Behind Khalil Mack's Arrival With The Bears

In just a week, the Bears began understanding what makes Mack special.

Chris Emma
September 12, 2018 - 5:07 pm
Bears linebacker Khalil Mack

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

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(670 The Score) The world watched sheer dominance as Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack stepped from his stance and toward Bryan Bulaga on Sunday night, turning the Packers' tackle into a turnstile and ripping the ball away from quarterback DeShone Kizer like it was nothing.

This play itself would seem stunning if it wasn't Mack, whom the Bears recently awarded with the largest contract any defensive player has ever received. Then he came out the next defensive series and recorded a pick-six on Kizer and the Packers. 

Chicago and Oakland both wondered how this caliber of player could be moved by trade on Sept. 1, when the deal went down, and against against the Packers in primetime Sunday night. The price for the Bears was a pair of first-round picks (the Raiders are sending back a 2020 second-round pick back to the Bears) along with that record six-year, $141-million deal for Mack.

It all seemed like a steal for the Bears, especially as Mack appeared so overpowering in his debut. 

"I prepared all offseason for the first game of the season," Mack said after the 24-23 loss at Lambeau Field. "I wanted to come back and make an impact. But you want to win these games. That's the one thing on my mind. I hate losing."

What wasn't seen on a national television broadcast was the work that Mack put into his first performance with Chicago. He was dedicated throughout the offseason and maintained tremendous shape during a preseason away from the Raiders. Then came the whirlwind last week with the Bears leading up to the season opener, one that made quite the impression on his new teammates, coaches and many more at Halas Hall.

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The 27-year-old Mack had already earned himself the reputation of a humble, determined player during his time in Oakland. In Chicago, the Bears saw first-hand what makes him special off the field and how it all translates to Sundays. Newly minted to his historic contract, Mack committed himself right away to being this level of dominant in his first game with the Bears.

"He works his butt off," Bears guard Kyle Long said. "To have that work ethic coupled with his talent level, special things happen."

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On the day this stunning trade, Mack packed what he could from New York and hopped on a flight bound for Chicago. Among his first requests from the Bears was for his playbook before takeoff so he could land with the team understanding his role in this defense. 

Mack met on that Saturday night of his arrival at a hotel with coach Matt Nagy, general manager Ryan Pace, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and others with the Bears, and they all began envisioning working together. Nagy's sons couldn't wait to trade Mack to the Bears on Madden 18. 

The record deal was signed that Saturday night, and a press conference was held with Mack, Nagy and Pace the following Sunday afternoon. On hand were Mack's parents, Sandy and Yolanda, from whom his work ethic was passed down. They were smiling with Mack's every word. 

"I've always thought of myself as the best defensive player in the league and I want to play like the best defensive player in the league," Mack said in that press conference. "I want to be the best at what I do, and that's just me. That's what comes with Mack."

From there, Mack walked off the riser and out a side door to begin working. Bears outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley, now in his second year on this staff, was assigned to get Mack up to speed all week.

"He’s kind of like my after-school tutor right now," joked Mack on Wednesday, only halfway through a long week.

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Mack and Staley began their days after breakfast around 6 a.m., working individually before team and position meetings. Mack joined the team at practice, went about his routine like any other player, then went back to his tutor in Staley. They continued on until around 10 p.m. on most nights.

The challenge wasn't only getting Mack caught up with his assignments in this Bears defense -- he's much more than just a pass rusher in Fangio's schemes -- but also preparing him to face Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Mack and Staley worked in meeting rooms, broke down film, went through practices and even worked one-on-one in the Walter Payton Center to review every little detail that could make a big difference.

They were careful not to skip any steps along the way, using all the time they had for getting Mack ready to play. The attention to detail was appreciated by both Mack and Staley, each perfectionists in their own right.

Staley first learned of the trade from his wife, Amy, and then received phone calls from Nagy and Pace. He realized the great task ahead.

"There was a lot of work to be done in a short amount of time," Staley said. "As a coach, it's so exciting for a challenge like that. That was the thing for Khalil. As exciting of a time as that was for him, there was a lot to be done to play in that first game. He's such a competitor. He was going to do everything in his power to take advantage of every minute in the day to be able to perform like he did (Sunday) night.

"Not only did he have to learn our stuff, but then you have to get ready to play opponent. And so I think he felt like had to put twice as much work in. But when you're working with a guy like him, he's just so eager, so willing. It was a lot of fun.

"From the second we sat down, you knew this guy's got a lot higher standards for himself than anybody else. He takes his craft really, really seriously."

Nagy recalled on Monday of last week seeing this wide-eyed look on the face of tackle Rashaad Coward, converted to the offensive line this past offseason. He isn't the first to have that kind of reaction to Mack. The Bears were thrilled to just have him on the practice field knowing what he could do on game days.

The first rep Mack ran in practice with the Bears was everything Staley had come to know of Mack watching from the outside -- that explosion off the snap, a fight for the tackle and impact in the backfield. It all checked out to the Bears coaches, but not to Mack. He broke it down with Staley later, critiquing his first step and hand placement against the tackle.

"He knows what he's capable of," Staley said. "What makes him great is his will to get that all out of himself."

Staley understands the path that Mack has taken in his career. Mack was an under-recruited two-star linebacker to Buffalo and became the fifth overall pick to Oakland in the 2014 draft. Mack is a three-time Pro Bowl player, a two-time All-Pro and the 2016 AP Defensive Player of the Year. At 27, he arrived with the Bears during the prime of his career. To borrow the phrase from Hall of Fame writer Dan Pompei, Mack is an NFL unicorn.

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Mack spent last week living out of a hotel near the Bears' headquarters in Lake Forest. There was no time to go house hunting or even pick up the extra pair of socks he needed. Even the scheduled off time Tuesday was spent working up to speed.

As for finding a home here in the area?

"I’m trying to get on the phone with my financial advisor to see what I can afford," Mack joked with reporters two days after his arrival.

The arrival of Mack to the Bears came with the team posting digital billboards all throughout Chicago. His Bears jersey was one of the top sellers for the preseason -- in the span of just a few days. Mark Morrison's hit song "Return of the Mack" was played all over social media and even at the Bears' practice.

Behind the new Bears superstar and the kind of dominance Chicago hopes to expect is the same level of determination that got Mack to this point. He applied it during his first week of work with the team and won't stop striving for even better.

"I want to be great, I want to be great," Mack said. "I want to be known as one of the best to play the game. That's what it's all about for me, regardless of how you look at it.

"I'm going to go out and work hard and make sure I put my stamp on it."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.​