By Chris Emma—
(CBS) Believe it or not, it was just a little more than three years ago that Marc Trestman’s Chicago Bears pulled a thrilling comeback to beat Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers in what was perceived to be a battle of NFC contenders.
Since that game in September 2014, the Bears and 49ers – two proud franchises – have become perennial bottom feeders. The Bears have gone 16-41 since that day, while the 49ers are 15-42. Both are grateful for the Cleveland Browns.
On Sunday, the Bears (3-8) will meet the 49ers (1-10) for the fourth consecutive season with draft position at stake. For the second time in a row, it’s a game marked by last-place finishes. How did it come to this? Records aside, there aren’t many parallels for how both teams got to this point, with the Bears making missteps in hiring and the 49ers run down by a battle of egos in management.
The two organizations are now linked in their attempt to rebuild after the Bears traded a 2017 third- and fourth-round pick and a 2018 third-rounder to the 49ers to move up one spot to select quarterback Mitchell Trubisky at No. 2 overall in April as the player they believed could change their fortunes. It was a bold move by the Bears and a prudent one for the 49ers, offering them more assets to overhaul the roster.
Some thought it to be a heist for the 49ers. Bears general manager Ryan Pace stood by his firm conviction in Trubisky. They understood the decision in San Francisco, but the 49ers were content looking elsewhere and drafting Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas.
“We felt we had to go some other ways to improve our team and we’re happy that we did,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said this week.
The 49ers then took a major step in their rebuild by trading what will be a high second-round pick to the Patriots for Jimmy Garoppolo, the 26-year-old quarterback molded by Bill Belichick. He’s a player the Bears explored last offseason before looking toward the draft and Trubisky. Garoppolo will make his first start with the 49ers back home in Chicago on Sunday.
Shanahan had coveted Garoppolo ever since he and Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains scouted the Eastern Illinois product in 2014 when they worked with the Browns.
“It didn’t surprise me that Kyle traded for him to get him in the organization because I know how he felt about him,” Loggains said. “I think he has a chance to be a really good player.”
Time will tell which young, raw quarterback will be better. Trubisky and Garoppolo both have the tools to be successful but also the unknowns that get people fired. They’re both the most important men in their respective buildings. The Bears and 49ers are working to build a quality roster, but they’ll only go as far as their quarterbacks take them.
Despite what their record may say, the 49ers are a step ahead of the Bears in their rebuild because they have the right coaching structure for Garoppolo. In Shanahan, they hired a bright young mind with a strong track record in developing quarterbacks. He oversaw Kirk Cousins’ development into a steady NFL starter and Matt Ryan’s evolution into an MVP. Shanahan’s next prospect is Garoppolo.
On the other sideline Sunday, the Bears will have a coaching staff looking each day more likely to be fired on New Year’s Day. Trubisky should expect to enter his second NFL season with a new head coach, offensive coordinator, quarterback coach and playbook. It’s the risk to his development that Pace was forced to accept in retaining John Fox for a third season. The Bears’ next head coach could be cut from the cloth of Shanahan.
The Bears do have some good young pieces brought in through the draft. Second-year running back Jordan Howard should be a Pro Bowl player once again. Rookie tight end Adam Shaheen, rookie safety Eddie Jackson and rookie running back Tarik Cohen have each shown flashes of promise. And the Bears found a defensive anchor in lineman Akiem Hicks in free agency. He should join Howard in the Pro Bowl.
“Everything has to start somewhere,” Jackson said. “Right now, we’re just starting at the bottom. I’m looking forward to finishing out this year strong, next year coming in and setting a new tone, setting a new standards. That’s one thing as a rookie class, we want to set a new standard.
“People are tired of going through the same results year after year … Now, it’s time to turn everything around.”
Plans for a turnaround may be on hold. As they prepare to host the 49ers (1-10), the Bears (3-8) appear to be a team unraveling with five games remaining in their season. The result of this matchup could factor into who drafts higher in April.
It took little time for two storied franchises to become futile. Now, the Bears and 49ers face a long road back.