Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports



For the first 11 minutes of the 2017 NFL season, the San Francisco 49ers looked like a new team -- until rookie linebacker Reuben Foster was carted off the field due to a leg injury. It took less than a quarter of regular-season football, but Foster has already become the new heart of the Niners' defense.

Sunday's Week-1 matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers was a tale of two games. Prior to Foster's injury near the end of the first quarter, the Panthers' offense accumulated just one first down and a total of 14 yards.

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As Foster laid on the ground in pain, the home crowd's silence was deafening, and the body language of his teammates told the same story. One play later, Carolina scored a 40-yard touchdown, and the game was as good as over.

Not since 49ers wide receiver Kyle Williams' punt-return fumble in the 2011 NFC Championship Game had there been such a collective feeling of despair from a 49er crowd after a single play. Levi's stadium wasn't filled to capacity on Sunday, but the fans who attended were both loud and full of hope -- until they witnessed Foster being carted off the field.

For the remainder of the game, the 49ers missed Foster on the field, but they missed him in spirit as well -- even after he returned limping to the sideline to cheer on his teammates. The San Francisco 49ers aren't the same team without their star rookie; it's no coincidence that the Panther offense's 14 longest plays of the game -- and all of their 23 points -- took place after Foster was relegated to the sideline.

Scott Strazzante-The Chronicle


Fellow linebacker NaVorro Bowman is still the true leader of the 49ers' defense. But just as Patrick Willis' leadership, mentorship and friendship helped mold a young Bowman into an All-Pro, Bowman must now do the same for his new protégé -- because Foster is the 49ers' future, and their present.

Carolina's final drive of the game was further testament to Foster's importance to the San Francisco 49ers. After stopping yet another failed fourth-down attempt by the home team, the Panthers started their drive on their own 1-yard line, with eight minutes and 48 seconds left on the clock.

The 49ers never touched the ball again.

The Carolina Panthers didn't disguise their intentions, and they didn't consider attempting a pass; they simply ran the ball down their opponent's throat. 13 plays later, the game was over -- with the new heart of the San Francisco 49ers' defense watching helplessly from the sideline.