The 49ers’ rebuild will forge forward without one of the last vestiges of winning seasons.
On Friday, general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan announced the Niners had cut linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
The move was surprising, even if Bowman’s skills had slipped to an extent after twice sustaining season-ending injuries. But he reacted with displeasure when he saw his reps decrease last week, and at 29 years old (linebackers age quickly), he wasn’t going to be a part of the team’s long-term plans.
That prompted Bowman’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to reach out to Lynch on Monday to say his client’s playing time was unacceptable.
After meeting with Bowman on Thursday, Lynch got on the phone with every general manager in the league to see if there was interest in his unhappy linebacker.
They found a partner, but Bowman didn’t want to go to that franchise, so the 49ers cut him instead. It was the least the organization could do for someone so central to its identity for nearly a decade — even if it wasn’t in the best interest of the future.
“I’m a grinder. Anything that knocks me down, I’m going to get back up,” Bowman said about his rehab in February after the hiring of Lynch and Shanahan. “It’s just, who’s gonna stick beside me and remember what I’ve done?”
For years, there hasn’t been much to celebrate about the 49ers. Joe Staley — and to a lesser extent Daniel Kilgore and Brent Celek — are now the last pieces of the bygone glory days.
“I know he’s a fan-favorite, so this isn’t going to be easy for the fans,” Lynch said.
He’s right, especially as the team is 0-5 and making its way toward another embarrassing finish.
In the interest of looking on the bright side, here are the three things to remember about Bowman.
He gave his all.
It was the fourth quarter of the 2014 NFC Championship Game. The 49ers were down three with less than nine minutes remaining. The Seattle Seahawks were in the red zone and threatening to land a major blow with a touchdown.
Russell Wilson hit Jermaine Kearse over the middle inside the five-yard line. Patrick Willis stopped the receiver with a hard hit and, as he went down, Bowman took the ball out of his hands to complete the ultimate defensive football play.
The problem: Bowman’s leg got trapped under Kearse, shredding the ACL in his knee.
“I never heard him yell like that, or even stay down for a moment,” Willis told reporters afterward.
The play gave the Niners offense a chance to win and advance to their second-straight Super Bowl, but Richard Sherman broke up a fade route in the end zone.
The 49ers haven’t been the same since. But that play by Bowman will forever endear him to the Faithful. It represented everything football is: Exhilarating displays of sheer will followed by brutal reality.
He was a willing learner.
In 2007, the Niners drafted Willis — who developed into the force at middle linebacker that several experts predicted he would be. A few years later, the team bolstered the depth at that position by taking Bowman, who plays a similar position.
They formed the dominating core of the 49ers’ 3-4 defense and became indistinguishable to opposing offenses.
From 2011 to 2013, Nos. 52 and 53 led the Niners to a top-five run defense in the NFL.
“They are like two machines in the middle of our defense,” safety Eric Reid told reporters as a rookie.
Their on-field chemistry was undeniable. And as Willis started to lose a step, Bowman elevated his game to mask his mate’s limitations.
It just makes Bowman’s injury against the Seahawks that much more devastating. In another world, where Bowman makes the play unscathed, he comes back for the 2014 season and maybe — just maybe — the 49ers don’t crumble as infighting forces Jim Harbaugh out of the organization, setting off a talent exodus from which the team has yet to recover.
He sustained greatness.
Unlike top-pick Willis, Bowman came to the team with less fanfare as a third-round selection.
He far exceeded expectations, being named an Associated Press First-Team All-Pro four times — three times before the knee injury and again in 2015.
Bowman led the 49ers in tackles four times and the entire league once despite playing for the first time since eviscerating his ACL.
“Although NaVorro may be moving on, he will always be looked at as one of the great players to wear the red and gold,” Lynch said.
It was probably the right decision — made inevitable by the state of the franchise. But that doesn’t make it any easier for fans to say goodbye to someone who represents a different era, one that experienced some joy that wasn’t tied to getting a high draft pick.
Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at email@example.com or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.