At this time last year, the 49ers were in the middle of a season-worst five-game losing streak and were losing key players to injury practically every game. They didn't dare ask if it could get any worse, because they already new the answer. But as the Niners enter the second half of their season this week against the Panthers in Carolina, they are not only healthy of spirit and mind with a 6-2 record. They're also healthy of body.
"We've been pretty lucky with our injury situation," coach Steve Mariucci said cautiously this week. "We have our bumps and bruises like everybody does, but right now nothing so serious that we're going to lose people for the season."
The 49ers sustained no major injuries in last week's physical battle with the New Orleans Saints. That has them entering Sunday's game at Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., as healthy as they've been all season. Quarterback Jeff Garcia, who suffered a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee against Chicago on Oct. 28, is continuing to wear a brace on the knee. But he played with the same brace the last two weeks, and had plenty of mobility to evade New Orleans' fearsome pass rush last week, when he threw four touchdown passes. Garcia said Monday that he might decide to shed the brace this week, but he was wearing it in practice on Wednesday.
"He did (use the brace)," Mariucci said after Wednesday's practice. "It was just as a precaution. I asked him how it felt as opposed to last Wednesday. He said about the same. So, if he can play about the same, we'll be all right." Rookie running back Kevan Barlow, who tweaked a quadriceps muscle last week that has bothered him since training camp, didn't practice Wednesday as starting tailback Garrison Hearst took most of the reps in practice and with the scout team.
"His quad is still sore," Mariucci said. "Remember, he came out of the (New Orleans) game for a little bit. So he is nursing that quad again. It's the same one he had in training camp. We're just resting him and treating him. Hopefully, he'll be ready to go." The Niners continue to rest starting center Jeremy Newberry during the early part of practice weeks. Newberry suffered a severe ankle sprain on Oct. 1, but he returned to the lineup against the Bears on Oct. 28 and has started every game since.
"We've got the old boot out for him," Mariucci said. "He just needs another day (of rest). You don't want to overdo it, because he's got that high ankle sprain." Newberry's backup, Ben Lynch, returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since he suffered a severe ankle injury on Oct. 7. Mariucci said there's a chance he'll be able to return to action against the Panthers. "I'm anxious to see how sore he is (Thursday)," Mariucci said. "That's always one of the determining factors if a guy is ready to come back or not - how sore is he the next day after his first day back. Ben's been out five weeks. We'll see how he feels (Thursday)."
Safety Lance Schulters (shoulder), cornerback Ahmed Plummer (quad bruise), tight end Eric Johnson (ankle), Hearst (knee) and defensive tackle Reggie McGrew (ankle) all are practicing this week and should be ready to go against the Panthers.