Bears history changed forever one year ago today with the Khalil Mack trade

Bears history changed forever one year ago today with the Khalil Mack trade

One year ago today, Bears history was forever changed. 

And all Bilal Nichols wanted to do was sleep. 

Players who know they’ve made the 53-man roster usually take Labor Day weekend to catch up on sleep before the grind of the regular season begins. So Nichols, then a rookie, was still in bed when his phone started going off non-stop around 8:30 a.m on Sept. 1, 2018. 

“I’m not really worried about it,” Nichols recalled. “And then I finally woke up and was like, who keeps (texting me) — like, what is going on? And then it was like, breaking news, and so many people texting me, calling me like hey y’all got Khalil, y’all got Khalil, y’all got Khalil. 

“And at first, I’m like, no way.”

You, the Bears fan reading this, might’ve had a similar experience: Groggily waking up on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend to news that felt like you were still dreaming. There was no way the Oakland Raiders were actually going to trade Khalil Mack, a guy on a path to wearing a gold jacket in Canton someday, right? And there was no way that, if he were traded, he’d come to the team you root for. Right?

Maybe you, like left tackle Charles Leno Jr., bolted to your basement to blast Mark Morrison's "Return of the Mack." 

The Bears began loosely discussing the possibility of trading for Mack when the team reported to training camp in Bourbonnais last July. Bears director of player personnel Josh Lucas said on a panel discussion at the Bears’ 100 year celebration in June the team knew the Raiders might part with Mack, but the discussion quickly turned to things that felt more realistic. 

“Even at that point, this would’ve been late July, I think all of us were like, What are we doing?" Lucas said. “They’re not going to trade this guy.

“… I think for the most part we were, Okay, it’s fun to talk about but we really need to focus on what we got here right now.”

But as Mack’s holdout with the Raiders persisted, the chances of him being traded grew. General manager Ryan Pace never gave up the chase. By the time the Bears kicked off their final preseason game, they had an offer ready to submit. The Raiders accepted it, with the thought around the league they did so because Jon Gruden and Reggie McKenzie believed the Bears’ draft picks would be the most valuable. As in: The Bears would still be a bad team with Mack, and the Raiders could snag high first-round picks for Mack. 

The Raiders actually pulled the trigger the megadeal with the Bears on Aug. 31, though the football world didn’t find out about it until the next morning. The Bears traded two first-round picks, a third-round pick and a sixth round pick to the Oakland Raiders for Mack and 2020 second round and conditional fifth round draft picks. 

After trading for Mack, the Bears signed him to the richest contract in NFL history for a defensive player. When asked after the season if he felt good about the price for Mack — both in dollars and draft capital — all Pace could do was laugh. 

“100 percent,” he said. 

Mack’s impact was seismic from the moment he stepped on the Payton Center practice field at Halas Hall on Labor Day last year. Coach Matt Nagy talked about backup offensive tackle Rashaad Coward giving him “the eyes” after Mack’s first practice snap in a Bears helmet — as in, holy (expletive), this guy is good. Mack’s unveiling six days later was impressive to the point that game is remembered just as much for No. 52’s torture of Aaron Rodgers and DeShone Kizer as it is for the brutal fashion in which the Bears lost. 

As the season wore on, it became clear: This wasn’t just the Bears trading for a bona fide superstar. It was the Bears trading for a franchise-altering player, the kind of guy who could elevate an entire perennial last-place team over the course of a division-winning season. 

“I feel like that took everyone to another level — the way you work, the way you practice,” Eddie Jackson, who like Mack was an All Pro in 2018, said. “You got to show him that he's not the only big dog on this team, that we're going to match his energy.”

Mack finished 2018 with 12 1/2 sacks and six forced fumbles — or, another way, he had one-half fewer sack and one more forced fumble than the entire Raiders team last year. And, with Mack, the Bears’ defense had the best DVOA since 2012. 

The Bears will enter 2019 with a new coordinator, with Vic Fangio’s departure to the Denver Broncos pointed to by some as a reason why this group will regress from the soaring heights they hit last year. Maybe Fangio’s playcalling was the biggest factor for the Bears’ success in 2018. Or maybe it was the players on the field, led by Mack — at least, that’d be the answer Fangio would probably tell you.

