San Francisco’s pair of Pro Bowl inside linebackers live for competition. So much so, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman would do anything in their power to win a Super Bowl.
More importantly, the 49ers dominant defenders want nothing more than to win the ultimate prize together.
The tight-knit relationship of San Francisco’s play-making linebackers came into greater focus in our latest Gameday magazine cover story. The cover, designed by team graphic designer Ben Mayberry, depicts the bond between two of the NFL’s most versatile defenders.
In true fashion, both primetime players brought their best effort in the 49ers 45-31 Divisional Playoff win over the Green Bay Packers. The tandem combined to make 12 tackles with Willis leading the team with seven tackles and a crucial sack on Aaron Rodgers. It stood as San Francisco’s only sack of the game and forced a Packers punt to start the second half.
Get to know more about the tight bond between the two linebackers and their all-out approach to this year’s postseason in our latest Gameday feature.
We Live for This
The only thing better than competing for a Super Bowl is doing it next to someone you truly respect. Good thing Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman have formed a common bond on the San Francisco 49ers defense as the franchise embarks on the postseason.
By Taylor Price, 49ers.com
They want it bad. They want it more than you. And more importantly, they’ll do just about anything in their power to get it done. Make no mistake; Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are on a mission. The Pro Bowl tandem of inside linebackers for the San Francisco 49ers are on a quest to win the sixth Super Bowl title for the proud franchise. The journey starts Saturday night against the Green Bay Packers, the NFC North Champions, who the 49ers defeated 30-22 to open up the 2012 regular season. It’s also a welcomed challenge for San Francisco’s stout defense, especially for the linebackers who love the game, but more importantly, appreciate each other’s consistent efforts. “It’s like your brothers from another mother,” says Willis of playing alongside Bowman, San Francisco’s other elite play-maker at the middle linebacker position. “It’s something I don’t take for granted at all.”
San Francisco is undoubtedly at the forefront of the National Football League’s first-class defensive play thanks to Willis and Bowman. But individually, the standout defenders will let you know just how important the other All-Pro performer on the 49ers defense is to their success. Make no mistake, both are great players, but when together, it’s a whole different beast. The linebackers are dynamic. They’re electric. They inspire. They hit. They run. They lead. They play the game the right way. And they do it together.
Why? Because they live for it. They’ve trained for it. They’ve set their sights on the prize, the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the prize that only one team gets to proudly hold at the end of a year-long grind. To get there, these two have battled. They worked. They hustled. They competed. And now, they’ve entered the ultimate competitive arena together standing three games away from calling themselves “Champions.” It’s not an easy task, but it’s a competitive challenge they take on willingly. And best of all, they will do it together. It’s go-time now for Willis and Bowman. It’s time for the linebackers to set out to become the best on the planet and add a new chapter to the proud history of 49ers postseason football.
TOWN & COUNTRY
For a linebacker tandem raised in completely different upbringings, Willis and Bowman are actually much alike. Sure, they share similar interests, but the Pro Bowl tandem separates themselves from their unique backgrounds with personal taste. Willis is from the South – Bruceton, Tenn., to be exact. Bowman, on the other hand, hails from the North – Forestville, Md. Willis stands out to Bowman for many reasons, but mostly with his southern accent, passion for bass fishing and southern food. However, there is one clear-cut difference in the mind of Bowman, the third-year pro. “It’s probably from the stuff he wears,” says Bowman, the linebacker who recently signed a five-year contract extension through 2018. “Pat’s a little more conservative, but when you hang around young guys you get used to what’s hot at the time…” A smile flashes on Bowman’s face as he indirectly refers to himself and his flashier attire.
Meanwhile, Willis recognizes the differences in their backgrounds, but also finds appreciation for how it similarly shaped their hunger for success. “It’s funny,” Willis says, “I listen to him talk about his story and I’m like, ‘Man! I’m glad I grew up where I grew up at.’ And he’ll say the same thing, ‘I’m glad I grew up where I grew up at!’ We come from similar paths, but he’s city and I’m country. It’s crazy how some of the things we went through were so much alike.”
