Khalil Mack trails only Patrick Mahomes in recent MVP ranking

Khalil Mack trails only Patrick Mahomes in recent MVP ranking

The NFL MVP race is almost always going to be led by a quarterback. Whether it's Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees or (brace yourself) Aaron Rodgers, superstar signal-callers are always the belle of the ball.

But if there's any position that can challenge those quarterbacks for the hardware, it's the elite pass rusher. And in the case of Bears superhuman OLB Khalil Mack, he's impressed enough through the first four games to trail only Mahomes in a recent MVP ranking by

Someday we'll invent a defensive metric capable of capturing Mack's impact on a football game. Until that golden hour, alas, we'll have to endure the hard times of actuarial obfuscation: This sport's preeminent money-down game wrecker will get credit for a mere sack when he leaves the left tackle in cement shoes on his way to an explosive blind-side strip-sack that calls to mind a great white shark breeching 15 feet out of the water to play beach ball with a seal. The box score will tally one paltry sack when he thwarts a guard-tackle double-team and brushes off their joint holding penalty en route to knocking the field general out of field-goal range via third-down takedown ... How is that a fair and reasonable representation of the play's outcome? Every Mack disruption doesn't force a turnover or toss a potential playmaker backwards for a game-changing loss. It just seems that way.

Mack has 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles through the first month of the season, which spread across 16 games puts him on pace for a career-year. At this rate, he'll end the season with 18 sacks and 16 forced fumbles, a combination that's hard to overlook when it comes time to cast the MVP ballot.

No other player in the NFC North made the top-10 list, and the next-highest quarterback after Mahomes appeared at No. 6 (Dak Prescott). 

Mack will take center stage Sunday against his former team in London. He said this week that he circled the Raiders game on the schedule shortly after it was released; he's doing a really bad job at hiding his emotions for this one. That's a scary thought.

Good luck, Derek Carr. Good luck.

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Kris Bryant's assessment of his 2019 season

Kris Bryant's assessment of his 2019 season

PITTSBURGH — "Never satisfied. Ever."

That's how Kris Bryant summed up his personal accomplishments in 2019. 

Even before the reporter was finished with the question, Bryant was already quietly saying, "never satisfied" before repeating it and adding emphasis.

He wasn't cutting off the reporter, nor was he trying to pound his chest or anything along those lines. He just casually said out loud what was going through his mind:

Kris Bryant is never satisfied.

That's a good thing, of course, for the Cubs. This is an All-Star player who fill finish 2019 as the team leader in WAR (4.9) and runs scored (108) and second in homers (31). Given all that he had to endure with a knee injury for the last two months of the season, that's one heck of a bounceback season after an injury-plagued 2018.

"Coming back from last year, yes, there's plenty to be proud of for me in that area," Bryant said. "But there's always gonna be things that I want to do better. That's how I'm always gonna answer that question, whether it's an MVP year or the worst year of my career. I'm always gonna say I want to be better until I'm done playing this game."

If you were a coach or a front office member or even a fan, that's exactly what you'd want to hear from a star player on your team. 

But it's also something that can work against Bryant from time to time, as he is simply too harsh of a critic on his own production. It doesn't help if a player is constantly beating himself up on top of the natural failure associated with the game of baseball.

When the Cubs were eliminated from playoff contention Wednesday night, it effectively ended Bryant's season. That means the last moment of him on the field in 2019 will be that "freak accident" when he slipped on a wet first base and rolled his right ankle Sunday at Wrigley Field.

Bryant felt fortunate the injury was not anything more serious than an ankle sprain, so at least he can head into the winter without any long-term health concerns. The knee injury that had hampered him since mid-July checked out fine when he got an MRI for the ankle Monday and it appears the rest and cortisone shot he received on it earlier this month helped alleviate the issue. 

But he wanted to do everything he could to get back out on the field with his teammates this season and even though things looked bleak for the Cubs entering this series with the Pirates, Bryant was still talking about coming back and trying to rewrite the ending to his 2019 season. 

Before the ankle injury, Bryant went from winning National League Player of the Week to going 2-for-20 with 0 extra-base hits, 0 RBI and 9 strikeouts throughout the Cubs' six-game home losing streak.

"The week before, it was like, 'Wow, this is the best week of my career.' And then it's like, 'OK, take a step back,'" Bryant said. "The ups and downs, you never know when they're gonna come and when to expect them. But I just wish I could have continued that week I had before."

Overall production wasn't the issue for Bryant in 2019, as almost anybody would take his across-the-board stat line.

But consistency was a problem, as he alluded to. 

Look at his month-by-month breakdowns:

April: .734 OPS
May: 1.162 OPS
June: .877 OPS
July: .928 OPS
August: .751 OPS
September: .955 OPS

Of course, monthly parameters are not a perfect encapsulation of a player's production, but it's at least a bit of a window into Bryant's up-and-down campaign. 

He wanted to do better and be more consistent, especially when the team needed him most on that final homestand. 

Still, he stopped short of beating himself up too much.

"I'm really proud of some of the moments I have this year," Bryant said. "I don't think it sums up my season, but maybe it sums up the sport in general — the ups and the downs, the great games. How can you have a great game and then have your worst game ever the next game? It just happens that way sometimes."

At the end of the day, it will be the team stuff that really sticks with Bryant as he heads into the offseason.

