Aftershocks from the Bears’ strike to acquire rush-linebacker Khalil Mack from the Oakland Raiders, trading away two No. 1 draft choices as part of a multi-pick exchange…
Anything short of suggesting a Michigan Ave. parade to celebrate the outfitting of one of the three or four best defensive players in the NFL in a Bears ‘52’ jersey may sound like picking nit or saying nay. It’s not. It’s just perspective, different from going from a 6-10 Bears prediction to talking playoffs, and it’s exactly what Mack would say. Did say, actually, about his being the missing piece for a franchise seeking a second Lombardi Trophy for its lobby.
“You could say a lot of different things, but until I go out there and play, I'm not a big talker,” Mack said on Sunday. “I like to go out and use my actions to speak, you know, and when I get out there and get on the field, you can probably sense what's going to happen.”
No discernible downside comes with Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in four NFL seasons and will pass Brian Urlacher’s career total (41.5) with his next sack. He is a premier player at a premier position. Period.
But as he held up his No. 52 for Sunday’s photo op, it recalled a previous time that the Bears landed a premier player at a premier position. Happened to wear No. 52, too, as a matter of fact.
That was Bryan Cox, who’d netted almost 30 sacks in the four years before he visited Chicago on his 1996 free-agency tour. The Bears kept stuffing money in Cox’s pockets until his plane couldn’t take off, and he was to be the missing defensive and attitude piece for a team that’d gone 9-7 the year before, setting offensive records. With Cox the 1996 Bears started 4-5, Cox was lost for the year to a thumb injury, and a 7-9 year was followed by a 4-12 one, then by Cox’s release.
Absolutely none of that should be expected with Mack, who fits much more into the Julius Peppers template as an elite player coming to a decent team and helping get it to within a touchdown of a Super Bowl trip. Cox was a “missing piece.” Jay Cutler was a missing piece. Rick Mirer, too. John Fox was a turnaround gimme.
Meaningful evaluations can begin in a week. Until then, best to share Mack’s own attitude and stay off the accelerator. The Raiders never defeated the Lions, Packers or Vikings (or the Bears, for that matter) in Mack’s time there, which consisted of inter-divisional play in 2015. Mack did sack Aaron Rodgers in Oakland’s 30-20 loss to Green Bay, and he bagged Teddy Bridgewater, though in a 30-14 loss to the Vikings. Matthew Stafford was hit once by Mack in Detroit’s 18-13 win then; Mack was credited with eight tackles but none of the four sacks of Matthew Stafford.
* * *
Matt Nagy may preach patience for the offense in his first year as head coach. He shouldn’t for his defense, nearly half of which is No. 1 draft choices, albeit not necessarily their own:
Besides Mack (5th, Raiders, 2014), the Bears have cornerbacks Prince Amukamara (19th, Giants, 2011) and Kyle Fuller (14th, Bears, 2014), linebackers Leonard Floyd (9th, Bears, 2016) and Roquan Smith (8th, Bears, 2018). Additionally, tackle Eddie Goldman was a high “2” (7th, Bears, 2015).
Mack wasn’t surrounded by Pro Bowl talent in Oakland, whereas the Bears…wait, never mind. In any case, he sounded genuinely jacked up about what he’s inheriting as teammates, paying them the canine compliment favored by Pernell McPhee, who was Khalil Mack for GM Ryan Pace before Khalil Mack.
“You talk about Leonard – speed, speed off the edge, Kyle Fuller. I mean, he's a corner that comes around like a linebacker, you know what I'm saying? You see some of the things he's been doing, which has kind of been off and on but he's definitely a ‘dog.’ But yeah, just understanding that you've got those guys that are definitely some dogs.”
Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has demonstrated that he knows what to do with supposed elite talent. From 2011-13 Fangio was coordinator for a San Francisco 49ers defense that had no fewer than five former No. 1’s, and seven in 2013. The 49ers ranked no lower than No. 3 in points allowed in any of those three seasons.
* * *
However, in the interests of some sort of NFL disclosure, the Raiders did finish ranked 32-22-20-20 in points allowed through Mack’s four seasons in Oakland. Over that stretch they had five Pro Bowl players on offense (QB Derek Carr, receiver Amari Cooper, and O-linemen Rodney Hudson, Kelechi Osemele and Donald Penn).
Point being, this NFL thing takes a village. The Bears didn’t trade two No. 1’s in 1965; they used them on Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, and never finished better than third in the Western Conference with two of the greatest players in NFL history.
* * *
The last time the Bears traded away two No. 1’s for a Pro Bowl player they got…Jay Cutler.
Now, the trade for Mack in fact trips the seismograph needle considerably more precipitously than the deal the Bears made to bring Cutler from Denver to Chicago in 2009. The reason is simple:
Cutler is/was no Khalil Mack. He wasn’t then and never was, and it was apparent to this writer and others at the time that, after three NFL seasons, Cutler was a mid-level quarterback. The position tops pass rusher in magnitude, and the allure of Cutler was that he’d been a Pro Bowl quarterback (once). Trouble is, to paraphrase and borrow from Georgetown coaching legend John Thompson, “Pro Bowl” is something a player is voted to, not something he wins, and Cutler never won anything, before or after the trade.
Mack has been voted to lots of things, too, among them Defensive Player of the Year (2016), Pro Bowls (2015-17) and All-Pro (2015-16), and the Raiders reached just one postseason. But Mack also has four seasons of proven productivity, and durability, having never missed a game in those four NFL years. Before the 2009 trade (which the Broncos were pushing for, and which should have made the Bears seriously suspicious), Cutler had one, and that one included three 70-something-passer-rating performances in the final three games of the 2008 season with the playoffs within reach for Denver, which stood 8-5 before those three flops.
But that was all then, this is decidedly now. If there is a positive in the perspective on Cutler, it’s in the fact that the Bears did nearly make the 2010 Super Bowl with a defense replete with talent (Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Brian Urlacher, plus Peppers), and a middle-of-the-pack quarterback.
The 2018 Bears do have a defense replete with talent, young talent, at that, and a quarterback who’s middle of the pack now, but with an arrow pointing up, at least in the minds of his handlers.
“I would say [Trubisky] is on the track,” Pace said. “Obviously as a young quarterback, he's improving daily, and we know there's going to be ups and downs and that's any young quarterback.
“I think who we have surrounded him with, too, starting with Coach Nagy is really important for his growth and maturation.”
And with one of the NFL’s true elite talents on the other side of the football.