SEATTLE -- NaVorro Bowman's season is over, but his candidacy for defensive player of the year is very much alive. In front of a national audience Sunday, Bowman led his team with 14 tackles and had a big, first-half sack of quarterback Russell Wilson.
Bowman's most graphic and most heroic moment also was his lowest. As Seattle receiver Jermaine Kearse was being driven into Bowman's planted leg, the linebacker ripped the ball free from the receiver's grasp and held onto it. The contrast was sharp: Bowman was in agonizing pain, but he also made the game-altering play at the goal line that the 49ers defense desperately needed at that moment.
Except the officials didn't see it that way. They ruled that the Seahawks recovered the ball even though it was clear -- especially after replay after grisly replay -- that Bowman was down with the ball in his possession. Still, the officials told Jim Harbaugh that plays like that can't be reviewed.
"They said I could not challenge it," Harbaugh said after the game. "That's just the rule, they said. Just a loophole in the rule. Once they rule a fumble, and it's in the field of play, and the ball is ruled recovered by the Seahawks, then it couldn't be reviewed by me. I asked, 'What happens if I do challenge it?' He said, 'You'll lose a timeout and we won't review it.' They said they would not review the play."
In the end, it didn't cost the 49ers. Karmic justice seemed to strike on the ensuing play, 4th and goal for the Seahawks, when Seattle fumbled at the 1-yard line, the ball was knocked around and the 49ers got the ball back at their own 15-yard line. But it seems ridiculous that such an obvious play -- and one that could have been hugely consequential -- could not be reviewed.
As for Bowman, his recovery will depend on his precise diagnosis. Two 49ers suffered ACL tears late last season, receiver Kyle Williams on Nov. 25 and receiver Mario Manningham on Dec. 23. Williams suffered an ACL tear only, was running around without limitations in May and was cleared for training camp in July eight months after the injury. Manningham also had a PCL tear and had to wait for that to heal before having surgery on his ACL. Manningham didn't come back until November, and even then it was clear he hadn't made a full recovery. The 49ers put him on injured reserve last month, ending his season.
The regular season begins in seven and a half months. The bottom line is that there's a strong likelihood Bowman will begin the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, just like Michael Crabtree did this year. That opens the door for backups like Michael Wilhoite or Nick Moody or someone who is not on the team right now to make an impact.
So who is Bowman's competition for defensive player of the year? One of them -- and none of you will like reading this -- is Richard Sherman. He led the NFL in interceptions this year, and he made the play of the game Sunday when the Seahawks absolutely had to have one. He won't win any humanitarian awards, but he very well could end up as the league's most valuable defensive player.
-- Matt Barrows