SANTA CLARA â€” NaVorro Bowman realizes that just by strapping on a helmet again and stepping onto the practice field he could provide the San Francisco 49ers and their defense a serious emotional lift when they desperately need one.
Even if his surgically repaired left knee isn't quite ready for game day, and might not be before season's end. Almost certainly not in time for Sunday's return to Seattle, where he injured the knee in an NFC championship game loss last January.
“I'm going to get out there when I feel 100 percent, let's be clear on that,” Bowman said Tuesday. “Throughout this rehab process, I've been doing everything to get me this far. Now it's time for some football activity, some quick-reaction, things like that. Of course I want to be there, if I'm ready to go. It just comes to if I'm ready. I'm listening to the doctors. They're being great, cautious about what I do. As far as me, once I'm out there, I don't know how to go slow. I just know one speed.”
San Francisco activated the star linebacker Tuesday to the 53-man roster at the conclusion of its 21-day window to do so before it would have had to decide to rule out any chance of a return and end his season. The 49ers (7-6) are in a must-win mode the rest of the way to have even a slim chance of making the playoffs for the fourth straight year under coach Jim Harbaugh.
After back-to-back embarrassing losses to Seattle and Oakland, Harbaugh's future is in question.
“We've been on an up-and-down slope this year, but I've been behind these guys since Day 1,” Bowman said. “It's hard to go out there and play teams like Seattle where you've got young guys that haven't been in those type of games yet. Just me putting on a helmet again, guys seeing me put the work in, just showing them that I really do love this game, hopefully it will raise the morale of the team.”
Bowman, for his part, never considered not trying to play in 2014.
While defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Bowman would likely need a couple of weeks of practice before playing, it might depend on the team's chances whether he does get in a game at all. The 49ers haven't said whether Bowman will practice this week.
“It's obviously big. He's not just a defensive leader for our team but last year I think he was the best defensive player in the NFL,” linebacker Dan Skuta said. “I'm happy for him, just to have another great player out on the field.”
Being without Bowman was a huge blow to a defense that missed pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith for the first nine games because of a suspension and lost Patrick Willis for the year a month ago because of a strained muscle in his left big toe that required surgery. He was hurt in the third quarter at St. Louis on Oct. 13.
Regardless of Bowman's game-day status, having him as a potential option means so much.
“That's awesome. I know they might want to ease him into this, given it's been awhile and he's fresh off his injury,” second-year safety Eric Reid said. “It's been different for me a lot, being that last year being my rookie year, all I knew was Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman sitting there in front of me making plays,” Reid said. “This year, there's some new faces, but they've been playing great. I don't think we can ask them to play any better. It's been different but it will be awesome to have him back.”
Bowman tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his knee then had surgery to repair the ACL. In recent weeks he has begun to cut again and simulate football movements.
He was an All-Pro in 2011, '12 and last year, and earned Pro Bowl selections in '12 and '13.
“Any time a player of his caliber becomes available it's always a positive thing,” punter Andy Lee said. “He's been working really hard to try to get back on the field. He's definitely somebody that if he can get back out there, why wouldn't it help us?”
The 49ers cleared roster room by placing second-year tight end Vance McDonald on injured reserve with a back injury. McDonald has appeared in 23 games and has 10 receptions for 149 yards for his career.