EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The only way inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman can play this season is to open his 21-day practice window by Tuesday afternoon's deadline.
According to multiple reports, that's what the San Francisco 49ers plan on doing. But opening the window does not appear to make it more likely he returns from the physically unable to perform list this season. It reads more like standard procedure, given he may still be on the fence about coming back in 2014.
Perhaps Bowman's best friend on the team set the precedent. Fellow inside linebacker Patrick Willis elected for season-ending surgery on his injured big toe with an eye on the future of his career. Given the nature of Bowman's injury - tears to his ACL and MCL in his left knee - there's a real chance he decides to take Willis' lead and not risk altering his future by coming back to help the 49ers this season.
Without Willis for the last three-plus games and Bowman for the entire season, San Francisco has patched together the league's second-ranked defense. Perhaps the prevailing belief inside the team's Santa Clara facility is the team can win a Super Bowl without their two best inside linebackers, who have eight first-team All-Pro nods between them.
Meanwhile, the 49ers are getting outside linebacker and pass rushing ace Aldon Smith back Sunday against the Giants after being suspended for the season's first nine games. If Smith can regain his 2012 form, when he notched 19.5 sacks, perhaps his presence can mask the drop off at inside linebacker.
The drop off has been minimal to this point, however, thanks largely to the emergence of rookie third-round pick Chris Borland. The former Wisconsin dynamo has amassed 35 tackles in his last two games and came from nowhere to help clinch Nov. 9's critical win over the New Orleans Saints with his lunging fumble recovery in overtime.
"A very talented player. Means a lot to him," head coach Jim Harbaugh said of Borland. "Gives great effort. Very smart and executes all his assignments and he did that in college. As we evaluated him through the draft, I know he may in his family and have other people that are big fans of his, but I’m tied for at least his number one fan through the draft evaluating process and since he’s been here."