ROSEMONT, Ill. — The seeds of the stunning Khalil Mack trade were planted last summer. As the star pass rusher skipped mandatory minicamp in June and appeared ready to hold out of training camp, general managers around the league took notice.
One of those GMs was Ryan Pace, who started asking his top personnel men around Halas Hall what they thought about Mack. By the time the Chicago Bears reported to training camp in July, it was a legitimate conversation inside the front office.
“I would say as soon as we got to Bourbonnais we started loosely talking about it,” Bears director of player personnel Josh Lucas said during a panel at the Bears 100 Celebration Sunday. “I think we knew some stuff from a financial perspective that Oakland was going through where it may be realistic that they could trade this guy.”
Still, Lucas shared the opinion of many others around the league who pondered the idea of the Raiders trading a then 27-year-old premiere pass rusher in his prime.
“I think all of us were like, ‘What are we doing? They’re not going to trade this guy.'”
Persistence over resistance
Football people tend have many sayings and mottos they operate by, and “persistence over resistance” is one of the many messages preached by Pace and head coach Matt Nagy inside Halas Hall. When it came to a potential Mack trade — however unlikely it appeared to be — that was the approach they took.
Pace kept calling then Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie. Nagy kept calling Raiders head coach Jon Gruden.
“They just kept the dialogue open,” Lucas said. “And it was just kind of a topic all through camp, but I think for the most part, we were like, OK it’s fun to talk about, but we really need to focus on what we got here right now.”
That changed on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018.
The Bears were getting ready to host the Buffalo Bills in their final preseason game. About 50 minutes before kickoff, Lucas made his way up to the Bears’ operations box at Soldier Field that he shares with Pace, assistant director of player personnel Champ Kelly, director of football administration Joey Laine and director of college scouting Mark Sadowski. Lucas is usually the last to arrive, so he was expecting the box to be full. It wasn’t.
“No one was in the box,” Lucas said. “I immediately was like, ‘Something is going down.’ And I knew as soon as Ryan and Joey came up, you could tell, they were talking and talking and it was like, ‘Whoa, this is going down.”
The Raiders had just informed the Bears to prepare their “best offer” for Mack and submit it Friday. Oakland was going to come to a decision by Friday night.
“You got to remember, that Friday is final cuts, which is an extremely hectic, chaotic time as it is, because we are scouring — 31 teams are cutting 37 guys — and that’s all we do is scour those lists to see if any of those guys can potentially improve our 53-man roster,” Lucas said. “So Champ, myself, our pro department, we’re running around all day that day getting ready for everything that is about to happen. Joey, Ryan and Matt never came out of Ryan’s office. Not once. So we knew we were in it. It was just going to all come down to who the Raiders selected — who the Raiders wanted to trade him to.”
The Bears had a couple of advantages. For one, the Raiders didn’t want to trade Mack to an AFC team. Second, the Raiders throughly underestimated the kind of season the Bears were about to have with Mack added to the team.
“I don’t think the Raiders thought we were going to be any good last year so they wanted our first round pick,” Lucas said. “I think that played a part of it.”
The “fax” came in around 6 or 7 p.m. on Friday. It’s actually an e-mail, but the Bears’ front office still refers the official trade transmission as a fax. Essentially, the fax said the Raiders had agreed to trade Mack to Chicago and the Bears had 24 hours to get a contract done with the pass rusher.
It took about three.
Six years. $141 million. $90 million guaranteed. Mack immediately became the highest paid defensive player in NFL history. And the Bears had pulled off a stunning, unlikely trade that changed the league’s landscape in 2018.
“There wasn’t (room for error),” Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips said during the Bears 100 Celebration Sunday. “But Ryan did a great job of being prepared, being transparent. We talked through why this guy was a difference maker and that night when it was done, I had about 140 million reasons in my head of like, oh my god, what are we doing this for? But you know what? What a decision.”
It certainly wasn’t an impulse buy. Pace had done months of homework on Mack. He first asked Champ Kelly about Mack before training camp had even started. Kelly used to scout for the Broncos, who play in the AFC West with the Raiders. Nagy was the Chiefs offensive coordinator, forced to game plan for Mack twice a year as well. And throughout the process, Pace kept Phillips and Bears chairman George McCaskey up to speed on the negotiations, knowing that in the end, he was going to need a fat check to be written out.
