When NaVorro Bowman tore his ACL and MCL in his left knee in the NFC Championship Game, it felt like two seasons for the San Francisco 49ers were slipping away.
Of course, the 49ers ultimately fell short against the Seattle Seahawks. That's when fans rushed to Twitter and other news mediums to find out the severity of Bowman's injury and a timetable for his return.
Bill Williamson of ESPN.com reported that Bowman went under the knife Tuesday. Williams wrote that the All-Pro linebacker will need six to eight months to recover.
But you never know with these nasty knee injuries, do you?
Adrian Peterson tore his ACL and MCL in late December 2011. When the 2012 season began eight months later, he was back and better than ever.
Players are generally returning faster, but you still have guys like Marcus Lattimore and NBA point guard Derrick Rose who need a longer recovery time (in fairness, Lattimore tore all four ligaments in his knee).
With the 2014 season set to begin in about seven months, the Niners need Bowman to get healthy more than anything else this offseason. Here's why.
49ers' best player
Bowman had the best season of his career in 2013.
He led the team in tackles (141), forced fumbles (six) and defensive touchdowns (1). He also had nine pass breakups, five sacks and two fumble recoveries.
Not surprisingly, advanced stats favored Bowman, too.
|49ers Leaders in Approximate Value|
|Pro Football Reference|
After the NFC title game loss, Eric Reid opened up about the Bowman injury.
"He's our leader and arguably the best player we have," Reid told Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News. "To see him go down, it hurts."
No draft pick or free agent will make the type of impact Bowman did in 2013.
Not only is he statistically productive, but he also makes everyone around him better.
What he means schematically
Back in 2011, the Niners played a high percentage of their defensive snaps in their base 3-4 defense. They dominated opposing rushing attacks with their front seven, finishing No. 1 in rushing yards allowed per game.
As a trade-off, they were more susceptible to getting beat through the air. They were 16th in passing yards allowed per game and 10th in yards per attempt allowed. These are by no means bad numbers, but the 49ers were a bit vulnerable against great passing teams.
Starting in 2012, Vic Fangio and team higher-ups decided to play more 4-2-5 nickel defense. In this alignment, one of their three defensive linemen from their 3-4 defense is swapped for an extra cornerback.
What has followed is something to marvel. The 49ers, playing mostly with a "front six" instead of a "front seven," still ranked fourth in rushing yards allowed per game in 2012 and 2013.
Naturally, with an extra defensive back, the pass defense improved.
The Niners ranked fourth in 2012 in passing yards allowed per game. They were seventh in 2013.
Make no mistake: Bowman and Patrick Willis are the reason the 49ers can afford to play with five defensive backs and still contain opposing rushing attacks.
Some teams need eight players in the box to stop the run. Most need seven. The 49ers do it consistently with six because they have two of the best run-stopping linebackers in the pros.
On top of that, Bowman has become one of the most effective third-down inside linebackers. Sure, his coverage instincts are great—just ask the Atlanta Falcons—but it's his blitzing ability that separates him from the pack. He topped the Pro Football Focus pass-rushing score in the 2013 regular (subscription required).
Without Bowman on the field, the 49ers won't be able to get away with playing nickel defense on early downs. They'll have to focus more on stopping the run. This will put more stress on the secondary on early passing downs.
And even when they are in the nickel defense, they'll be missing a weapon. With all due respect to Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody, they don't have the total package of tackling, coverage skills and blitzing that Bowman has.
Why he's most important
Re-signing Anquan Boldin is important. So is restocking the secondary. But a healthy Bowman easily trumps those offseason items.
As good as Boldin was this season, he's replaceable. As long as the 49ers get a return of the 2012 Michael Crabtree, their passing game can survive. Sure, they'd need to bring in a decent replacement via the draft, free agency or both, but it's not too difficult to find and/or develop a No. 2 receiver (though the Niners have recently had more trouble doing this than other teams).
Both Donte Whitner and Tarell Brown are free agents, which means the secondary could have a very different look in 2014. But remember, the 49ers rely so much on Willis and Bowman against the pass that they won't need a lot of cornerback depth if No. 53 is healthy. They can survive with a combination of Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, a free agent and a draft pick (I'm predicting Carlos Rogers will be cut).
Though Donte Whitner had a solid season, he'll never be an All-Pro. Reid was arguably as effective in his first season as Whitner has ever been (Reid's nine AV matches Whitner's career high). The Niners can afford to go after a younger, cheaper strong safety and reasonably believe they'll continue to have an effective last line of defense.
Without Bowman, the 49ers will likely go with Wilhoite as the starter alongside Willis. They don't have the money to spend on a quality free-agent linebacker when they're already investing so much into Ahmad Brooks, Willis and Bowman.
Whereas a small drop-off—at worst—is all that's expected from a replacement for Whitner or Brown, the drop-off from Bowman to a career backup or rookie would be tremendous. It's not reasonable to expect a player to take over Bowman's responsibilities, which include stopping the run and shutting down tight ends.
There are reasons to be optimistic for Bowman's recovery.
Most importantly, he's only 25. Younger people tend to heal faster.
He's also been a model of healthiness in the NFL. In his four-year career, he has not missed a game.
And as mentioned before, he has a realistic amount of time to recover before the 2014 season starts.
That being said, much of his recovery is out of his control. Some ligaments simply take longer to heal than others.
And even if he does come back early in the season, will he be the same player?
Nobody knows how his recovery will play out, which makes the Niners more vulnerable going into the 2014 season.
With the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals on the rise and the Seahawks coming off a Super Bowl title, the 49ers can't afford to have a performance drop-off on defense. They'll need all of their key contributors to produce early and often to keep pace in the NFC West.
Bowman is arguably the most important of them all, which makes his recovery the key to the offseason.