SANTA CLARA — The 49ers (4-10) and Bears (10-4) find themselves in very different places ahead of their Sunday matchup at Levi’s Stadium. One is poised for a playoff run, while the other is focused on preparing for next season.
That is, in large part, because of each other.
Two years ago, the 49ers and Bears were among the NFL’s worst teams, both eying complete rebuilds. In 2016, the 49ers finished 2-14, giving them the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft. They subsequently hired Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch to stabilize an organization in flux. The Bears had finished 3-13, giving them the No. 3 pick.
One year before the Bears hired Matt Nagy, a similarly young, talented offensive coordinator-turned head coach as Shanahan, they struck a draft-day deal with the 49ers that contributed to the directions of their respective teams.
The Bears traded the No. 3 overall pick, two third-round picks, and a fourth-rounder for San Francisco’s No. 2 selection to ensure they secured North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky. While a surprising move at the time, Trubisky has since developed into a solid NFL starter. Last week, he helped lead the Bears to their first NFC North title in eight years. The 49ers subsequently drafted Solomon Thomas at No. 3 and Reuben Foster at No. 31 overall. Thomas has not validated his top-three status, and Foster was released last month after he was arrested for alleged domestic violence.
One season later, the 49ers went 6-10, and the Bears went 5-11. Nagy was hired less than a month after the 2017 season concluded.
Fast forward to early September, about one week before the 2018 season, and these two teams’ paths crossed again. This time, they wanted the same asset: Khalil Mack. The Raiders had put the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year on the trading block. Despite the 49ers and Bears reportedly presenting similarly massive offers, the Raiders shipped Mack to Chicago without much explanation.
“We went pretty hard,” Shanahan said back in September about pursuing Mack. “We went real hard.”
“In our opinion, as well as many others, this was another-level type transaction,” Nagy told Bay Area reporters Wednesday. “This wasn’t just a normal trade.”
Mack was named to his fourth straight Pro Bowl Tuesday. He has elevated Chicago into a top-three NFL defense. He has contributed to its NFL-leading 35 takeaways. The 49ers, conversely, have just five takeaways, on pace to be the fewest in league history.
The absence of an edge presence, particularly one of Mack’s caliber, has created a negative trickle-down effect on the 49ers. A nonexistent pass rush puts stress on the young secondary. A lack of takeaways forces the offense to consistently string together long drives.
On Wednesday, Shanahan was asked about the Bears’ improved defense, and he emphasized the importance of adding Mack.
“Khalil is as good as anyone to ever do it,” Shanahan said.
On top of all that, Chicago has retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who led the 49ers defense to three top-five finishes in his four years during the Jim Harbaugh era. Reports circulated that Fangio was one of Shanahan’s top defensive coordinator candidates two years ago, but his contract with Chicago kept him there. He has since become a popular head coaching option after transforming the Bears defense from No. 30 in 2016 to No. 3 in 2018.
“Vic is just unique in that everything is tied together, and whatever you think you have on him, it could be good, but they have a counter,” Shanahan said.
The 49ers did not, however, completely get the sour end of the deal. Last October, they traded the No. 43 overall pick in the 2018 draft to the Patriots for Jimmy Garoppolo. He, of course, led the 49ers to five wins to close the 2017 season before signing a then-record five-year, $137.5 million deal this past offseason. The excess of draft picks the Bears supplied the 49ers likely gave them enough cushion to feel comfortable shipping a second-round pick.
This series of developments largely explains why the 49ers and Bears are where they are today. It seems almost certain the 49ers would have more than four wins through 14 games had Garoppolo not suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 3. It is also likely they would have more victories had they acquired Mack, who would have filled the most glaring void on the 49ers roster.
The proximity of these teams’ recent pasts, in both draft position and coveting the same assets, adds a tantalizing twist to the upcoming matchup.