LAKE FOREST, Ill. — He’s barely noticed after slipping through the doors: a quiet presence surrounded by noise, a figure so easy to ignore — on a weekday afternoon, that is — that lounging teammates barely look up.
Khalil Mack enters the locker room with his Chicago Bears hat pulled to his eyes and a large shirt hiding his chiseled frame. A few minutes from now, reporters will push their microphones closer as Mack answers questions with a voice so soft it’s nearly inaudible.
“One of the best feelings,” is how the 27-year-old describes the sensation of sacking an NFL quarterback, something he has done 42 ½ times in his four-plus NFL seasons, and in this environment, that’s about as colorful as Mack gets.
How can someone so soft-spoken and unassuming be so disruptive? How can a man so friendly and approachable be so feared, not just getting inside the minds of quarterbacks, but stripping them of their dignity and, often, the ball?
Mack is entirely contradictory, and perhaps it’s fitting that he has been at the center of one of this young NFL season’s most puzzling situations. Earlier this month, the Oakland Raiders and first-year Coach Jon Gruden refused to end Mack’s training camp holdout by signing him to a long-term contract extension. Instead, they opted for something rare and bewildering: Oakland traded Mack — the NFL’s most elite defender, in the prime of his career, at the game’s second-most important position — and with it invigorated the Bears, upended the NFC North, compelled questions about whether a decade in the ESPN broadcast booth had eroded Gruden’s instincts.
“It’s hard to find a good” pass rusher, Gruden explained to reporters this week, and whether he was being bizarrely playful or naively serious, he’s right. It’s also why franchises hardly ever trade players like Mack.
It’s a hard thing to make sense of, and without even suiting up, the Mack trade caused a ripple: Over about 36 hours, the Raiders got weaker, the Bears became nationally relevant after four consecutive seasons of double-digit losses, and Mack signed a new deal with Chicago — six years, $141 million overall and $90 million in guarantees — that makes him the highest-paid defender to ever play the game.
“I don’t know what they were thinking,” Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan said of the Raiders, “but I’m glad we’ve got him on our side.”
Trevathan, who won a Super Bowl in Denver following the 2015 season, said a player such as Mack can lift a defense, a franchise, maybe even an entire city. Kyle Long, an offensive lineman who in five seasons with the Bears has never played for a winning team, compared the overnight change in expectations to when LeBron James returned to Cleveland in 2014.
“Now, I haven’t seen Khalil’s jump shot, but I’ll compare his talent,” Long said, speaking over a pair of noisy teammates shooting baskets in the locker room. “It’s undeniable.”
But maybe as confounding as Oakland’s decision to part ways with Mack is how, considering the contradictions, he wound up in the NFL at all. It was only “by the grace of God,” his high school coach said in a 2016 interview with The Washington Post.
By the way, his jump shot was, years ago at his high school in Florida, pretty impressive. Then he hurt his knee, gave in to football coaches’ overtures and joined the team for the first time as a senior. Everyone marveled at his size and speed, but none guessed he’d become one of the sport’s greats.
He was so awkward, so undersized, so in-between defensive positions — even now, at 6-feet-3 and 252 pounds, he looks big for a linebacker and small for a defensive end — that only tiny Liberty University recruited him. Then-Flames Coach Turner Gill left Lynchburg for the University of Buffalo, and even though Mack was low on the priorities list, Gill offered the plucky kid a scholarship because, hey, it was Buffalo, and what is there to lose? Mack would wear No. 46 on his jersey because that was how a video game rated his skills: 46 out of a possible 100.
Mack studied, experimented, got bigger, grew his determination, feasted on Mid-American Conference passers, said almost nothing, kept working, became a starter, became a leader, became a beast. By the 2014 draft, there was nothing paltry about his ratings or his upside: Mack was projected by Mel Kiper to go as high as No. 2 overall, behind only Jadeveon Clowney, seen then as a once-in-a-generation pass rusher but who has never reached Mack’s level as a pro.
