It started with a bang.
Seven days after joining the Bears in a whirlwind trade with the Raiders and signing the richest contract for a defensive player in NFL history, Khalil Mack seemed to give a starving franchise everything it could have hoped for. In one half.
Despite not participating in training camp or playing a snap in the preseason with the Raiders, Mack’s impact in the season opener against the Packers was as stunning as it was thrilling — a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery and an interception of backup quarterback DeShone Kizer and 27-yard return for a touchdown that gave the Bears a 17-0 lead in the first half.
The game, as it turned out, was too good to be true. But Mack was the real deal. The three-time Pro Bowl linebacker, two-time All-Pro and 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year has lifted the Bears’ defense to another level. In nine games at full strength, Mack has 10 sacks, six forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, eight tackles for loss and four pass breakups.
Mack has given the Bears exactly what they were missing as a top-10 defense with little bite and no Pro Bowl players last season — a playmaker who can strike at any time, creates opportunities for teammates and makes everybody else’s job a little easier. With Mack around, Leonard Floyd is a valuable, increasingly effective third or fourth banana instead of a disappointing big wheel with two sacks. It’s a lot easier to appreciate all the little things Floyd is doing in recent games with Mack making big plays or creating them for other playmakers.
But Mack’s on-the-field impact only tells part of the story. He’s even more impressive up close than he was from afar — like Julius Peppers with the Bears and Marian Hossa with the Blackhawks. In the vein of those Hall of Fame players, Mack has raised the bar for every player on the Bears’ defense by being even better than they thought.
“His style of play, his work ethic and even his presence,” second-year safety Eddie Jackson said. “You heard about him — he’s a three-time Pro Bowl, All-Pro guy — when you got a guy like that on your team, it just makes you want to level up. Now you know you gotta step it up, you gotta work harder, you gotta show this guy that, ‘Man, you’re not here to do it by yourself.’
“And I felt like that’s one thing he did — he made everyone around him play even better, go to another level that some people feel we didn’t have. We appreciate him for it.”
Unassuming to a fault, Mack is uncomfortable with a front-and-center spotlight role as the best player on a storied franchise.
“That’s credit that I don’t want and I’m not about to take,” he said when asked about taking the defense to another level. “I wanted to lead by example. If I’ve done that . . . it is what it is. I’m not going to say it.
“It’s not about just me. And that’s one of the things I’ve kind of hoped has been rubbing off — that’s it not about you. It’s not about one individual person. It’s about the team collectively and everybody going out and trying to get these wins.”
To that point, Mack and his teammates seem to realize they all are at the right place at the right time. It’s a lot tougher for opponents to do to the Bears what the Bears did to Aaron Donald last week — stop the best player and force someone else to beat you. But it starts at the top.
“There’s still work to be done,” Mack said. “[Shoot], there’s a lot more games left — hopefully. And that’s what we’re looking forward to.”