SANTA CLARA, Calif. - In a somewhat unexpected move, the 49ers elevated linebacker NaVorro Bowman off the reserve/physically unable to perform list to the active roster Tuesday.
The move comes just days before his San Francisco (7-6) travels to take on the Seahawks for the second time in three weeks in CenturyLink Field. Bowman is 11 months removed from tearing his ACL and MCL in his left knee in last year's conference title game in Seattle.
Coming off consecutive defeats that have made the 49ers a long shot to make the postseason, while head coach Jim Harbaugh continues to deal with questions about his uncertain future with the team, Bowman said he's looking forward to giving his teammates a jolt of positive energy.
"Just me putting on a helmet again, those guys seeing me put the work in, just showing them that I really do love this game, hopefully it will raise the morale," Bowman said.
“It does lift guys’ spirits up because you don’t like to see any guy get hurt," safety Eric Reid said. "To get him back on the field after it’s been almost a calendar year, that’s good for everybody’s spirit to see him healthy.”
San Francisco is in a down season given the expectations created by three straight trips to the NFC Championship game. But with only three games left, there's still a chance Bowman will not play in a game in 2014.
"Anyone that dedicates as much time as I have to this game will miss it. (Being unable to play) is really like losing a family member. It's that much part of me. I wake up, I think about football, I breathe it.”
The three-time All-Pro has yet to participate in any football activities. He might not return to practice this week while his teammates prepare for a return trip to Seattle. His status remains "day by day."
"The time and schedule, obviously, is drying up." defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said last week.
Bowman's grueling rehab process has involved only doing individual conditioning and strength training. He has a long way to go before he will be in shape to appear in a game, which might not happen unless the 49ers find a way into the playoffs. His rehab has been lacking key pieces of equipment, for starters.
"A helmet and shoulder pads," Bowman said, when asked about the start of football activities. "Just being around 21 other guys that’s moving at a pace that needs to be moved at so my knee can get used to it. I’ve been doing everything myself and it’s been boring. The hardest part has been just being patient. I’ve never had an injury like this, so taking it slow is the best way to go."
The 49ers are two games behind the current NFC Wild Card teams, the Seahawks and the Lions, with three games to play. Given the potential risk involved in coming back from the injury too early, it would not have been a surprise to see Bowman slow down his rehab and prepare for next year. The team's offseason program begins in April.
When his 21-day practice window was opened last month, national reports indicated Bowman was still feeling pain in his knee and he was uncertain about his return. Before Nov. 23's game against Washington, Bowman was examined by Dr. James Andrews, the surgeon who repaired his knee last winter.
But Bowman's mindset from the beginning was to come back at some point in 2014.
When it came to the thought of shutting it down: "Honestly, I never said that. I’ve just worked. Dealt with the injury, accepted it, looked at other guys overcoming their injury and always saying to myself ‘If that person can do it, I can do it.’ That’s what really drove me.
"I never said I was going to throw in the towel and not come back and play. I’ve always just worked. If it felt good, it felt good. If it didn’t, hopefully people understand. But it’s feeling great and I’m excited to be back out there."
In Bowman's absence the 49ers have gotten good production from their inside linebackers Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite, who were also tasked with replacing seven-time Pro-Bowler Patrick Willis over the last seven games. Willis elected to have season-ending surgery on his injured big toe after leaving Oct. 13's win in St. Louis.
San Francisco enters its game against Seattle with the league's third-ranked defense, allowing 309 yards per game. Borland is coming off winning the NFL's defensive rookie of the month award for November, and is has quickly been put on the short list of candidates for defensive player of the year.
But part of the reason the 49ers have been so up-and-down this season, Bowman said, has been missing the daily example both veterans he and Willis provide when healthy and playing. Their absences led to a drop in the team's overall physicality that has been a staple during their last three seasons of championship contention.
"No, we’re not (as physical). And I’m going to say that," Bowman said. "I don’t want to say I’m the reason or Pat’s the reason. But it’s just when you used to come to work and see a type of behavior, whether it’s practice or the meeting rooms, everyone follows. And we lost that a little bit this year, that’s obvious."
Coming into the season without Bowman, Willis moved to the strong side to play Bowman's "Mike" position after playing "Jack" with Bowman in the lineup. Borland stepped in at the "Mike" with Wilhoite working on the weak side.
During Sunday's loss to the Raiders, rookie quarterback Derek Carr picked the 49ers' defense apart, completing 22 of 28 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns. His top receiver was tight end Mychal Rivera, who was regularly matched up against San Francisco's reserve linebackers down field. He finished with 109 yards and a touchdown.
Covering linebackers had been a strength with Bowman and Willis healthy, as is pressuring the quarterback. The 49ers didn't have any meaningful sacks of Carr Sunday.
"It's been hard, sad at the same time, especially when you want to kind of take your brain and put it in the guy's that's out there," said Bowman.
"...Anyone that dedicates as much time as I have to this game will miss it. (Being unable to play) is really like losing a family member. It's that much part of me. I wake up, I think about football, I breathe it. My son's 5 now, 'Daddy, when you going to play?' and he's understanding the game. That's really hitting home with me because I really want him to see how hard daddy works."