By Nancy Armour |
The Chicago Bears should send Jon Gruden a gift. Maybe a fruit basket. Or dinner at his favorite Las Vegas restaurant.
Ooh, I know! They can give Gruden one of their playoff shares!
Boneheaded as Gruden’s decision was to cut Khalil Mack loose, it’s been transformative for Chicago. The Bears are headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 after winning the NFC North title Sunday, and it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be in this position if not for the Mack trade the weekend before the season began.
The Bears had a rookie head coach in Matt Nagy, and Mitchell Trubisky was beginning only his second full season as a starter since high school. Finishing around .500 would have been a monumental step forward for a team that had finished at the bottom of the NFC North the previous four seasons.
But Mack brought a swagger and an edge to the Bears, who have completed an impressive worst-to-first turnaround. With two weeks left in the season, they’ve already clinched a spot in the playoffs and still have an outside shot at a first-round bye.
Yes, the rest of the NFC North has been a colossal disappointment. But that does not take away from the Bears’ resurgence and Mack’s role in it.
“It was a great feeling. Great feeling,” said Mack, who exchanged high-fives with fans as he ran off the field following Sunday’s 24-17 win. “Pretty self-explanatory, when you think about the situation.”
Mack doesn’t say much, and the next time he talks trash or says anything that could be considered as bulletin board material will be the first. But his play and his dedication have elevated not only the defense, but everyone who wears the blue and orange. There’s something about knowing you have the best at his position — heck, the best defensive player in the NFL — that makes you hit a little harder, run a little faster, play with a little more confidence.
His attitude has rubbed off, too. Cornerback Kyle Fuller said his first thought at hearing about the Mack trade was excitement at getting to see how the linebacker worked, and he hasn’t been disappointed. Nagy said much the same.
“From the very first day that he showed up to practice, he was a complete team player. Nothing about me. All about this team. He doesn’t want any accolades, he doesn’t want any attention,” Nagy said.
“He just has a great mentality to him, and we’re very fortunate to have him,” Nagy added. “Again, that was a big part of our season, getting him at the beginning.”
Mack has been asked repeatedly to throw shade at Gruden or the Oakland Raiders brain trust, and he’s refused. Yet it isn’t lost on anyone that Mack’s 2 1/2 sacks Sunday — including the rarely seen butt sack, when he essentially pushed Aaron Rodgers into the ground with his backside — give him 12 1/2 for the season, a half sack more than the entire Raiders defense has managed.
And while Mack is on his way to the playoffs for only the second time in his career, the Raiders are the proud owners of the worst record in the NFL.
“My best-case scenario? It hasn’t happened yet,” Mack said when asked what he hoped for when he learned of the trade. “We’ve got the NFC North, we’ve got that title so far, but you want to make this push.
“You can’t really get too caught up in me saying all of that just yet,” he added, “because we’ve still got two games left that we have to win. Just getting ready for next week is my mindset.”
The NFL remains a quarterbacks’ league, what with all the rules to protect them and offensive schemes designed for them. To have someone who can make a quarterback uncomfortable, disrupt him, force him into bad decisions, can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Or a season to celebrate and one to forget.
Enjoy the playoffs, Jon Gruden. Mack and the Bears sure will.
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.