Even with a slew of free agent questions heading into the offseason, the biggest 49ers storyline might be the recovery of NaVorro Bowman, who sustained tears to ACL and MCL in Sunday's loss in Seattle.
In his final press conference of the season Monday, Jim Harbaugh said he did not know if Bowman would be ready to return at the start of next season. The plan is to see how his MCL heals over the coming weeks before determining when to have surgery on his torn ACL.
"He's got an ACL tear and we'll see what the the MCL, how that heals in the next 2-3 weeks," Harbaugh said. "That's not known if it has to be fixed or not. The fact of fixing the ACL is what we know."
Bowman sustained the injury when he stopped Jermaine Kearse short of the goal line on a pivotal 3rd-and-goal play in the fourth quarter. Video replays showed Bowman stripped Kearse of the ball and made the recovery. During the scrum for the fumble, 49ers defenders were frantically motioning for the medical staff to tend to the linebacker. The play was ruled Seahawks' ball after officials told Harbaugh it was not reviewable.
The outcome of the ruling was inconsequential as the Seahawks would fumble it away the next play on fourth down, giving the 49ers the ball down 20-17 three plays before Colin Kaepernick threw an interception to Cam Chancellor.
Bowman's career season has garnered Defensive Player of the Year consideration after finishing fifth in the league with 145 tackles with five sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions.
"He's got healing ahead, he's got grueling rehab ahead," Harbaugh said.
"That is not the way that you would've foreseen his offseason to be after coming off what many have talked about, and deservedly so, a defensive player of the year type of performance. Great year by NaVorro.
"But facts are stubborn things. That's what lies ahead of him. Now knowing what's inside of NaVorro Bowman, I have great faith in the human agency of NaVorro Bowman to continue to be great."
If there's a precedent to look at for the 49ers, it's Mario Manningham, who also tore two ligaments in his knee in Seattle late in the 2012 regular season. He tore his ACL and PCL.
Manningham didn't return until Week 10 of this year and only played in six games before going back on injured reserve after suffering a set back.
Cornerback Chris Culliver, who tore his ACL in last summer's training camp, has resumed sprinting and will do everything he can to help his teammate during the rehab process.
"I'm going to be there every step of the way," Culliver told the Sacramento Bee Monday. "And help him out in anything he needs, any concern he has. ... I'm going to be there. Because I'm going through it right now."
But not all knee injuries are the same. More information regarding Bowman's prognosis will come in two to three weeks when doctors decide what route to take regarding surgery to repair his ACL.
"To see him go out like that, it's not supposed to be like this," Patrick Willis said after the game. "Sometimes we don't know why things happen the way they do, but we'll see in time. He's going to be all right."
The 49ers have two possible replacements for Bowman if he's unable to return for opening day in September - Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody. Wilhoite was an undrafted player before joining the 49ers in 2011 and been a staple on special teams over the last two seasons. Moody was taken in the sixth round last spring and was active for four games during the regular season. But plenty can change during the offseason.
Iupati Won't Require Surgery
-- Pro-Bowl left guard Mike Iupati won't require surgery to repair his fractured left fibula, Harbaugh said Monday.
"His fracture will be casted," he said.
That's relatively good news for the 49ers, who can expect Iupati to be fully healed and ready to go for training camp. His recovery will take roughly two months before he can begin the rehabilitation process.
Iupati had offseason shoulder surgery last year and missed OTAs before returning for training camp. He missed four games in the second half of this season after suffering an MCL sprain in November's loss in New Orleans.
Gore, Staley Played Hurt
Gore ran for 14 yards on 11 carries against the Seahawks. Harbaugh said he was unaware of Gore's injury until after the game. He will have minor surgery to repair the finger, reports Matt Maiocco of Comcast Sportsnet. Staley's injury does not appear to be serious.
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