NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith.
Michael Wilhoite, Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier.
That's about as deep as one need dig in defense of the following:
The Seattle Seahawks own the NFC West, if not the entire conference. For the 49ers, it's wild card or bust.
Bowman emerged last season as not just a Scottie Pippen to Patrick Willis' Michael Jordan among Niners linebackers. He did the seemingly impossible, casting Willis in the Pippen role. Admit it: The minute he went down in the NFC Championship Game last winter, you knew the Niners were done.
We know now that he's going to miss at least six weeks of the new season, likely more. And with all due respect to the incredible amount of talent and toughness it takes to even land on an NFL roster, it's pretty safe to say that Wilhoite's career will play out with him never once being used in a glory-days Chicago Bulls analogy -- unless, if he's lucky, he draws a comparison to Horace Grant along the way.
The Niners should be so lucky. Grant was an exceptional role player, and Wilhoite needs to be that and then some if he does, indeed, get named Bowman's replacement after tonight's utterly meaningless -- relative to the situation at hand -- final exhibition game against the Houston Texans. Sure, Wilhoite's looked fine thus far in camp. He's done some nice things next to Willis in exhibition games. But "fine" and "nice" don't begin to replace "incredible" and "superhuman," and that's what you came to expect of Bowman as last season wore on.
Factor in the inevitable absence of Smith and you're looking at a front seven that frightens almost nobody -- and certainly not the Seahawks. Granted, with a little fortune, Bowman and Smith could be back on the field together by the time the ridiculous schedule brings the NFC West rivals together head-to-head, but hell, the Seahawks weren't afraid of the Niners' defense when it was fully loaded!
Skuta, you probably know, was among the men who stepped in last year when Smith bowed out for his five weeks of eye wash -- sorry, rehab (please) -- and performed well enough to not make the Niners lose. They were 5-0 in those games. Lemonier is solid, too. But again, "well enough" and "solid" won't do. "Well enough" and "solid" have 1.5 career sacks between them. Smith has 42.
It's simply not possible to play championship football while being without two of your three best defensive players for any extended stretch, and that's what the Niners are up against. It's not just the numbers Bowman and Smith put up. It's the very specter of Bowman and Smith, the need to account for their presence, and their presence, if you know what I mean.
It's not an easy thing to admit that Seattle owns the NFC. The Seahawks act like punks, and their coach does nothing to keep them in check. Sadly, without Bowman and Smith, the Niners won't be able to do anything, either.
Mychael Urban, a longtime Bay Area-based sportswriter and broadcaster, is the host of "Inside the Bigs," which airs every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon on KGMZ "The Game" (95.7 FM).