When San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman first went down with what was obviously going to be a very serious, debilitating injury, I didn't care about the playoffs anymore. I didn't care that the 49ers were about to lose a huge game against the Seattle Seahawks. Bowman was the future of the team, a player who looked every bit the future Hall of Famer that Patrick Willis looked.
The 49ers needed Bowman.
But Bowman sustained a torn ACL, and multiple other ligaments along with that one. It was a debilitating, disastrous injury and his recovery time was immediately set for several months. Whether or not Bowman would be ready to return at some point in 2014 was the big question, but the purveying worry was that Bowman may not be the same again when he did return.
Many felt that Bowman was healthy "enough" to play at some point in 2014, but the season was lost anyway, so the 49ers didn't play him. With ACL injuries, there are always two estimates: when the injured player can return, and when that injured player will look like himself again. The first estimate is complicated enough, but the second can range from "a few extra months" to "never."
Despite the loss of Patrick Willis, the 49ers doubled their confidence and commitment to Bowman going into the regular season. The season wasn't exactly a success by any means, but Bowman had one of his best years yet and didn't look even a little hobbled at all this season.
"To get out there and move the way I was moving prior to the injury and receive the respect I've received from players throughout the league continued to motivate me and drive me," Bowman said after the season. "I didn't get down on the missed tackles that I made. I had several missed tackles this year where I felt I could have made them but I didn't. Guys were still pushing me and saying that I was doing a good job. All of those things continue to drive me to fight throughout the year."
Bowman, 27, led the NFL with 154 tackles, ahead of guys like D'Qwell Jackson, Lavonte David, Reshad Jones and Paul Posluszny. He was named to the 2015 Pro Bowl, making it to the game for the third time in his career, and he was named a first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press for the fourth time.
More important than his high tackle total is how much Bowman saw the field without slowing down. The 49ers were second-worst in the league when it came to time possessing the ball on offense. That means Bowman, who started all 16 games this season, saw the field as much as any player in the league and he came out the other end looking fresh and fast.
Bowman played in all but 40 snaps for the 49ers on defense this season. Despite the team giving the MVP award to kicker Phil Dawson, it was clear that Bowman deserved the honor. He is the heart and soul of the 49ers, and one of the few people left who can be a true leader on and off the field.
I cannot overstate how much Bowman means to the team going forward. There were people, back when Willis, Bowman and Dashon Goldson were all around, who suggested that the 49ers should move on from Bowman. They called the inside linebacker position a luxury, an embarrassment of riches.
I disagreed adamantly, which was a strong disagreement at the time because I thought Bowman played miserably in his limited playing time as a rookie. Sure, I didn't exactly predict that Willis would retire by any stretch of the imagination, but Bowman is an incredible talent.
And at his age, if the 49ers are to find any success going forward, Bowman is going to need to continue being a top tier linebacker. And provided there are no surprise retirements, that shouldn't be a problem. Inside linebacker is one of those positions that serves players well as they get older.
As you can see in the above chart, there were plenty of players not far behind Bowman when it comes to tackling stats, but all who exceeded him in age. D'Qwell Jackson is still going strong at 32 years of age, while guys like Paul Posluszny, Sean Lee and Daryl Smith all occupied the top 10 overall alongside Bowman.
He should keep going for several more years, especially given just how well his knee held up this year. That was a serious, serious injury and Bowman did the recovery exactly how you'd want and the 49ers were plenty patient with him. That was enough to get him looking back in All-Pro form.
Going forward, Bowman is the centerpiece. The 49ers need to definitively establish a player at the TED linebacker position to play alongside him, though the guys who played this season weren't bad by any stretch. Most importantly, the 49ers need to get a pass rush to give Bowman some breathing room. If they can do that, then there should be plenty more Pro Bowls and a lot more All-Pro nominations for San Francisco's stud linebacker.