And there’s no player more impactful than Mack. Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, we learned the Bears traded for him. 

Sometimes, it still doesn’t feel real that he’s on the Bears — just as it didn’t feel real the morning of Sept. 1, when the first text Nichols read was from his Uncle Ty telling him the Bears traded for Mack. 

“I texted him back, I was like, stop lying,” Nichols said. “And then he was like bro, I’m dead serious, turn on the TV. 

“And I turned it on and I couldn’t believe it.” 

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NFC North Standings: Bears 2.5 games behind Packers entering Week 7

NFC North Standings: Bears 2.5 games behind Packers entering Week 7

The Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers pulled off another incredible (or maybe controversial) victory over the Detroit Lions in Monday night's NFC North slugfest, 23-22, to advance to 5-1 and in sole possession of first place in the NFC North.

It was the worst possible outcome for the Chicago Bears, who could've used a little help from the Lions to keep pace with Green Bay entering Week 7.

Instead, the Bears (3-2) are now 2.5 games behind the Packers ahead of their showdown with the New Orleans Saints Sunday at Soldier Field.

It could be worse for Chicago. Detroit's loss drops their record to 2-2-1 on the season and moves them into the division's cellar. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings had arguably their strongest showing of the season in their 38-20 victory over the Eagles and improved to 4-2 on the year. Their four wins slot them ahead of the Bears for second place in the North even though Chicago currently owns the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Here are the NFC North standings heading into Week 7:

1) Packers (5-1)
2) Vikings (4-2)
3) Bears (3-2)
4) Lions (2-2-1)

Charles Leno says 'it's just gonna suck' without Kyle Long around

Charles Leno says 'it's just gonna suck' without Kyle Long around

Chicago Bears left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. has a fond place in his heart for right guard Kyle Long. He's probably not alone in the Bears locker room with his feelings for the seven-year pro and three-time Pro Bowler.

Since being selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, Long has ascended into a leadership role with the Bears both on and off the field. And while his play in recent seasons has been negatively impacted by a variety of injuries (Long's been limited to just 29 games over the last four years), he still offered an experienced voice in the huddle and an enforcer's mentality after the snap.

But we may have seen the last of Long in a Bears uniform after the team officially placed him on season-ending injured reserve Monday (hip). It was news that Leno struggled to embrace.

“It’s the tale of the league for you,” Leno said from Halas Hall. “He’s been through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and that’s just how the league goes. You never know when that time is going to come. His happened so fast. So abrupt. It’s like, ‘Damn. He’s not going to be here.’ So it just sucks. That’s how I look at it — it’s just gonna suck.”

Long hasn't been great this season. His play was progressively getting worse, too. He has the lowest Pro Football Focus grade of any player on Chicago's offense (38.0) and played his worst two games of the year in Weeks 3 and 5 (he missed Week 4 with the hip injury).

It was time to shut him down. Maybe for good.

“This is his words — he said he’s a Bear for life,” Leno said of his conversation with Long. “[Those are] the words I remember him saying. That’s how he wanted to end things.”

That certainly doesn't sound like a player who expects to ever wear a Bears jersey again. It's a shame, but it's also the reality of professional football for an offensive lineman. No position absorbs as much wear and tear as the big uglies up front, and Long is a perfect example. He was once considered the most promising young interior offensive lineman in the NFL just a few years ago. Now, it's anyone's guess if he'll ever play another snap.

“When he was healthy and he was on, he was a dominant football player," Leno said. "I told him plenty of times, ‘Get back to that [2013, 2014, 2015] self.’ It just sucks because so many times he would try to get back to it and had to take a step back. When injuries compile, it’s just really [unfortunate].”

The Bears will look to fill Long's starting role with either Rashaad Coward, Ted Larsen or rookie Alex Bars. And while one (or all) of them will provide an upgrade on the field, none will be able to replace Long's larger-than-life presence everywhere else.