"Losing those games to St. Louis the way it happened was very shocking," he said, admitting he's never been a part of a season quite like this one. "It kinda seems like it all came on this last week. I mean, obviously, this is gonna be a week we're gonna look at for a long time. But not in my whole baseball playing career, even going back to high school — no, I can't [say I've endured a year like this]. It's been a crazy, weird season for us."

Party like it's 2016: Is Kris Bryant starting to show his MVP form again?

Party like it's 2016: Is Kris Bryant starting to show his MVP form again?

The silver lining of the Cubs' bullpen meltdown in the ninth inning Monday night is it actually helped lead to the most encouraging signs yet that Kris Bryant is back playing at an MVP level.

Tuesday night's walk-off in the bottom of the ninth inning didn't hurt in that regard, either. The 3-run shot on a frigid night at Wrigley marked the third straight game Bryant homered, the first time he's ever done that in his career.

"Yeah, it was a cold one," Bryant said some 15 minutes after his teammates savagely dumped three buckets of Gatorade over his head outside the Cubs' dugout. "I honestly didn't want to play extra innings. Nobody would like that. I was thinking back to [the 15-inning game in] Arizona, I was like nope, we're not gonna have that today. That was fun. I really enjoyed that.

"Walk-offs are so fun, regardless. It's just a time to beat up on your teammates and nobody knows who's doing what. They got me good, but in the best way possible. It's been a couple years since I've done that. It's nice to experience that again."

The Cubs star is fully healthy after a shoulder injury sapped his power and kept him out of the lineup for more than 50 games last year, but his home run stroke has still been slow to develop this season.

For the first four weeks of the 2019 season, Bryant had only 1 homer, but he's now gone yard 5 times in the past 10 games.

That includes this blast Monday night over the nuveen sign in left field:

Bryant turning on a pitch with authority is a positive sign in itself, but even more than that, it was the hardest he had hit a home run since July 16, 2017:

Tuesday's walk-off was his first since Aug. 24, 2015. 

When Bryant walked out of Wrigley Field on April 25 to head on the Cubs' most recent road trip, he had only 1 homer and a .366 slugging percentage to his name in 2019. He now has 6 homers and a .508 slugging percentage less than two weeks later.

"I think any time early in the season you look at the scoreboard and things fluctuate so much and then you're trying to get 4 hits in 1 at-bat because you want to see things change," Bryant said. "I think we all have experienced that. Fortunately, I've gotten off to pretty good starts the previous four years, so I haven't had to really worry about that, but this year was a little different. 

"So i think that's the main thing - you're so impatient and you want things to come to you so quick, but I realize that that's not the way to go about things. It's always good when you learn from your mistakes."

Do you really need any more proof that Bryant is BACK?

How about this: 

He has reached base safely in 17 straight games, his longest streak since an 18-game stretch in August-September, 2017.

Including Monday night's blast, Bryant has 5 homers in his last 10 games. The last time we saw him show off that kind of power was a year ago, when he hit 5 dingers in an 8-game stretch last May.

Yes, he got off to a slow start at the plate and sure, he's still only hitting .248. But this is also his season pace at the moment:

123 R, 54 2B, 29 HR, 113 RBI, 103 BB

And he has a .381 OBP out of the 2-spot in the lineup. Those may not necessarily be MVP numbers, but it would certainly put him in the conversation and almost any player in the league would be ecstatic to achieve that stat line.

So what's changed over the last couple weeks after getting off to a slow start?

"A better approach at the plate," Joe Maddon said recently. "A better method, a better beginning of what he's doing — the stance and everything he's doing right now. He's putting himself in a better position to be successful. 

"He's giving himself more time to read pitches. When he sees his pitch, he's on time. It's gonna keep getting better, by the way. I like what he's doing a lot."

What Maddon is alluding to with Bryant's stance is something the veteran manager saw while doing research on the Cubs organizational video system — Ivy — and took to Bryant. 

To put it simply, Maddon just wanted Bryant to get back to his 2016 form at the plate and cut down on any extra movement while he's in the batter's box.

"That's something Joe saw back in 2016," Bryant said. "It's just about my philosophy of hitting to not have as much movement — be very still. I think it shows in my swing. That little movement I had is kinda what I got back to. It's nice to just hit the ball hard all over the field and see that's working."

"KB, I just thought got off track a little bit and he's getting back to where he had been, obviously," Maddon said. "... When you're working with really good major league players, it's always important to go back to what they look like when they first got here. That matters, because they got here for a reason."

It's not just all about the hard contact, either. Bryant is currently walking at the best rate of his career (14.8 percent) and striking out at the lowest rate of his career (19 percent). 

Now that Bryant has heated up and is looking a lot more like the 2016 NL MVP version of himself, the middle of the Cubs lineup is as formidable as any in baseball. So even as the bottom part of the order — Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward, etc. — start seeing their numbers fall back to Earth a bit, Bryant's ascension is enough to help keep the Cubs offense among the best in the game.

"I don't think anybody in there doubted it," Jon Lester said. "We've all played through injury and struggled. I think you learn a lot about yourself, you learn a lot about your teammates. It's just good to see him in that good spot right now...

"It's nice to see that, but definitely nobody in that clubhouse doubted that he would be back to being Kris Bryant."

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