Shortly after shocking the NFL world one year ago today with the trade that brought Khalil Mack from Oakland to Chicago, Bears GM Ryan Pace used the word “infectious” to describe the effect his new transformative defender would have on those around him.Fifty-two weeks later, after the Bears’ best campaign since their 2006 Super Bowl season, No. 52 has compelled a franchise and fan base alike into believing it can be super again.
How’s that for infectious?
“It just makes you want to go even harder,” Mack’s fellow first-team All Pro Eddie Jackson explained last week of the Mack effect. “Then, when he [comes] in the building, steps on [the field] … I feel like that took everyone to another level. The way you work, the way you practice, you got to show him that he’s not the only big dog on this team, that we’re going to match his energy.”
Jackson, secondary mate Kyle Fuller and offense/special teams triple threat Tarik Cohen matched more than Mack’s energy — they equaled his postseason hardware, all earning first-team All-Pro recognition. Chicago’s four 2018 first-team All Pros matched the franchise’s total over the previous 11 combined seasons.
And no disrespect intended toward Jackson, Fuller and Cohen, as each very well might have become first-time Pro Bowlers and All Pros without Mack, but the timing sure feels convenient, doesn’t it? Kind of like the best half-season stretch of Leonard Floyd’s career coinciding with his and Mack’s return to health in the latter part of 2018, and like Prince Amukamara, Danny Trevathan and Eddie Goldman, among others, also playing their best football last season in Bears uniforms.
Fuller knew Mack prior to the trade, having been selected nine picks after him in the 2014 draft class, and told PFW Tuesday that rekindling that relationship has been easy because he and Mack are cut from the same quiet, lead-by-example cloth. And just as Fuller’s film study habits have rubbed off on his peers inside the Halas Hall DBs room, Mack’s own position coach, Ted Monachino, after only a few months on the job, sees a similarly rare drive and diligence every time he observes his own star pupil.
“It’s nice to have that leader by example in your position group. But his attitude and leadership skills translate to both sides of the ball, translate to the locker room, translate to special teams — and all our guys look to him for that leadership,” he said.
The resources required to consummate the Mack deal — two first-rounders, a third-rounder and a sixth-rounder, in addition to a six-year, $141 million contract that promised $90 million and made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history — caused trepidation at the time for some Bears fans.
But how does one quantify the scope of Mack’s value, again, not only to the Bears defense but to everyone from the sales and marketing to strength-and-conditioning staffs?
“Nobody has a higher expectation of the way they play than Khalil. I don’t have a higher expectation of Khalil than he has of himself,” Monachino said. “So everyday he goes there to prove it, and every day he goes out there to make sure everybody understands that he’s worth it. And the time and resources that this organization has put into that player, he’s trying to make sure that that all pays dividends for us.”
Last season was a good start.
Despite missing the entirety of camp and the preseason and practicing with his new team only four times prior to his Week 1 first-half demolition at Lambeau, Mack recorded 12.5 sacks — the most ever by a Bear not named Richard Dent — and a career-high six forced fumbles in only 14 games, no more than 12 of which he played full strength. He was the Alpha of the best defense in football last season, and one of the best overall in the past three-plus decades, reserving his biggest plays for the biggest moments, including the late forced fumble in the comeback win in Arizona; his “back sack” of Aaron Rodgers in the division-clincher; and his routine knack for clamping down after sudden changes
“That’s in the past. We can’t really measure off of last year’s success. It’s a new year, new focus, new team,” Mack said in July on his first day in Bourbonnais as a Bear. “Ultimately, we’re hungrier than we were last year. I’m speaking for myself as well. I’m way hungrier than I was last year. It definitely wasn’t good enough. Just looking forward to this year and getting better.”
Mack’s modesty is endearing, but Bears fans should also expect even more this year, when their team’s best player has had the benefit of an entire offseason in another new defensive scheme and is eyeing a new streak of consecutive games played after his high ankle sprain last season led to it being snapped in Week 8 at 70 to begin his career.
Monachino has vowed to move Mack around more than predecessor Vic Fangio, which could make every opposing offensive coordinator’s focal point even more difficult to pin down … if that’s possible.
“As an offensive staff, you talk about who the guys are that you need to game plan around, and sometimes there’s a defense that you don’t necessarily need to,” said Nagy, the former Chiefs coordinator who used to prepare for Mack twice annually in the AFC West. “Obviously, he’s one that you do. So the word that used to always come to mind for myself was dominance in what he does and whether that’s mentally what a tackle does, how to beat him mentally. Physically, with just his strength, speed to power, the experience that he has.”
Nagy is describing the full package, a player on a Hall of Fame trajectory who landed in his prime with the organization boasting more Hall of Famers than any other. It all almost seems too good to be true: an utter game wrecker at a premium position — the one at which the Bears arguably were thinnest 366 days ago — arriving in the same offseason as the reigning Coach of the Year. His arrival being possible in part because of the young, cost-control quarterback with multiple years left on his rookie deal, same as the quarterback of the ‘D,’ still only 22 and already showing signs of joining Jackson and Cohen among the Bears’ elite players at their respective positions.
Except most people rarely remember their dreams, and even those who do are lucky if they last 365 minutes, not a full year.
Indeed, it’s all very real right now for the Bears, once again Super Bowl contenders of the highest order, in large part because of the Mack effect.
“Just by the way you can feel his leadership, work ethic, professional demeanor, how much he cares about football,” Pace said at that introductory news conference a year ago. “That’s the thing that shines right away, like how much he loves this game and how passionate he is about this game, and you can just feel his energy, how eager he is to put the pads back on and get back at it … and he’s itching to get back out there with his teammates. I think those kind of qualities are infectious.”