What if? Bears almost drafted Joe Montana in 1979, but talked themselves out of it at last minute

When the Chicago Bears declined the fifth-year option for Mitchell Trubisky last weekend, it was a reminder of the franchise’s seemingly never-ending failure to land a franchise quarterback.

Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2017 draft, could rally in his fourth year and work himself back into the Bears’ plans before he hits free agency in 2021. But when a team declines the fifth-year option for a first-round pick, it’s a sign they’re willing to move on.

The Bears, who haven’t had a first-team All-Pro quarterback since Johnny Lujack in 1950, keep swinging and missing at the position. You’d figure they’d hit on one in 70 years.

They almost changed that entire narrative, and the history of the NFL, in the 1979 draft. They wanted Joe Montana and had a chance to pick him. At the last minute, they passed.

Joe Montana was almost a Chicago Bear

There aren’t many other NFL “what if” rabbit holes more interesting than the one put forth by The Athletic’s Dan Pompei.

The Bears wanted to pick Montana. Pompei’s story said Bears top scout Bill Tobin actually told the Bears to take Montana before the third round, because he had a first-round grade on him.

“For a month prior to the draft, whenever we would do a mock, we’d get to the third round, and if Montana was there, we were going to take him,” said Jerry Vainisi, the Bears’ treasurer in 1979 and later the team’s general manager, told Pompei. “There was no other possibility.”

The Bears had the 66th pick. Montana was still on the board.

Pompei’s story details what happens next, and it’s fascinating. The Bears were set to take Montana, but then general manager Jim Finks said he wanted to think about it some more. The Bears had quarterbacks Bob Avellini, Vince Evans and Mike Phipps. Finks said he didn’t want to be “muddying the waters with another quarterback,” according to the story. Instead, he strangely worried about depth behind Walter Payton.

The Bears drafted Georgia running back Willie McClendon. He never had more than 37 carries in a season, playing behind workhorse Payton. In four NFL seasons, McClendon had 369 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

The 49ers took Montana with the last pick of the third round. Montana became one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, winning four Super Bowls.

The 49ers and Bill Walsh were lucky Joe Montana fell to them at the end of the third round. (AP Photo)

NFL history would have changed

Maybe the 49ers’ dynasty never takes off had the Bears taken Montana. Perhaps the Bears, who did win Super Bowl XX with Jim McMahon at quarterback, would have won four Super Bowls in the 1980s. Maybe more.

All because Finks was worried about getting a seldom-used backup for Payton.

Then again, maybe the Bears don’t take off with Montana. Montana and Bill Walsh were a perfect match, and perhaps Montana would have had the same success without Walsh. Maybe the Bears don’t hire Mike Ditka in 1982. Perhaps the team wouldn’t have been built the same way with Montana and wouldn’t have reached its pinnacle in 1985. Changing something as significant as Montana’s first NFL team would have affected everything through the 1980s, one way or another.

There is a dispute over how much Walsh wanted Montana. Pompei’s story said he had to be talked into it because he wasn’t sold. But Walsh said decades ago that a pre-draft visit sold him on Montana.

“When I saw Joe, I knew immediately that he was our man,” Walsh wrote in his book “Finding the Winning Edge.” “He was quick, agile and fluid in his movements, almost like a ballet dancer, and reminded me of Joe Namath.”

Regardless of plans and desires, the 49ers ended up with Montana. And the Bears ended up with a few more decades of grief at quarterback.

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