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Bears need Khalil Mack — and his new ‘mindset’ — to shine again

“All I see in his eyes,” brother Ledarius Mack said, “is he wants to win.”

Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack plays against the Saints last year at Soldier Field.
Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack plays against the Saints last year at Soldier Field.
AP Photos

Outside linebacker Khalil Mack was supposed to talk after practice Friday. The news conference was postponed, then eventually canceled, leaving his interview total for the 2020 calendar year to one 12-minute session in mid-August. On Zoom. While riding a Peloton bike.

It’s clear he likes it this way. Since he arrived in Chicago — and even during his four years with the Raiders — Mack has been more interested in working than talking. And even less interested in talking about his work.

This year, though, his preference for silence can be interpreted as symbolic.

For the Bears to be the team they want to be, Mack must be the star they traded for. Last year, he wasn’t. It drives him.

“Only thing that’s different is my mindset,” he said last month. “I don’t really know what to call it.

“I don’t talk about it much. I’d rather let my play do the talking for me.”

By his high standards, last year’s stats were alarming:

† As the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player, Mack had 8½ sacks, eight tackles for loss and 14 quarterback hits — his lowest totals since his rookie year in 2014.

† In 2018, Mack had a sack on 1.6% of the snaps he played. Last year: 0.9%.

† In Mack’s first 12 games as a Bear, he had 12½ sacks. In the 19 since — 18 regular-season games and the playoff loss to the Eagles — he has 8½.

Mack wouldn’t deny rumblings that he was injured last year — “Playing this game, you deal with all types of stuff,” he said — and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano confirmed as much Thursday when asked why he was primed for a better season than in 2019.

“He feels great, he looks great,” Pagano said. “He’s moving around really well. I think just the health part of it and him being 100% right now, and then, you know, just eager to get out there and make amends for last year, if you will.

‘‘He’s got a chip on his shoulder, and I know he’s really excited to go.”

Mack was officially limited in practice with a knee problem this week and is questionable for the game Sunday. But the Bears seem confident he’ll play — and that he’ll be better off than he was for most of last season.

He wasn’t the only one hurt last year. Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and inside linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan combined to miss 22 games with serious injuries.

So why were Mack’s stats down last year?

“It’s complicated to answer because I think the injuries we had on defense really affected him,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “I think when Akiem is injured and Roquan’s injured or Trevathan and different things we’re going though with our defensive line, I think it affects Khalil, you know?

“And the attention, he’s always going to have a lot of attention. But even more when that happens.”

Pace made two bold moves on St. Patrick’s Day to try to divert that attention away from Mack. First, he admitted defeat and cut his own 2016 first-round pick, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who had only seven sacks in the two years he lined up opposite Mack. He then agreed to give veteran Robert Quinn a five-year, $70 million contract.

Quinn immediately became the best pass rusher Mack has ever played alongside. Quinn has averaged 8.94 sacks in his nine-year career. Mack has never had a teammate post more than eight in a season — and Bruce Irvin did that once, in 2017, with the Raiders. Quinn’s impact for this season is already hazy, though — he didn’t practice all week because of an ankle injury and is doubtful for the Lions game. He was brought along slowly during training camp in the wake of what the Bears called a personal issue.

“I don’t really see a ceiling for this group,” Mack said last month. “Whatever we want, that’s what we’re going to get. That’s what we’re working toward right now, getting caught up after being behind all these months. And it doesn’t seem like there’s been any drop-off.

“We picked it right back up, and from here on out, it’s just going to be about going out and having fun and not really setting expectations. And that’s the group we were in 2018, not really knowing and not really setting any expectations.”

Those expectations, though, are real. He feels them.

“I can’t speak enough about the offseason that he’s had, the way he’s approached this training camp, the shape he’s in right now,” Pace said.

Mack didn’t spend the Bears’ offseason staring into his laptop from an office chair. He participated in Zoom meetings while lifting weights or doing cardio.

“Every meeting we had, he was in his weight room, and he was working out,” outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “I have to make the assumption that every time everybody spoke with him — it was over FaceTime — he was continuously working out.”

Even during his one interview.

“That’s how he is all the time,” Pace said. “It’s constantly what can make him a better football player. So when he’s not [at Halas Hall], he’s investing in his body — you know, whether it’s private chefs, massage therapists and additional workouts.”

That ethic continued once players reported to Halas Hall for training camp.

“You know,” rookie outside linebacker Trevis Gipson said with amazement, “he stays after his weightlifting times to lift weights even more.”

After rookie offensive lineman Lachavious Simmons had his welcome-to-the-NFL moment when trying to block Mack in practice, coach Matt Nagy checked on him in the cafeteria. In a country drawl, Simmons told Nagy how difficult it was to block him.

“But Coach,” he said, “it’s going to make me better.”

When the Bears traded for Mack two years ago, Nagy was immediately impressed by how his intensity spread through the team. That holds true today. Nagy pointed to a camp drill last month in which Mack, seeing that Monachino was busy, put a blocking pad on his arm and taught his teammates the finer points of a pass-rush move.

“That’s just who he is,” Nagy said. “He’s rare. And I just love that about him.”

Pace quoted a phrase the Bears put on their team T-shirts in 2018: “Obsessed to be the best.”

“That’s him to a T,’’ he said, “and it affects our whole team.”

Just think what Mack can do on Sundays with, to use his words, a new “mindset.”

His brother Ledarius, who spent training camp with the Bears, trained with Khalil for four months at his Glencoe home.

He sensed the drive in him, even if Mack won’t say it outright.

“All I see in his eyes,” Ledarius Mack said, “is he wants to win.”