Both men dealt with personal hardships way before they met at the 49ers training facility in the 2010 offseason. At the age of 16, Willis and his siblings were separated from their biological father and moved into their guardian’s house. As a senior in high school, Willis dealt with the unthinkable, the loss of his older brother Detris, who drowned in a swimming hole when he was 17. Bowman, too, suffered unimaginable tragedies before making it to the NFL. Two of the most influential people in his life, his father and high school football coach, both passed away before he was drafted in the third-round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
The parallels between the two players extend way beyond the game where both are considered by coach Jim Harbaugh to be “five-tool” linebackers, capable of making any play on the field. They might hit the same when a running back tries to turn the corner in the open field. They might blitz identically through the A-gap to disrupt the quick-timing throws of an opposing quarterback. And when it comes to hometown pride, the inside linebackers believe their upbringing and personal experiences equally shaped their motivation to become the best at their chosen craft.
“It just goes to show, it doesn’t matter where you come from,” says Willis, one of 17 players in NFL history to make six consecutive Pro Bowls to start his career. “When you truly have someone that has the same mindset as you, same goals as you, it’s really a blessing. It’s really something special.”
It’s not fake. Nope. Not in the slightest bit. Willis and Bowman are close friends, legitimately. So much so, Bowman asked his teammate to be the godfather to his recently born twins at the end of training camp. Willis, 27, is three years Bowman’s senior. Yet, the two feel similar in spirit. “When I first met him it was reassuring,” says Bowman, who immediately found his teammate to be a lot alike in mindset at a young age. “With me, coming from where I come from, trying to be different, trying to be a leader, when I met him, I saw similar things in him. I saw he was doing the same thing and that I was doing the right thing.”
Through Willis, Bowman saw an identical path to his proffered destination. In Willis, Bowman recognized a leader, but also someone he could relate to. “For me to come here and see him doing the things I saw myself doing,” says Bowman, “it showed me the way to do it at this level.” What’s more, Bowman found Willis’ humble approach to not only be refreshing, but inspiring.
“He’s the type who always wants to learn something, never thinks that he knows it all,” says Bowman, San Francisco’s leading tackler of the past two regular seasons. “He realizes what he has and wouldn’t ruin it or change who he is for the world. I know every time I come in here he’s going to be the same person and that’s great for him to be the godfather of my children.” Willis considered the gesture to be involved in the lives of Bowman’s children as a blessing. “It speaks highly and says a lot,” Willis says. “I’m truly thankful I can be a guy like that (for his family).”
To them, the friendship and brotherhood is real. It also means being on Gameday’s Divisional Playoff cover even more special because they’re on it together. “It’s a blessing. It really is. It’s probably cliché, people will say, ‘That’s what you’re supposed to say,’ but it really is,” says Willis, who finished second on the team with 171 tackles, 12 stops behind Bowman’s 183 tackles. “When it’s truly genuine like it is with him and me, it’s a blessing to be playing with a guy like that, to be on a cover like that, really, to do anything.”
Even chasing after opposing quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers is appreciated by the tandem, even if they don’t have nicknames for each other. “Whenever I called my brother or cousin by name it was like, ‘Hey!’” says Willis, raising his quiet voice several decibels. “You never really said the name, so I don’t really have a nickname for (Bowman), but I know he’s an incredible player and he’s only going to continue to get better. I know we’re going to continue to get better and strive to get better every time we get the opportunity to play together.”
“YOU & ME”
It’s third down. The 49ers defense needs to make a play – tackle the ball carrier short of the first-down marker and make the other team punt. Enter the All-Star linebacker duo. The defensive play call is in. Willis makes the call and the defensive huddle breaks out. Next, Willis looks at Bowman, extends his fist and says, “You and me.” Bowman reaches out with his fist towards Willis, taps it on his fellow linebacker’s out-reached knuckles and responds, “You and me.”
The third-down play is a screen. It goes Willis’ way just as he correctly predicted to Bowman. Willis makes the tackle short of the first-down. The opponent punts. That’s when the linebackers truly amaze each other. It’s when their mental side of the game sparks the physical play. “When we know a play is coming,” Bowman details of Willis’ situational instincts. “He’ll say, ‘Bo I’m going to get it.’ And I’ll say, ‘Alright, I got your back.’”
So when it came time to making the key third-down tackle against the New England Patriots like Willis did in a key Week 15 road victory – the tandem relied on its preparation. “We knew the screen was coming,” Bowman says. “They ran it to Pat’s side and he just did a great job of beating the block and making a play on the screen. He tackled the running back for loss and it was a great play – something a linebacker lives for.”
