After what took place in the 49ers’ preseason home opener Sunday, the temptation is to say NaVorro Bowman is back at last.
But one won’t hear Bowman say it himself, not yet. The linebacker has seen and experienced enough in his football career to know better. He understands that it takes more than three plays to erase 19 hellish months of physical hardship and mental anguish.
Bowman concedes he won’t be all the way back until he plays at a high level for an extended period of time. That won’t happen until after he sheds the brace on his left knee, the last tangible evidence of the horrific injury that threatened his career. That development could take a few more hours or days or …
“I don’t know,” Bowman said of the timetable. “The right time will come. I still feel a little bit [uncomfortable], but I just want to be safe.
“I feel better without [the brace], to be honest. To be safe, you want to wear it. I made a few adjustments with it to allow me to move my leg a little better, and I just wanted to make both sides happy — the trainers and me at the same time.”
Until then, Bowman and the 49ers are content to know he can take a blow as well as he delivers one. In his case, that is no small step in itself.
On the first play from scrimmage, Bowman exploded forward before he laid a thunderous hit on Dallas Cowboys running back Darren McFadden after a 1-yard advance.
“I just wanted to make a play,” Bowman said. “We have a triangle that we read and it was one of those things where I felt like it was the right play to just shoot the gap and make a tackle for a loss.”
Then Bowman and linebacker
Nick Moody combined to take McFadden down again, this time for a 1-yard loss.
On third down, Bowman faked a blitz before he latched onto Lance Dunbar out of the backfield. The running back caught the quick toss, but he was stopped in his tracks for another 1-yard loss before slipping on the turf.
Coach Jim Tomsula indicated that, in the event of an extended drive, he would have called a timeout to get Bowman off the field. But after three meaningful plays in an otherwise meaningless 23-6 victory, he was done for the night.
“I was just baiting [quarterback] Tony [Romo], making him think I was blitzing the A-gap, thinking he had that running back free out on the edge,” Bowman explained. “It was just kind of like a bait, and I got him to throw the ball to him and make the play.”
Bowman isn’t one to show emotion on or off the field, but nobody could blame the veteran if he got caught up in the moment a bit.
“It was huge,” Bowman said. “I could feel the meter just rising as I was making those plays back-to-back, and third down is the biggest down. I knew I was coming out, so I just wanted to celebrate with the fans for a little bit.
“I wanted to be out there longer, but it’s early in the year. We have a long road ahead of us, and just want to be smart with it. I knew I had [a limit of] five plays, so I wanted to make the best of it.
“I thought he responded great,” Tomsula said. “I thought he did a nice job, and obviously, NaVorro is a really good football player.”
Afterward, there wan’t a surprised teammate in the locker room. Bowman had given them a hint of things to come in training camp.
“Expected,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said of the performance. “I think everyone here has seen how hard he’s worked to get back and how hard he’s been going in training camp to make sure he’s been ready for this. And to see him step out there and be his old self, to me, it’s what we’ve seen all training camp.”
Next on the comeback trail are the Broncos in Denver on Saturday. Bowman will have one fewer step to take when he gets there.