‘Calm is contagious’: How Khalil Mack’s play and attitude lift the Bears
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It took one day of practice — the first day of the first week of the season — to see it. Linebacker Khalil Mack, one of the NFL’s best players and its wealthiest defender ever, emitted an energy not seen around Halas Hall since Brian Urlacher’s retirement.
It wasn’t the kind of kinetic frenzy that fans associate with Mack on Sundays but, rather, the confidence of a man who knows just how dominant he is.
Bears coaches have seen that energy from other players at previous stops. Tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride says Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. had it. Inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires first witnessed it from Dolphins stars Zach Thomas and Hall of Famer Jason Taylor.
It oozed out of Mack. Everyone could feel it.
Four games and three victories after his arrival, the excitement about the Bears is rooted in anything but excitement.
“Calm,” outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley said, “is contagious.”
Mack could be the NFL MVP. He’s currently second in the league with five sacks and is one of 10 players with an interception return for a touchdown. He’s the first player in modern history to force a fumble in each of the first four games in a season. Thursday, he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month. That dominance is exactly what the Bears expected Sept. 1 when they gave the Raiders two first-round picks, a third-rounder and a sixth-rounder in exchange for Mack, a second-rounder and a fifth-rounder.
Mack’s attitude, though — that’s something the Bears had to discover for themselves.
“I didn’t know anything about his personality,” coach Matt Nagy said. “You just see how he comes to work every day. His days don’t change.”
The world around Mack has, however. When he flew to Chicago from New York the day of the trade, he joked that he needed to go to the store to buy underwear and socks. He since has closed on a $3.75 million house in Glencoe.
He has learned directions to the grocery store, and a new playbook, on the fly.
“I think what I’ve enjoyed most about him is this guy does not have an ounce of prima donna in his body,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He’s a joy to be around. The other players like being around him. The coaches like being around him. So, I mean, besides his talent and production, which everybody sees, he’s really a breath of fresh air to be around, too, on a daily basis.”
Mack speaks quietly, in a deep tone. He’s more likely to steer praise to his teammates than bask in his own success.
“We’re getting better every week,” Mack said. “It’s not just about me.”
He demurs when asked about his influence.
“The great thing is, it’s not just about me and my impact,” he said. “What you want to do is come in here and be a great teammate, lead by your excellence. That’s all I’ve been trying to do.”
His game-day ferocity is different from the mellowness Staley sees each day.
“Maybe,” Staley said, “he’s just saving his energy for the field.”
But that quiet confidence still finds its way to the sidelines. When the Bears gave up 14 points in the first quarter against the Cardinals, Mack gathered his teammates and told them they’d be fine. In the second half, they rattled off four straight takeaways, followed by a turnover on downs, to seal a 16-14 win.
“He has so much confidence in himself,” Staley said. “And I think that can’t help but spread to his teammates. Like, ‘Hey, this is going to turn out OK.’ ”
Guard Kyle Long describes the Bears’ defense before the season started as a fancy car with quality factory features. Adding Mack turned it into more.
“We may have had [just] a rusty spark plug,” Long said. “All we needed was that one little piece, which was Khalil Mack. . . . He was the catalyst.”
The defense, ranked third in the NFL with an average of 16.3 points allowed, has gone from a top-10 hopeful to a unit the Bears could ride to the playoffs.
“Everybody’s starting to feed off [Mack’s] energy, the play-making ability,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said last month. “I don’t know if he encourages us or he instills some type of confidence in us. Maybe it’s just witnessing greatness.”
A teammate, Amukamara said, had wondered aloud if fans see Mack the same way they do LeBron James: as the best in the world as what he does.
“I’m like ‘Dang, that’s big,’ ” Amukamara said. “I never thought about it like that.”
Defensive tackle Bilal Nichols said the Bears “always had that swagger, but once Mack came, we bumped it up a notch.” Linebacker Leonard Floyd called Mack “a leader, a great playmaker and someone who will do anything to win.” Those two have a combined four years of NFL experience. But Pires, who has coached in the NFL for 22 years, can truly appreciate how rare Mack is.
“Whenever you have a guy that has that energy, a guy that finishes plays like that . . . that just pours into everybody,” Pires said. “Coaches, too. Offensive guys, too.
“He is special. I think our guys realize that this is a special thing we’ve got. We better take advantage of this.”