Patrick Willis is a 49ers team captain, but the man playing next to him may be the 49ers' MVP this season. I asked the journalists (and Tim Kawakami) who go on the road to cover the team to pick the player they think is most deserving of the honor and to supply a short argument why that is so.
Four picked inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who is currently fourth in the NFL with 120 tackles. Will the 49ers players agree? They'll vote for the winner of the Bill Walsh Award - given to the team's MVP - in the coming weeks.
Here is everyone's submission (edited for grammar and spelling; they're reporters, after all). I asked for about 100 words. Cam went way over; Tim way under. So they evened each other out. I think that's called 'teamwork.'
Eric Branch, San Francisco Chronicle:
Patrick Willis remains one of the NFL's top inside linebackers, but he's now the second-best on his own team. With the offense failing to find a consistent rhythm, the 49ers have been led by their defense and NaVorro Bowman has headlined a unit which has allowed the third-fewest points in the league. Bowman's 120 tackles are 46 more than any other 49er and he's been at his best in the biggest games. In a backs-against-the-wall win at St. Louis in Week 4, he made up for the absence of Willis and Aldon Smith with a career-high two sacks and a forced fumble. He set the tone in a bruising 19-17 win against Seattle by knocking Russell Wilson into San Mateo on the game's third offensive play.
Cam Inman, San Jose Mercury News:
Justin Smith is my MVP pick. He is the gritty ambassador of a defense-driven team, representing the ability to power past opponents and help teammates in need. Worthy candidates are strewn across this roster, especially leading tackler NaVorro Bowman, the Drew Brees-necklace known as Ahmad Brooks, touchdown-maker Vernon Davis and ultimate pro Anquan Boldin. Of course no MVP consideration is official unless Frank Gore enters the mix, and his 51-yard run that set up a clutch victory over Seattle could be this season's defining moment.
But back to Smith. We all saw how valuable he was a year ago, when his arm injury handicapped the defense. He looks at full strength again. He is the defense's true captain, letting his actions speak for him, though apparently he had a gem of a rallying cry against the Seahawks.If stats are your thing, consider that Smith overwhelmingly leads the defense with 73 quarterback pressures and 49 quarterback hits. A distant second behind those marks is Ray McDonald (42 pressures, 28 hits).
Tim Kawakami, San Jose Mercury News:
Pretty easy call for me - NaVorro Bowman's been the best, most consistent player on the 49ers' defense vs. the run, rushing the passer, even in coverage... and the 49ers D is why they've managed to hack out nine wins while the offense has teetered and tottered.
Matt Maiocco, CSN Bay Area:
This season - even more than others - it's all about the 49ers' defense. And while a lot of guys on the defense are having very good seasons, one All-Pro player is having his best season. That player is NaVorro Bowman. He is doing a little bit of everything for the defense. After Aldon Smith took his leave of absence with the 49ers on a two-game losing streak, Bowman came through with a virtuoso performance on the road against the St. Louis Rams. The 49ers needed a pass rush, and that's what he supplied. He's been consistently impressive the entire season as he completely steps out from Patrick Willis' shadow in the middle of the 49ers' defense.
Ted Robinson, KNBR:
The saying is, the 49ers go as Frank Gore goes. This year, the 49ers went ONLY when Frank Gore went. A stagnant offense in Weeks 2-3 revived when Gore broke big runs at St. Louis. Defenses game plan around Gore. His blocking is unsurpassed among lead running backs. Late season changes see him used more as an receiving outlet. NaVorro Bowman is the defensive MVP and Anquan Boldin's importance cannot be understated. Gore has been essential.
Bill Williamson, ESPN:
There is no clear-cut favorite, but this team has been defense-dominant, so I think I have to pick from a pool of defenders. That leads me right to NaVorro Bowman. He is quietly one of the best defensive players in the NFL. He is the glue of a star-studded defense. When Patrick Willis was hurt earlier, in the season, Bowman took over as the leader and hasn't stopped. He's made big play after big play and he's a tackle machine. He affects every aspect of the defense.
Matt Barrows, The Sacramento Bee:
Yes, the 49ers' defense has outshined - by a wide margin - the offense. But imagine how bad that offense would have been without Anquan Boldin? For three-quarters of the season, he was Colin Kaepernick's only wide-receiver target. He rose to the occasion to the tune of 915 receiving yards and is on pace for more yards than Michael Crabtree had a year ago. What's more, he has become a fiery leader on the field, putting the 49ers on the offensive against aggressive secondaries like Seattle's. Veteran receivers brought in on one-year deals in San Francisco typically have been discarded when their contract is up. Boldin is MVP worthy and should be kept around.
-- Matt Barrows