It may be sweet coincidence, right? We’ve seen new political momentum that has some influential NFL people hoping the Raiders stay in Oakland, just as we’ve seen an approval wave that finds general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach Jack Del Rio nominated for year-end honors. Maybe those developments have absolutely nothing to do with the recent Khalil Mack Takeover.
Or, maybe the Mack Attack actually is the breakthrough siren. Maybe his five-sack coronation last Sunday is the symbol of this organizational U-turn, the exclamation point for a franchise finally respectable after 13 years of misadventures, bad coaches, awful quarterbacks and chronic losing. To see him bullrush blockers and abuse enemy passers is to see a force who might rule the league for years, giving the Raiders a defensive monster to accompany the offensive starpower led by Derek Carr.
His emergence is saddening in a sense: The Bay Area’s loss would be Southern California’s gain, giving Los Angeles an immediate superstar to electrify the market for the next decade. But wherever the Raiders end up as a home base, they’ll be worth finding on the TV remote or streaming networks if Mack is as lethal as he has been in his second season. He has nine sacks in the last three games, a league-leading 14 for the year and a total of 52 quarterback knockdowns and hurries, placing him among the pass-rushing elite while alerting J.J. Watt that he now has competition as football’s premier defensive player.
“You’re just seeing flashes of what he’s going to be,” said the Raiders’ Hall of Fame-bound safety, Charles Woodson. “The sky’s the limit to what he’s going to be able to accomplish in this league. He has the ability to go around guys or go through them. He’s really just figuring out he can do that pretty much at his will. That’s bad for opposing offensive lines.”
Studying closely as Mack develops, Woodson has flashbacks to an all-time great. “The way he can get around the corner and bend and get low to the ground, it does kind of reminds you of Derrick Thomas,” he said. “I remember playing Derrick Thomas my first game in the NFL against the Chiefs and he had six sacks against us. Khalil reminds me of that.”
Not that you’re going to hear such superlatives from Mack. As the son of a church deacon, he was taught during his Florida upbringing not to brag while letting his life’s work stand on its own merits. His early body of achievement is vocalizling loudly and clearly while he speaks humbly, the latest in a procession of local sports stars — Steph Curry, Buster Posey — who take pride in being unassuming.
“Hard work pays off,” Mack said. “You go out and you work on your craft every day and every week, so when you see it working on the stat sheet, it’s pretty cool to see.
“I’m trying to get better every week. What you see statistically, it doesn’t really determine whether you [are] better or not, but at the same time, I’m going to keep working to get better.”
Today at the Coliseum, in what could be the Raiders’ next-to-last home game in Oakland, Mack aims to harass and conquer Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. What’s especially impressive about his sack binge is that it has come without two linemates: Aldon Smith, who was suspended by the NFL last month for a full calendar year, and veteran Justin Tuck, who suffered a season-ending pectoral injury. In Smith’s absence, Mack has had the nine sacks, 29 tackles, a forced fumble, a safety and four haul-downs behind the line of scrimmage. True, he has been helped by the improvement of young ends Denico Autry and Mario Edwards Jr., but they’ve also been helped by being in his presence.
Clearly, Mack is on an earnest mission to fufill promise first exhibited at the University of Buffalo, where he wound up after being ignored by every major college program. As a high school sophomore whose favored sport was basketball, he suffered a torn patella tendon and was recruited to play football only by Liberty University, whose coach took a job at Buffalo and invited Mack to join him. He wore No. 46 there — his lowly video-game rating as a freshman — but it wasn’t long before images of his size, speed and dominance jumped off NFL computer screens.
Jadeveon Clowney was supposed to be the prized pass-rusher of the 2014 draft. But only last Sunday night, when he sacked Tom Brady twice, did Clowney begin to show his potential. Mack was a better run-defender last season than a sack artist, but now he’s the complete package, on par with Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald as the best picks of that draft. Days later, Planet Football is still raving about last Sunday, when Mack may have singlehandedly knocked Denver out of a first-round postseason bye and refocused the Broncos’ quarterback drama to whether Peyton Manning should be starting and not Brock Osweiler. He just may have jolted football history.
“This is what he’s supposed to do, and now Khalil has set the bar high,” Raiders nose tackle Dan Williams said. “If he gets anything less than five sacks, he’s going to hear from me.”
“I know Khalil’s a beast and he’s going to make it happen,” receiver Seth Roberts said. “Not one guy can guard him, not two guys can guard him, you have to triple-team him, and he’ll probably get through that too.”
“That guy is an animal,” Denver’s Brandon Marshall said.
“He was unbelievable,” Del Rio said. “He’s just getting better and better, and he’s a great young man.”
The Packers are equally impressed. “I think he has everything, to be honest with you,” guard Bryan Bulaga said. “He’s a strong dude. You have to be ready because he’s got good speed as well.”
“He just keeps coming,” Rodgers said.
The last Raiders defensive end to elicit so much worship was Howie Long. Now a Fox studio analyst, Long is as blown away by Mack as anyone. “He’s an elevator player,” he said. “His elevator is on the second floor and it’s a six-story building. People talk about the nuance of the quarterback position. It’s just as nuanced in terms of being a great pass-rusher, and I think that elevator has another three, four floors to go. It’s an exciting prospect to watch that happen.”
If the Raiders carry on to a prosperous period, we’ll remember the 2014 draft of the once-embattled McKenzie as the difference-maker. Carr was selected one round after Mack, who went No. 5 in the first round, and they’ve been close friends since. “I remember a couple weeks ago in practice, I looked at him — and we always are hard on each other — so I said it jokingly,” Carr recalled. “I looked at him and said, ‘Hey, I guarantee you don’t get a sack this period.’
“And the next pass rush I saw was unbelievable. I won’t go into details of what happened, but what he did was just unreal. Everyone knows he has it in him.”
What we want to know now is how far he takes it.
To Canton, perhaps.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.