There was significant acreage, if he wanted, for one of his mad hyperglide rushes deeper into Dallas territory. Wisely, Colin Kaepernick chose otherwise, downshifting into slide mode after a nine-yard gain. That meant victory Sunday night, regardless of the final score. The 49ers won because their quarterback did not get hurt.
They were smart about NaVorro Bowman, too, yanking him after he reintroduced himself to the football world with an astounding, heartwarming opening defensive series. On first down, after 19 months of recuperation from a torn ACL and MCL, he stood up Darren McFadden and hauled him down. On second and third down, he was involved in a blitz that led to a one-yard loss, then the rapid pursuit of a running back who would slip after a catch. These are the plays an elite linebacker must make, and the fans, sensing the drama and all his work and pain, stood and roared in the south end zone as he exhorted them with arm-waving.
“I just wanted to celebrate with the fans a little,” Bowman said. “It felt good, it felt great. I got a little emotional seeing the fans. I missed it.”
Jim Tomsula met Bowman on the sideline with one of those Jimmy T man hugs, as did seemingly half the roster. And then, NaVorro was NoMorero, gone for the evening, a decision that effectively preserved this positive takeaway early in his comeback season while, more importantly, avoiding an injury recurrence. This also represented victory for the Niners, irrelevant of a 23-6 triumph over the Cowboys.
They won because they did not suffer a key injury, allowing a crowd that filled two-thirds of Levi’s Stadium to enjoy fresh additions to the Jarryd Hayne crash-and-bang video reel, including a 27-yard punt return that began with a retreat and over-the-shoulder catch and continued with more deft maneuvering, tackle-breaking and vintage Australian Rugby League stiff-arming. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Owwww, owwww, owwww! If this is the Down Under version of Michael Jordan attempting baseball, put it this way: Hayne can hit the curveball.
And, better, he wasn’t injured, either.
In what long has been the most foolhardy exercise in sports, the NFL preseason now involves one objective for a team: Get the hell out of the stadium without any health calamities. If Roger Goodell didn’t have enough issues on the messiest desk in corporate America, the commissioner would shorten the schedule to two games — if not eliminate the preseason altogether — after a dark weekend dominated by news involving players who didn’t survive. No team should have its Super Bowl hopes dampened in late August, but observe the grief in Green Bay today, where Cheeseheads are bemoaning a knee injury to star deep-ball receiver Jordy Nelson on a non-contact play. If he suffered a torn ACL, as feared, it diminishes chances of the Packers visiting Santa Clara for a little scrum known as Super Bowl 50.
“It’s difficult to lose a guy like that in a meaningless game,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.
Does he wish there was no preseason? “I think a lot of players around the league probably do,” Rodgers said. “At least cut it down, maybe, to a couple.”
In the same game, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost one of the league’s best offensive linemen, center Maurkice Pouncey, to a ankle injury that will require surgery. If he’s done for the year, scratch the Steelers. The weekend started when Washington’s Robert Griffin III, who had just declared himself “the best quarterback in the league,” was forced out of a game with a concussion. Because he made the proclamation before the injury, no one could say he was delirious, and I’m happy to report he returned to practice Sunday. “He didn’t have any headaches or anything of that nature,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “He’ll be checked by a neurosurgeon later this week.”
No neurosurgeons will be necessary this week for Kaepernick, who looked good in leading the offense on a 13-play, 51-yard drive. With any luck, the push would have ended in a touchdown as he placed the ball perfectly on the right end-zone sideline to Torrey Smith, who couldn’t hold on. “We had one opportunity. We’ll keep working on it,” Kaepernick said.
That’s fine. On an evening when Dallas backup quarterback Brandon Weeden suffered a concussion, Kaepernick had the ballcap on quickly, having survived one perilous situation, a Cowboys sandwich that forced him to backpedal — never a good visual — on a 15-yard sack by Randy Gregory. “Whatever is best for this team,” he said when asked if he wanted to play longer.
Someone persisted in the press conference. “You know I wouldn’t come off the field,” said Kaepernick, smiling.
But he must come off the field. If not, he’s RGIII, and the Bay Area is debating why the 49ers are letting him play with a concussion after Chris Borland, retired at 24, just said he has suffered at least 30 concussions. As for Bowman, the matter is as delicate emotionally as it is physically, and Tomsula was wise to let him have his moment. “He wasn’t gonna go for more than five plays. I would have called a timeout,” said Tomsula, who told Bowman of his plan before the game. “Look, he’s a great football player. We’ve all seen what he has done on the practice field. This was about getting his sweat on, getting his first hit.”
The first hit was a textbook tackle, as if he never had been gone. “Expected,” Kaepernick said. “Everyone knows how hard he has worked to get back. It’s great to see him step out and be his old self, what we’ve seen the whole training camp.”
On a team ravaged by an exodus of players who have retired early to protect their immediate and long-term health, Bowman is a fascinating case study. He has chosen to stick around when he had every reason to retire himself. “This is what the greats have to do. I want to show that I’m a student of the game, not just a player,” he said of his comeback.”
And part of the learning process, after a devastating injury, is exercising patience. He would like to abandon his knee brace, but Bowman will continue to wear it until he and the training staff think it’s time to permanently remove it. “The right time will come,” he said. “I just want to be safe.”
He wanted to play more, obviously, but he respected Tomsula’s decision. An early read on the new coach: He has a firm handle on the psyche of his players. What did Tomsula see in Bowman’s eyes when he spoke to him before kickoff? “I think he saw a long road for me,” he said. “I knew I was coming out of the game quickly, because he kind of threatened me. But he saw the long road I’ve been down, and that it was time to go and play. It was a huge relief to play, take some contact on the knee. It felt good to hit someone else.”
Hayne has been hitting people for years in Australia. Now, NFL defenders are realziing the difficulty of pinning him down. With three more punt returns for 84 yards and eight rushes for 54 yards, including a 34-yarder, it’s clear he’s going to make the football team, even as Tomsula insists he’s still a work in progress. Just deal with it, Jimbo: In a franchise that has endured hell for almost a year, in a league that has been bombarded by bad publicity for several years, Hayne is a wonderful story. Just think of how good he’ll be when he can judge a punt, forced as he was to drift backward after miscalculating the length and arc before his long return.
“I lost the ball. I couldn’t see it,” said Hayne, who also had a smudge on his helmet visor.
Did he think about not fielding the kick? “No,” he said. “I thought it was going back to the end zone.”
Is he shocked at what a sensation he is becoming, not only back in Australia but in the Bay Area and America? “I guess people had a lot of doubts,” he said. “I have confidence in my ability. I believe I can be an NFL player.”
The great thing was, we were allowed to watch it all Sunday. Injuries didn’t interfere. What’s great about pro football, in all its beleaguered glory, was on display.