Grant Cohn: For all his greatness, NaVorro Bowman's time is done

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Right about now, if Bill Walsh were alive and running the 49ers, he would cut NaVorro Bowman.

It’s nothing personal. Walsh cut a lot of players he liked personally. He wasn’t sentimental. He cared about building a vibrant football team and believed in getting rid of players a year early, not a year late.

Walsh cut Dwight Hicks when Hicks was 30. Walsh cut Carlton Williamson when Williamson was 29. Walsh cut Charle Young when Young was 31 and replaced him with Russ Francis, then cut Francis when he was 33 and replaced him with Brent Jones.

Each of these players were Pro Bowlers and Super Bowl champions. The way Walsh saw it, they had lived their dreams and accomplished more than most people ever would. Time for them to step aside and let younger players chase their dreams, too.

Georgie Seifert felt the same way as Walsh. Seifert traded Joe Montana. Cut Roger Craig. Cut Ronnie freaking Lott. Lott thought he could still play. The Raiders thought he could still play, too — they signed him. He was only 31 and he was much better than Bowman is now. But Seifert moved on.

Seifert would cut Bowman.

Bowman had his time. Had a terrific career. Not a Hall of Fame career, but a very good one. He played in the Super Bowl, played in three Pro Bowls, played next to Patrick Willis and behind Justin Smith, two all-time greats who made Bowman’s job easier. What an honor to play alongside them.

From 2011 to 2013, some people felt Bowman was as good as Willis and Smith. And maybe Bowman was as good. It’s debatable. But that time is over. Willis and Smith retired and Bowman is on his way out as well. He should be.

His arrow is pointing down, as football coaches say. That means he’s getting worse every day, as has been the case since Jan. 19, 2014 when he tore the ACL, MCL, PCL and meniscus in his left knee. His arrow never will point up again.

He’s 29 and attempting to return from another injury he suffered only eight months ago — a ruptured Achilles tendon. His body is telling him to retire. But he wants to prove he can come back and play well — he has pride. And fans want to see him come back and be the player he once was. That would be a great story. A Hollywood feel-good fantasy.

But, Bowman isn’t a hero in a movie. He’s an old, broken-down football player other teams will torment until they run him out of the league. Real life is ruthless.

At his age and after all his surgeries, Bowman can’t run sideline to sideline and chase down running backs because he’s slow. And he can’t cover anyone on passing plays because he doesn’t quickly change directions any more.

That was clear in 2015, before he tore his Achilles tendon. Quarterbacks had a completion percentage of 90.3 and a passer rating of 110.9 when they threw to someone Bowman was covering. He couldn’t keep up.

This week during OTAs, Bowman couldn’t even keep up with Garrett Celek, a blocking tight end who probably won’t make the 49ers’ final roster. Celek is not a quick player, but he beat Bowman easily. On one play, Bowman had to reach out and desperately grab Celek’s jersey because Celek easily ran past him. That would be a penalty in a real game.

If Bowman still is on the 49ers when the season starts, he’ll have to cover players much better than Celek. Players like Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, two running-back/wide-receiver hybrids the 49ers will face Week 1 when they play the Panthers.

The Panthers will force Bowman to cover those players. They’ll line up either McCaffrey or Samuel as a running back, send that player in motion and make him a wide receiver. And Bowman will have to follow him and cover him one on one. That’s the best matchup the Panthers can create for themselves. Bowman will be the target.

And here’s the sad part, the real-life part. Once he’s in coverage, all Bowman can do is choose how he wants to get beaten. He can play tight coverage and get juked, or he can play soft coverage and give up easy, uncontested catches. Bowman will have to make this choice until the Niners have no choice but to take him off the field.

Cut him now.

They’ll have to cut him eventually, anyway. He’s under contract through 2022 making an average of $10.5 million per season. Bowman isn’t worth that much money. Cut him now and take the cap penalty while the team can afford it. The Niners currently have more than $70 million in cap space. This is the year to cut an expensive veteran.

If the Niners wait until next year to cut Bowman, his $8.2 million cap hit could prevent the team from signing other free agents, such as quarterback Kirk Cousins, who will cost between $20 million and $30 million per season.

The Niners already have Bowman’s replacement — Reuben Foster. They drafted him in the first round. Right now, he’s rehabbing from shoulder surgery, but the team expects he’ll be ready for training camp. I’m guessing the Niners will wait for Foster to recover and, when he does, they’ll cut Bowman.

It’s nothing personal.

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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