The symbolic scene spoke to the linebackers’ tight relationship translating to big-time plays. Above all, it took place in the team’s much-needed wins and the 11-4-1 record that led to consecutive NFC West titles and NFC No. 2 seeds. The “you and me” dialogue also further emphasized their leadership on the defense. On any given play, Willis and or Bowman, expect to be in on the tackle.
“Our defense is our defense,” Willis says. “It’s all of us together. It’s not his defense. It’s not my defense. It’s all of our defense. But we also know that we are that centerpiece amongst the rest of the defense in the sense that we’re in the middle. It’s up to us. We control that middle. We control everything that’s happening from the inside and out. That’s not saying we’re doing other people’s jobs, it starts with ourselves first – making sure we hold each other accountable at a high level.”
Even better than being accountable is being versatile. The linebacker tandem prides itself on being able to do anything the other can do on the field. It also gives defensive coordinator Vic Fangio more options in play-calling and schemes. “It’s us being able to stay in one place being able to do a lot of the same things,” Bowman says. “Coaches might say, ‘This position does this and that position does this,’ but the word linebacker, no matter who has the position, we can say, ‘Me or you’ and kind of stay in the same place. It also allows us to disguise a lot of things and share the blitzes a little bit.” Bowman laughs again, cracking himself up with the shared-blitz comment. “It’s not having the same person blitzing all the time. It just works out for us.”
So do the 49ers inside linebackers expect to make every single tackle? Even on a defense with four other Pro Bowl starters? “Oh yeah, definitely,” Bowman says without hesitation. “I feel like we’re the heart of the defense. If it’s between the whistle and between those white lines, Pat and I can definitely make the play. As you see, we’re the two leading tacklers on our defense. We make the most calls, we keep everyone straight and we’re the generals on the defense. I think that’s what you have to be.”
Contract extensions are nice. So are Pro Bowls and first-team All-Pro selections. Willis and Bowman already have all that though. What eludes them, however, is a Super Bowl ring. That alone unites the linebackers toward the ultimate goal in professional football. “Everyone watches the Super Bowl,” Bowman reasons. “Everyone knows about the Super Bowl. Even if you’re not a football fan, you want to tune in to the Super Bowl.”
Bowman doesn’t want to watch it from the cushy confines of his own residence. He wants to get back to New Orleans (where the 49ers won on the road in Week 12) to be in the Big Game (Super Bowl XLVII) and of course, be victorious. “To win it, would just mean you’ve accomplished something everyone in the world is watching,” says Bowman on the task at hand, winning the sixth Super Bowl in San Francisco’s proud history. “It’s something everyone who ever put on a helmet wanted to be a part of. It means so much and it goes way back in history with a lot of guys who came through this game and never even got a chance to play in a Super Bowl. It’s a special thing.”
To Bowman, it matters even more knowing the city and organization he’s representing. “To be a 49er – to add another trophy to the trophy case – knowing you can come back and say I had a job to do and helped them get that trophy – it would mean a lot,” says Bowman. “It would feel like you did what you were put on this earth to do. It’s just a great thing. We’re on the right track. I feel like we can do it.”
Having Willis next to you certainly fuels that confidence, but it’s not like the tandem takes its status too seriously. Their humble approach to the game has only helped them reach their level of play. It also makes them appreciate how they’ve carved out a defensive reputation for a 49ers franchise, known for its offensive supremacy.
“We don’t sit around and talk about if we’re better than the old-school (49ers) or if they’re better than us,” Willis says. “We talk about the things that are happening now, what we can control now. We know we can be our own team, but can also respect the ones who came before us. We also know we have a chance to be some of those guys later down the road that other guys talk about when they play after us.”
Wills and Bowman live for the opportunity they’ve created along with 51 other teammates on the active roster. “It’s truly a blessing, the opportunity we have in front of us: just the opportunity to go out each day and compete and be a part of this 49ers organization,” Willis says. “To me, it’s been a blessing since day one. I just want to make the most of it. I know at some point in time… I’ll hang up these cleats. But right now, I still want to make the best of it. I’m still playing, still having fun, enjoying life and enjoying teammates. And this winning thing, it’s kind of fun.”
Tags: Jim Harbaugh, Navorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Vic Fangio
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