Reggie McKenzie, the Raiders’ general manager and a man who began lifting his own franchise from the pits of irrelevance, made up his mind on Mack the first time he watched his highlights from Buffalo.
“It was easy for me, to be honest with you,” McKenzie said in an interview with The Post before the 2017 season. “Everything wasn’t just positive, but through the roof.”
Mack never forgot the feeling of being passed over, so even with an NFL paycheck he’d study game tape, looking for ways to gain an advantage. “They’re gonna boot to our left,” Mack explained in an interview with The Post last year as he watched a play from 2016.
He could push through extreme fatigue by relying on creativity rather than pure athleticism, overpowering blockers or outfoxing them based on the situation. He’d notice trends, borrow moves from other players, and become famous for targeting the ball — he has 11 forced fumbles in 66 NFL games — instead of just the ball carrier.
Long before McKenzie’s team gave up on Mack, he loved most everything about him. The defender was, McKenzie said nearly 14 months ago, “the exact type of person that I want. He’s exactly what I’m looking for.”
He is the kind of player you build a franchise around. And if the Raiders’ attitude changed so significantly over the last few months — Gruden rejoined the franchise this year, and reports since the Mack trade have indicated McKenzie’s time with the team could soon end — so have a few other things, including the expectations for two of the NFL’s most iconic franchises and their fan bases.
Matt Nagy, the Bears’ first-year head coach, said the team was focused on reaching the Super Bowl before Chicago outmaneuvered Mack’s other suitors — McKenzie has said “more than half the league” inquired about a trade — and that much hasn’t changed.
But that ambition, the notion of which might have seemed absurd a month ago, now at least seems plausible in time. A week before the regular season began, the online sports betting site Bovada listed Chicago as an 80-to-1 shot to win this season’s Super Bowl. Following the trade and Mack’s devastating performances against Green Bay and Seattle — combining for two sacks, a pair of forced fumbles and a nationally televised pick-six — the Bears’ odds improved to 33-to-1. The Raiders’ odds, of course, have plummeted.
Simple cause and effect, caused by the seismic movements of a single player, altering not just the outlook of a locker room and franchise, but of a metropolitan area that hasn’t thought realistically about a Super Bowl in a decade.
“We want to win for the city of Chicago,” Trevathan said. “A big city like this? We haven’t won in so long.”
Bears officials, meanwhile, are trying to tamp down their public enthusiasm after sending two first-round draft picks and two later-round selections to Oakland. At Mack’s introductory news conference earlier this month, Nagy and General Manager Ryan Pace were unconvincing in their attempts to hide their giddiness.
“This doesn’t come around that often,” Pace told reporters then. “So when it does come around, I’m just proud that I work for an organization that’s willing to be aggressive in these times.”
Mack, his voice soft as always following the gathering of reporters at his locker, admitted being surprised Sept 1. when his phone rang and agent Joel Segal told him his holdout was over — but that he’d be moving to Chicago.
“It’s a business, you know?” Mack said. “I’m not surprised by much in this league. You see and hear all kinds of stuff, you never know what can happen.”
Almost immediately, the Bears responded by selling navy blue and burnt orange Mack jerseys and T-shirts that read “Midway Mack” in block letters. Up went digital billboards near Chicago’s highways, welcoming the league’s most fearsome pass rusher to town. Out went texts from the player’s new teammates, realizing the Bears hadn’t only acquired a star pass rusher.
They had, for the first time in years, traded for hope — that by the end of the season, there were new possibilities. If the Super Bowl remains a bit ambitious, maybe a run at division heavyweights Green Bay and Minnesota isn’t? If nothing else, players in Khalil Mack’s immediate vicinity are wondering aloud if one defender, mighty as he is, can end Chicago’s four-year streak of finishing last in the NFC North.
“It’s up for grabs now,” Trevathan said, “and we’re looking forward to grabbing it.”