Maybe we’ve finally found the solution to Khalil Mack’s disdain for talking to the media: Let him work out while answering our questions.
Saturday marked the first time the public heard from Mack since Dec. 22, 2019. He was an hour late to his Zoom session with us, but when “Fifty Deuce” logged on, he was at home sweating up a storm on his Peloton only a few hours after the Bears ended their longest practice of 2020.
We heard from coaches and teammates over the last few months that Mack has a certain edge to him – a little more motivation than usual for a guy who’s always been incredibly driven. But hearing Mack talk, that edge, that motivation, that drive was absolutely apparent.
Right down to riding his Peloton while chatting with the media. Hey, if you’re going to do something you don’t like doing, you might as well be productive while doing it.
But let’s start here: He’s not happy with how he played in 2019.
“I wasn’t good enough,” Mack said. “Wasn’t good enough at all.”
Mack’s 8.5 sacks were his lowest total since he had four in 2014, his rookie year. His 14 quarterback hits were similarly a non-rookie-season career low; same with his 70 total pressures (per PFF).
But let’s not mistake Mack’s production dip for a loss of the talent that made him the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player back in 2018.
“It was a lot of factors, man,” Mack said. “Playing this game, you deal with all types of stuff and I’m not one to make excuses, but I am going to make sure I am out there with my brothers giving it my all every week and that’s what you all saw. So, not to get into details but, man, we’re ready this year. We’re ready. We’re ready for it all.”
Since Mack won’t get into the details, I will: Of course his production dropped off. Akiem Hicks missed 11 games. No opponent was worried about Leonard Floyd winning a one-on-one matchup with a tackle. That meant teams could siphon off Mack, allocating every resource necessary to keep him from touching their quarterback with little negative consequence.
And so, Mack had a “down” year. The tape still showed a guy playing at a high level.
But even Mack trucks can’t drive through brick walls.
The Bears’ offseason plan was to make sure Mack doesn’t have to run into the brick walls that are double- and triple-teams from O-linemen, tight ends, running backs, etc. That’s why Robert Quinn was brought in on a massive contract and Ryan Pace hit the eject button on Floyd, who only had seven sacks in 30 games playing opposite Mack.
Quinn can get after quarterbacks. So can Mack. As long as Hicks is healthy – he’s missed the last two practices and is day-to-day with a quad issue – the Bears look to have an unstoppable trio of pass rushers in 2020.
“Rob is a hell of a player, man, and an even better person,” Mack said. “And I know it’s just gonna be fun being out there with a guy that’s going 110 miles per hour on the other side, and I can’t wait.”
This isn’t to say Mack feels like he has anything to prove. He said so himself.
Anyone who actually thinks Mack lost a step or became a worse player in 2019 needs to look beyond the box score. But Mack doesn’t come across as a guy who’s driven by the “haters” or whatever mean-tweeting strawman some players strain to draw motivation from.
“The expectations that I have for myself, I definitely didn’t reach last year,” Mack said. “So knowing that, I know I’m supposed to pass whatever the expectations were last year for myself and it’s a challenge to myself. And only I can challenge myself and only I can tell myself what it was that I expected from myself.”
Mack just genuinely loves football. That’s it. He loves everything about it. And he’s out to make 2020 one of the most enjoyable years of his career (maybe playing alongside his kid brother, Ledarius, an undrafted free agent vying for a roster spot).
Which probably means opposing quarterbacks and tackles and offensive coordinators aren’t going to exactly enjoy seeing Fifty Deuce much this fall.
“I know myself. I know what I’m capable of,” Mack said. “And this is gonna be fun, man.”