By Robert Zeglinski
Those who have seen Khalil Mack play football aren’t used to him being a non-factor. For years, when the 28-year-old buzzsaw has strapped on his pads, buckled his chinstrap, and put his hand in any rough turf, he’s delivered a one-man defensive reckoning. He’s been the subject of many an offensive coordinator and quarterback’s nightmare. He’s taken over games and manhandled 300-pound human beings as if it were they effortless endeavors, not Herculean undertakings. The contrast between Mack putting the fear of God into his opponents, or managing little more than a shoulder swipe of an impact is so vast, it jars the sensibilities of what many think they understand about football.
In the midst of a disappointing season, many have been scapegoated. In a year where the Bears have barely floated above .500, conversations have centered on Mitchell Trubisky falling into a chasm when forced to make The Leap. Matt Nagy’s coaching pedigree has been called into question, asking whether he was up to the task of capably leading 53 men with a steady hand. Various players outside of Trubisky’s sphere—Anthony Miller, Leonard Floyd, Adam Shaheen, to name a few—have been called irreparable busts, outright wastes of investments. In trying times, everyone is dragged down into a pit of invalidation, and everyone finds no lifeline to climb back out.
Whereas generally every Bears player and coach has been derided in trying times, Mack and his recent penchant for invisibility have managed to escape criticism relatively unimpeded. But his short term fall from grace is as much an emblem of Chicago’s ongoing disappointment as any other factor.
As Mack goes, the Bears follow and fall in line. If he falters, chances are, they probably will take after his example. In five of the last seven weeks, the Bears’ five most recent losses, Mack recorded but one sack and a few dozen or so tackles. Be it hazardous obstacles of routine double and triple-teams, the lack of a complementary pass rusher in Akiem Hicks’ absence to draw attention away, or a combination of serendipitous calamity on an overall regressed Bears’ defense, Mack was reduced to an afterthought; an also-ran as easily dismissed as any forgettable role player. A player routinely placed on pedestal of “generational” and “game-changing” was instead only shifting the pendulum of games by virtue of accomplishing little to nothing.
Sometimes all a person needs is a jolt of inspiration. That, or an experience against an over-matched offense and a quarterback who wants nothing to do with their presence alone.
On Sunday against the Giants, the Bears saw the Mack of old. The same traffic cones of offensive linemen that were previously miring Mack in the muck of the same commute every nine to five-er experiences during the week, were reduced to turnstiles. Rookie Daniel Jones could not channel the same quarterbacks who eluded Mack’s monstrous wing-span or rid themselves of the football before he had the opportunity to touch them. If there was a place for rookies to have a late “Welcome to the NFL moment,” Jones had his come in late November against Mack.
He didn’t have a choice in the matter. Most never do when Mack is involved.
The sequence that has defined Mack’s career happened in a flash. As the Bears wafted away in the wind of another disappointing first-half effort, the perennial All-Pro decided to impose his will. After a field goal had given Chicago a tenuous 13-7 lead, Mack fought his away across the face of the New York offensive front to swat the ball out of Jones’s hands. The Bears would recover near the goal line; not without a fervent reaction from both the Soldier Field crowd and a sideline of teammates that had been patient in waiting to see Mack do his thing once more.
There were various other occasions where Mack found himself playing pinball with the Giants’ offensive line as his presence was felt and amplified. But none stick out more than a demoralizing strip-sack. None ever could exemplify Mack at the top of his game in a more accurate fashion. It’s his calling card, and foreshadowing of what might be on the horizon.
“You felt ‘52’ everywhere today,” Matt Nagy said. “You really did. He was everywhere. When we have that, you can feel our game really elevate, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Some athletes’ reputations precede them. Their persona establishes an expectation of consistent greatness, and bewilderment when that baseline isn’t reached. They walk on hallowed, soft ground by virtue of their mere existence. Rarely do they trip in a crack in the sidewalk or lose their balance. They’re more deity than human. They’re not allowed to fail. They’re not supposed to. When a reputation is so formidably compact and fortified: the benefit of the doubt is filtered through on instinct, and surrendered just as quickly.
The Bears’ playoff hopes are faint, almost non-existent. But they have a pulse. If Mack has again found his groove, if he’s started to play like people expect Khalil Mack to play, they’ll always have a pulse. Such is the power of someone who has had enough.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.