criminal charges for domestic abuse.
Coach Jim Harbaugh also hinted the 49ers’ other star inside linebacker, NaVorro Bowman, could return to practice this week. If he did, it would trigger a three-week window in which Bowman could practice, and if everything went well with Bowman’s surgically repaired knee, the 49ers presumably would activate him at the end of that period.
“Talking to our doctors yesterday, they want to get another MRI and see exactly where he’s at before that takes place,” Harbaugh said on KNBR. “It’s been 91/2 months (since surgery), so they see it ... prudent to get that MRI and make a good check of where he is and then proceed.”
Willis hasn’t played since midway through the Week 6 game against the St. Louis Rams, but he said the toe has troubled him for a number of seasons. He said he felt he still had “five or six great years of football” in him but would need surgery to get over the current hurdle.
Willis said he wasn’t sure when he will be back to full strength, and it may not be until the 2015 offseason.
“When I hurt it in the Rams game, it made me a little nervous then because I knew what I had already been feeling all these years,” he said. “I feel like the Lord was talking to me. I feel like he finally said the time is now.”
Another reason he decided to fix the toe now, Willis said, is how well his replacement, Chris Borland, has played. The rookie has 35 tackles in the last two games and pounced on the loose ball after Ahmad Brooks knocked it from New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in overtime Sunday. The play led to the 49ers’ winning field goal.
Borland has been starting at the “Mike” linebacker spot, while Michael Wilhoite has been playing the “Jack” position. Nick Moody is the only other inside linebacker on the active roster, although the team added Shayne Skov, who spent the offseason with the 49ers, to the practice squad Tuesday.
Skov, who played for Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio at Stanford, began the season on the 49ers’ practice squad before being cut. He also spent time on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.