Grant Cohn: 49ers' NaVorro Bowman a shell of his former self

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SANTA CLARA - NaVorro Bowman is not good anymore. This is the saddest story on the San Francisco 49ers.

It’s painful to watch this proud warrior play like a scrub. Bowman used to be the Niners’ best player. When they would use their “dime” defense — six defensive backs and one linebacker — Bowman was the one linebacker. Patrick Willis, one of the greatest linebackers of all time, would jog to the bench. The Niners believed Bowman was better.

Bowman was great at everything an inside linebacker had to do. He was big and fast enough to cover tight ends, quick enough to cover running backs, and a vicious hitter. Running or throwing at Bowman was a bad idea. Opposing offenses tried to avoid him.

Bowman tore his ACL and MCL in January of 2013, and spent the next 18 months rehabbing. His first game back — an exhibition game against the Dallas Cowboys — he played three snaps and made two tackles. Some analysts and fans declared Bowman was better than ever.

The next week, Bowman played 42 snaps and recorded two sacks. Some believed Bowman would win the Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Week 1 of the regular season, Bowman recorded two more sacks and seemed fresh, almost like the knee injury never happened. I was beginning to think Bowman was some kind of mutant with superhuman healing ability, like Wolverine from X-Men.

But Bowman is no Wolverine. Turns out, Bowman is no Bowman, either. He looks like a guy who should join Willis in retirement.

Through the first five games of the season, Bowman has played 331 snaps and seems totally worn down, like a guy who has played eight million snaps through five games. He is slow, and has no quickness left. He can’t cover anyone anymore.

The league knows it, too. This past Sunday night, the New York Giants’ offensive game plan was to exploit Bowman. Not Kenneth Acker, the young cornerback playing his fifth game in the NFL who gave up six catches and 120 yards to Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown Week 2.

Acker was not the mark. Bowman was.

The Giants targeted Bowman in pass coverage 10 times, completed all 10 passes and scored two touchdowns.

The first touchdown came in the second quarter with the score tied 3-3, and the Giants facing third-and-goal from the 2. Eli Manning sent tight end Larry Donnell in motion, and inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite followed him.

This let Manning know the Niners were in man-to-man coverage, and who was covering whom. Wilhoite clearly was covering the tight end, so Bowman must be covering the running back, Shane Vereen.

The center snapped the ball to Manning in the shotgun. Vereen ran directly at Bowman, then cut to the right, toward the front pylon in the end zone.

For a split second, Bowman seemed stuck in the turf. He watched as Vereen made his move, then tried to chase after him. Too late. Vereen already was wide open, and Manning hit him in stride. Bowman never touched him. Sad to see.

Before halftime, the Giants ran the same play in the middle of the field, except this time Vereen cut to his left. Again, Vereen was wide open. This time he caught the ball and ran away from Bowman, and strong safety Antoine Bethea had to rush up and tackle Vereen after a gain of 12 yards and a first down.

In the fourth quarter, Manning threw a simple check down pass to running back Rashad Jennings, who ran directly at Bowman then cut to the right. Again, same play. Again, Bowman couldn’t defend it. He dove at Jennings’ ankles, whiffed, and Jennings gained 20 yards. But Bowman caught a break — a holding penalty in the backfield wiped out the play.

That was the last time Bowman covered a running back against the Giants. After that play, the Niners changed Bowman’s assignment and made him cover the tight end.

So, instead of winning the game by throwing to the running back against Bowman, the Giants won by throwing to the tight end against Bowman. On first-and-10 from the Niners’ 12 with 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter, New York couldn’t wait to target Bowman.

Manning dropped back, looked left, pump-faked, looked back to his right and lofted a pass over Bowman’s head into the hands of Donnell, the tight end. Touchdown. Bowman lost the game.

You almost wished the television would have frozen before Donnell caught the pass, like at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when the picture freezes on the two heroes’ faces instead of showing their death.

Unfortunately, real life isn’t that sentimental. And there are no kindly interruptions.

“How did Bowman do in pass coverage?” I asked head coach Jim Tomsula Monday morning after the game. I had to ask.

“Well, I mean, there was some stuff, our underneath all the way we have to tighten up,” he said. “I wouldn’t just say NaVorro Bowman.”

Tomsula wouldn’t single out the former great. Good for Tomsula.

“(Bowman) seems to have lost mobility in lateral ways that he used to have,” another reporter said, pointing out the obvious. “Do you look at it that way?”

“No, I’m not going to say that, sir,” Tomsula said, without ever defending Bowman.

Indeed, no one wants to say Bowman has lost the ability to cover. But it’s the sad truth. The old Bowman is gone forever.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

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