The Hollywood version of NaVorro Bowman’s comeback would end with him playing in the NFC championship, the game in which he was injured.
That won’t be the case for the inside linebacker and the four-win 49ers, but the alternate ending isn’t too shabby.
Two years after preparing for surgery to repair tears in both the ACL and MCL of his left knee, Bowman will be in Honolulu preparing to play in the Pro Bowl. He’s been voted there twice before. But he missed the 2013 game because the 49ers were heading to the Super Bowl. He missed the next year’s game because of the knee injury.
He said he wouldn’t miss this upcoming gathering and that he looks forward to bringing his family.
“Just remembering their faces and how they felt when the injury happened ... they’ve been there since Day One, and they really stressed how happy they were for me,” Bowman said Wednesday.
As he has all season, Bowman acknowledged he still hasn’t attained his pre-injury form. But his 135 tackles is one fewer than league leader D’Qwell Jackson of the Colts and is 51 more than the team’s second-leading tackler, linebacker Michael Wilhoite.
An even more impressive figure for Bowman may be 959, the number of defensive snaps he’s logged this season. Only safety Eric Reid has more for San Francisco, and Bowman has started every game after sitting out the 2014 season.
Bowman led all 49ers tacklers in last Sunday’s loss to the Bengals with 12 stops. He’s finished games with double-digit tackles at various points this season, but the Bengals game was a bit different, he said, because he was putting his body in situations – twisting, turning, getting his body low to the ground – that he wasn’t confident enough to try earlier in the year.
Bowman was perhaps the best inside linebacker in the NFL in 2013 and was having an excellent outing in the championship game in Seattle before he was hurt. His forté always had been his speed and ability to chase down shifty runners in space.
Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini said he saw that ability against Cincinnati, particularly on two plays he made in the open field against running back Giovani Bernard.
“That fluidness has continued to improve,” Mangini said. “Neither of those plays were easily made, and both I thought were an indication of his development and dealing with the injury.”
Bowman said that older players – those who know the toil he put in while rehabilitating last year – sometimes approach him before and after games and acknowledge his perseverance. The young players? He said that when training camp began, some of the incoming 49ers didn’t know he had been injured.
“So that was a good sign also, just as far as the way I was moving,” Bowman said.
Bowman said the fact that he was voted to the Pro Bowl while not at the top of his game will serve as a lesson to those same young players who now surround him in the 49ers defense. All but one 49ers defensive starter, Ahmad Brooks, is younger than Bowman, who will turn 28 in May.
“It’s not all about the athletic ability,” he said. “I try to relate that to the guys that are coming up, trying to accomplish things like (a Pro Bowl invitation). You really need to get the coach’s mindset inside of your game, and that’s the level that I think I improved on while I was sitting out of the game.”