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