The sack that I hope the NFL’s MVP voters reflect on before they decide whether or not to select Khalil Mack as the 2018 league MVP was not a Khalil Mack sack.
The sack was a Leonard Floyd sack, and it came on 2nd and goal against the Packers on Sunday, with 24 seconds remaining and Aaron Rodgers shooting for the desperate touchdown-onside kick-field goal sequence to tie the game and stop the Bears from clinching the North.
Mack rushed full bore on the right side of the Packers line, getting outside and upfield of both Green Bay linemen tasked with blocking him. As he neared Rodgers, who was looking left, he ducked under right tackle Jason Spriggs and kept the clock ticking on 12...
...and while all this was happening on the right side of the protection, Leonard Floyd was on the left side hanging back, looking for the pass, staying in front of left tackle David Bakhtiari and shooting his 33 1/8-inch arms into Rodgers’ field-of-vision.
Finally, with Mack about to clear Spriggs and Eddie Goldman up the gut as well, Rodgers spun to his left. That move freed Floyd, who took one large step past Bakhtiari and reached his right arm out, catching Rodgers likely by surprise. Floyd closed on Rodgers with his left hand, wound his own body like a top and uncorked a spinning, heaving sack, tossing Rodgers to the grass one split-second before Mack arrived.
Floyd’s momentum then carried him further upfield, and he let loose a cheer and did the Rodgers insurance belt celebration. Mack celebrated too, with a confident fist pump. It was Floyd’s play but it said everything you need to know about Mack’s impact on the Bears this year. It was the rush and the cheer, the pre-sack impact and the post-sack celebration, what he does for teammates on individual plays and what he has done for them broadly all season long.
It was, in all its punctuated glory, the reason why Khalil Mack should be the 2018 NFL MVP.
This kind of play is what I meant in September about Khalil Mack changing the equation for other Bears.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) December 20, 2018
1. Tactically, Mack occupies so much GB attention that the other side of the field breaks down and opens for Floyd.
2. Psychologically, Mack is pushing Floyd to new levels. pic.twitter.com/qm0ZXuC5NE
The debate around the 2018 NFL MVP award — specifically, the Associated Press NFL MVP — is hinging on the usual suspects, or more broadly the usual position: quarterback. Patrick Mahomes is the frontrunner. Drew Brees is right behind him. Tom Brady, Jared Goff and Philip Rivers are all getting looks, with Rivers’ stock on the rise.
There are also folks in favor of Todd Gurley. I suppose Alvin Kamara will garner some attention. Kareem Hunt would be in the mix if he were still in the league. But those are also the usual suspects, because they are running backs.
Quarterbacks and running backs. In a sport of 53 players with 22 men on the field, a sport where, as Olin Kreutz says, “Eleven guys have to dance together,” a sport allegedly comprising three equal “phases” — well, in that sport, either a quarterback or running back has been named league MVP every year going back to 1987. That’s 31 straight MVPs given to two positions.
Prior to ‘86, with the exception of the 9-game season in 1982, we saw QBs and RBs win 13 straight MVPs. That’s all quarterbacks and running backs winning MVP in anything approaching a full season from 1972 to 2017.
The one outlier was a havoc-wreaking edge-rushing linebacker who led the league in 1986 with 20.5 sacks. You might have heard of him.
“Wait a minute, we’re talking about Lawrence Taylor now,” Bill Belichick said earlier this year when asked to compare Mack, his upcoming opponent, to Taylor, his former defensive star. “I’m not putting anybody in Lawrence Taylor’s class. Put everybody down below that. With a lot of respect to a lot of good players, we’re talking about Lawrence Taylor.”
That was fair. Taylor was the first person to win Defensive Player of the Year in consecutive seasons, the first to win it twice, the first to win it three times, was the best player on two Super Bowl champions and was a first ballot Hall of Famer. Whether discussing Taylor’s peak or his career vs. Mack at this point, putting Mack and all others a notch below arguably the greatest defensive player in the game’s history is a reasonable assessment.
