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."
Way 😎 https://t.co/GjI1Y5V6m1— Prince Amukamara (@PrinceAmukamara) September 1, 2018
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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