SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As he dressed alongside NaVorro Bowman, after another dominant San Francisco 49ers defensive performance that propelled the team to its third straight NFC Championship Game, Patrick Willis looked up.
“This is the greatest sport there is,” the perennial Pro Bowl linebacker said. Bowman smiled and nodded.
They are arguably the greatest pair of position players in the NFL.
As the 49ers have revisited their glorified past this season under coach Jim Harbaugh, it has been cemented by fierce, take-over defensive play. The team's five Super Bowl trophies may have been won by players like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young, yet their latest run at a dynasty is being paved on the other side of the ball.
It starts with Willis and Bowman.
“They are like two machines in the middle of our defense,” San Francisco rookie safety Eric Reid said.
The two inside linebackers are the heartbeat of the 49ers’ defense, which has shut out opponents in an NFL-high 35 of 78 quarters this season.
The defense is loaded with stalwarts such as outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, defensive tackle Justin Smith, and safety Donte Whitner, but the personality of this unit starts with Willis and Bowman.
In fact, some believe the duo might be among the best linebacker tandems ever to play.
“They are historically good,” ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said. “They are there with [Jack] Ham/[Jack] Lambert, [Brian] Urlacher/[Lance] Briggs, [Willie] Lanier/[Bobby] Bell. [Willis and Bowman] are a truly rare and elite pairing.”
The 49ers came across this historic pairing unexpectedly. They drafted Willis, who will turn 29 later this month, with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2007 draft. He was considered a can’t-miss prospect out of Mississippi and has been first- or second-team All-Pro in his first six NFL seasons.
When the 49ers drafted Bowman three years later, they were just hoping to get a capable potential starter. He was taken in the third round out of Penn State in 2010. Running back Frank Gore recalls seeing Bowman as a rookie in camp and knowing the 49ers might have found the perfect complement to Willis.
“Even in training camp, OTAs, I just saw how fast he was,” Gore said. “How he could read and get to the ball. We have the same agent (Drew Rosenhaus) and I called my agent and I said, 'Man, you've got somebody right here, man. That’s a good pickup for you to represent.' "
Still, Bowman’s success was not instant. Harbaugh's staff came in 2011. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told his new defense that only Willis and Justin Smith were guaranteed a spot. Everyone else had to go earn it. Bowman listened.
“No, because he really didn’t play much the year before,” Fangio said, when asked if he had big expectations for Bowman in 2011. "And all through that offseason, that was the lockout year, there was kind of an assumption that Takeo Spikes was going to come back here. And NaVorro probably would have been in the same role. In retrospect, it’s a good thing that Takeo didn't come back here because he would have been beaten out by NaVorro.”
Once Bowman, 25, got on the field, he and Willis instantly clicked. Both have been among the league leaders in tackles, and they have a unique chemistry. While Bowman was an All-Pro last season, he has taken his game to the next level as Willis dealt with hand and hamstring injuries early in the season.
Bowman, who came up with the 49ers' play of the year when he saved the final game at Candlestick Park in Week 16 by returning an interception 89 yards for a touchdown against Atlanta, is a candidate for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Willis fully supports his younger teammate. Asked about Bowman's candidacy, Willis said “he has my vote.”
Perhaps what makes this combination so strong is that they are as in sync off the field as they are on it. They each had 11 tackles, tying for a team-high (Willis also had an interception), in the 23-10 win Sunday against Carolina that sent the 49ers to the NFC title game against Seattle. They conducted their postgame news conference together. Willis, a country kid from Tennessee, and Bowman, who hails from a high-crime area in Maryland just outside Washington, D.C., both are quiet by nature, and neither is overly flashy off the field. Bowman said the key to their success is discipline in the study room.
“We are students, we are in school,” Bowman said. “We learn every day.”
The 49ers will be counting on them for the long haul. Willis is signed through 2016 and Bowman through 2018, and Harbaugh knows these two are a key to the team’s success.
“The teamwork, the respect that they have for each other, the love, is shared by many people on the team,” Harbaugh said. "And that, as a coach, there’s nothing that makes you feel as good as to hear that. That’s the team, the team, the team. And it’s genuine. It’s not talk."
Neither is the impact of Willis and Bowman on the 49ers' success.