But many defenders since Taylor have transcended defense and flourished as unstoppable (or nearly unstoppable) destructive forces around which a champion was built, from Deion Sanders to Reggie White to Ray Lewis, along with players like Brian Urlacher, Ed Reed and of course J.J. Watt who had some combination of dominance and team greatness as to at some point warrant MVP consideration.
Aaron Donald is someone who should be in that discussion, but for my money, I’m taking Mack. We know the defensive credentials. He is tied for the league-lead with six forced fumbles and is sixth in sacks with 12.5 despite missing two games to injury. Of the three players with six forced fumbles, he is the only one who also has either an interception, defensive touchdown or recovered fumble, and he has all three.
In short, you can’t stop Mack without holding him, as this photo gallery from Lester reveals:
Yet that is all about the personal achievement. For MVP conversation, a player must help the rest of the team, both in production and intangibles. Mack has done that, helping launch a boom in production from the rest of the Bears defenders. Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson are going to the Pro Bowl, and all three of Mack’s fellow linebackers are Pro Bowl alternates.
They’ve played great, obviously, but Mack enhances them. He is the best player on a defense with the following NFL rankings:
- Takeaways: 1st
- Defensive TDs: 1st
- Interceptions: 1st
- Passes defensed: 1st
- 1st downs allowed: 1st
- Rushing TDs allowed: 1st
- Rushing yards allowed: 2nd
- Points allowed: 3rd
- Yards allowed: 3rd
- Sacks: 4th
- Passing yards allowed: 10th
The Bears were a top-10 defense last year, which sounds great until you remember that there are 32 teams in the NFL, placing us just in the top 3rd. The 2017 Bears were never called “the best defense in the NFL,” and I don’t believe we would have reached that perch this year without Mack.
Vegas agrees with me. The Bears shot from 100-1 odds to win Super Bowl LIII prior to the Mack trade on Sept. 1, all the way to 40-1 after it.
We are now tied for 6th at 14-1.
That steep incline is not solely attributable to Mack, of course — this is after all a team game. But he’s played the biggest role in that rise of any individual player, and I believe the difference he has made on the Bears is greater than the difference Mahomes, Brees, Rivers, Gurley, Donald or anyone else has made on their respective teams.
This is not just about a guy lifting a team from bad to middle. This is about lifting them from middle to great. The Bears are a legitimate Super Bowl contender, right now, in 2018, a status we would not have reached this year without #52’s arrival.
Which brings us to another part of the MVP argument: pressure.
Pat Mahomes is playing lights-out football, but the pressure on him to do so at the start of the season was miniscule compared to what Mack faced. The 2016 Defensive Player of the Year was rumored to be traded to one team, and instead was traded to their rivals one week before the two teams played. He had to step on that field in Week 1 without the conditioning advantage of training camp or preseason and perform at a level befitting the highest paid defensive player in the NFL.
In just one half, Mack delivered a sack, pick-six and forced fumble. This was a stat line that no other Bear had done in a game since 1950, and that only seven Bears had ever done in one entire SEASON.
Maximum pressure. Maximum expectations. And a performance that wiped away the former and exceeded the latter.
Defensive Player of the Year honors production. MVP assumes production and honors intangibles. MVP is not only about what you bring to a scheme but what you bring to a TEAM. It’s not only about what you do but about what your teammates do because of you. It’s not only about how you affect your side of the ball but how you affect your teammates on the other side of the ball. It’s not only about how you make your teammates and coaches feel but about how you make your fanbase feel.
It’s the total package. Mack fulfills it.
Some seasons are surprising at the time yet still surprising in retrospect — 2001, for instance. This season is surprising only from the vantage point of August 30, 2018. Looking at it now, it all makes sense. Everything fits. There is nothing flukey about the 2018 Bears. We are a Super Bowl contender. Not next year. Now. It’s no surprise. It’s what MVPs do.
Jack M Silverstein is Windy City Gridiron’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” He is the proprietor of Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.