“We can make decisions, but you also have to be able to have the OK from management and from ownership to say, ‘You know, you have our backing. You have our support.’ And we had that,” Nagy said Sunday. “Not every city and not every organization will give that to their head coach and general manager. We have that here so I think we all have to understand that.”
Because the trade didn’t go public until Saturday morning, Bears executives were still battling some disbelief as they celebrated the stunning acquisition Friday night.
“I remember driving home that night,” Pace said. “We knew it was done and going to bed that night, it was late, and thinking, ‘I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and this thing is going to be huge.’”
“Let me just cut in real quick. He was jamming the whole way home to “Return of the Mack.”
When Pace got home, his wife, Stephanie, was still awake and sitting on the couch.
“I walk in and it was late and she’s goes, ‘How was your day?’ And I said, ‘It was good. We got Khalil Mack.’”
Getting some sleep was the next challenge.
“Speaking for myself, I know I slept really well that night,” Lucas said.
That wasn’t the case for Pace though.
“I didn’t sleep. There was so much build up to that and so much collaboration and so many hurdles we overcame along the way,” the GM said. “But still, when it’s about to happen, I mean we’re all human. You’re a little nervous, you’re a little tense about it. But obviously it’s been outstanding.”
There was one thing Pace forgot to do that night though: inform his college scouting director that he had just traded two first round picks and a future third and sixth rounder for Mack. That weekend was the first weekend of the college football season and Sadowski was out scouting. He knew about the negotiations, but didn’t know the trade had been completed until Saturday morning.
“I haven’t stopped smiling since,” Sadowski said. “From a college perspective, there were some really good college players that we could have gotten in the first round, but nobody as great as him. So, to give up those picks, to me, it’s a no brainer. I might have given up one more.”
Mack essentially had one week to move to a new city, learn a new defense and play in an actual NFL game against the Packers at Lambeau Field. No training camp, no preseason. It didn’t matter.
One sack. One forced fumble. One interception. One touchdown. Considering the circumstances, it was one of the most memorable individual performances in the 100 years of Chicago Bears history.
For most, that was the night they realized the impact Mack was about to have on the franchise. For those inside the organization, however, they had already experienced that moment six days earlier during Mack’s first practice.
“His first day of practice, he comes out, he wins the first one-on-one so impressively that people stopped to see what was going on,” Kelly explained. “The next rep, I think it was Aaron Lynch, and he gets stopped and he’s kind of jogging back and Khalil said, ‘No bro, you gotta run.’ Lynch runs.”
This was a brand new player showing up six days before the team’s first game and immediately letting his new teammates know that there was a new expectation for how to practice.
“He’s that type of tone setter and so I think you add a guy like that, it adds to the collective belief that we are for real and we are going after championships,” Kelly said.
Anyone who studied the 2018 Bears defense understands Mack’s impact. It was a good defense without him. It was an elite defense with him.
“You know, after this year and a year down the road when the Raiders end up exercising the picks that they got from us, I’m sure the media will put up (the trade comparison), but you can’t ever measure that trade without being able to really establish a value for how much he makes every single guy on that defense better and you saw it right away,” Lucas said. “The confidence he helped instill in some of our young players and that’s going to continue to build as he’s a Bear and he’s here for longer. We like to use the term ‘multiplier,’ so you get him, you get his ability, you get his sack production, but he multiplies throughout the locker room and making guys better.”
Even now, over nine months since the trade was completed, Pace his staff still talk about the trade with a trickle of disbelief. Not only has Mack given them the production they were seeking, he has blown away their expectations when it comes to the overall impact the still-only-28-year-old has had inside Halas Hall.
“You know the type of player he is,” Pace said. “He’s young. He plays a premier position. But when you’re talking about his makeup and his work ethic and all those things that he embodies, that’s even exceeded expectations for us. I mean, he’s the hardest worker on our team, you see it in the weight room, you see it every single day. So when our players are watching Khalil Mack, arguably the best defensive player in the NFL, work like that, it trickles down to our entire roster. So he’s definitely been a multiplier and even exceeded expectations on that level, which has been awesome.”
And yet, now that Mack is actually going through a full offseason with the Bears and fully understands the defense he’s playing in, it’s fair to expect even more in 2019. Especially since everyone inside Halas Hall believes a Super Bowl is in reach.
“You can see what’s special about what’s about to happen,” Lucas said. “And I think, really, when we look back on it , the genesis will be when we traded for Khalil.”