Joe Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowl titles, becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time along the way.
The tandem of Montana and legendary coach Bill Walsh is one of the most successful pairings in sports history, along the lines of Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and Derek Jeter and Joe Torre.
But Montana almost didn’t call the Bay home. In a story chronicling the Chicago Bears’ decades-long search for a franchise quarterback, The Athletic’s Dan Pompei notes the Bears planned on taking Montana in the third round of the 1979 draft.
“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,” Jerry Vainisi, who was the Bears’ treasurer at the time and later became general manager, told Pompei. “There was no other possibility.”
When the Bears’ pick came, Montana was still on the board. But general manager Jim Finks had reservations about taking another quarterback. With Bob Avellini, Vince Evans and Mike Phipps on the roster, Finks worried about “muddying the waters” with another quarterback.
So, instead, the Bears drafted Georgia running back Willie McClendon to back up Walter Payton. McClendon tallied 369 rushing yards and two touchdowns in four NFL seasons.
Of course, the 49ers drafted Montana later in the third round and a dynasty was born.
But how would things have changed had Finks, the eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer, not slipped on the banana peel?
Down the rabbit hole we go.
First of all, there’s no telling if Montana becomes Montana if he isn’t paired with Walsh. Walsh was one of the most innovative offensive minds in NFL history and his West Coast offense fit Montana like a glove. But, for argument’s sake, let’s say Montana is suiting up for the Bears in the 80s.
In Montana’s first two seasons, he rode the bench behind Steve DeBerg, so it’s likely nothing changes in those two seasons. The 49ers go 2-14 and 6-10 respectively and still draft future Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott in the 1981 NFL Draft.
Of course, without Montana running the show in 1982, there’s no Super Bowl championship and “The Catch” is wiped from the football memory banks. With the 49ers toiling in mediocrity without Montana, the Bears, under Mike Ditka, start to tick upward with Payton still carrying a heavy load. Montana leads the Bears to the NFC Championship Game where they lose to the Dallas Cowboys, who go on to Super Bowl glory.
The 49ers enter the 1982 NFL Draft in need of a quarterback and they select Jim McMahon with the No. 7 overall pick.
McMahon and Montana duel late into the night, but Montana engineers a game-winning drive. On third-and-10 from the 49ers’ 12-yard line, Montana rolled right and delivers a strike to Willie Gault in the corner of the end zone for a play that later would be dubbed “The Grab” in Chicago sports lore.
Montana and the Bears stroll into Super Bowl XIX but are unprepared for the onslaught that await them as MVP Dan Marino shreds them, throwing for 397 yards in a 34-17 win for the Miami Dolphins. With a Super Bowl title in his pocket early, Marino would go on to win two more titles, never being mentioned in the greatest-to-never-win conversation.
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The 49ers enter the next season in search of firepower. With Walsh eyeing Jerry Rice, the Cowboys trade up to No. 14 and select the wide receiver. The Bears move up via trade with the New England Patriots to make sure they draft William Perry. The Super Bowl Shuffle lives on as Montana leads the Bears to Super Bowl title in 1986, while McMahon suffers a season-ending injury in Week 4 and the 49ers bottom out at 2-14.
By virtue of their league-worst record, the 49ers got the No. 1 overall pick and drafted running back Bo Jackson out of Auburn.
With Jackson now aboard and a new quarterback in mind, Walsh elected to continue coaching the 49ers believing the team was headed toward glory. In 1987, the 49ers traded for Steve Young who immediately took the job from McMahon and the 49ers are back on their expected course.
With Montana in charge, the Bears win titles in 1987 and ’88.
The 1989 season sees Montana come back to the scene of his most famous moment to face the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. This time, the 49ers pounce on the Bears, with Young throwing for three touchdowns in a 34-14 win. The 49ers would go on to beat the Denver Broncos to claim a Super Bowl title with Jackson winning MVP.
The 49ers would go on to win two more title, with Rice signing on as a free agent in 1990 to don the colors he was meant to.
Montana would win finish his career with three titles but a host of questions about what his career would have been had he been paired with a genius mind like Walsh.