Your mama never told you, but there is more than one way to watch a football game.
By far the most common method is an unfocused view that allows your eye to gravitate toward the ball. You’re watching a team play and judging it by the result of each play.
There is another method usually reserved for a second viewing—like replays and breakdowns. You’re watching just a few key players and their impact on any given play.
Watch the 0-7 Oakland Raiders with the first method, and you’re going to be disappointed the vast majority of the time. Focus your attention on rookie outside linebacker Khalil Mack, and the viewing experience changes for the better.
In nine out of the last 11 years, there was little reason to watch the lowly Raiders other than to accumulate points on an imaginary fan loyalty card. Mack has given fans a reason to watch the Raiders and dream of better days in the hopefully not-so-distant future.
It’s been a long time since the Raiders had a defender considered one of the best at his position and even longer since they had an impact rookie on defense. To find an impact rookie in Oakland like Mack, you have to go back to 1998 when then-cornerback, now-safety Charles Woodson intercepted five passes, forced two fumbles and won Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Simply by looking at the stat sheet, it would appear that Mack isn’t playing up to the hype. He has no sacks, no forced fumbles and just one batted pass. Mack leads the team with 35 solo tackles, but everyone knows that tackle statistics are overrated because manipulation is so common.
Dive a little deeper in the statistics and Mack looks better. According to TeamRankings.com, Mack has 10 tackles for a loss. That’s as many as Von Miller, Justin Houston and J.J. Watt, and second only to Lavonte David. That’s not that surprising considering Mack tied Jason Babin’s NCAA record for tackles for a loss in his final season at Buffalo.
|Player||TFL||PFF Grade||PFF Pass Rush Productivity|
Mack is the top-graded 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—in large part due to his work against the run. Mack also has five quarterback hits and 17 hurries. When weighted by Pro Football Focus for type and snaps, Mack’s pass-rush productivity is superior to Clay Matthews, Tamba Hali and Terrell Suggs'.
"He jumps off the film," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said, via Josh Dubow of The Associate Press. "He's almost unblockable and he's got a great motor. He's fast, he's tough, he's instinctive. We think he's an obvious factor."
Teams have doubled Mack, held him, chipped him with tight ends and running backs—and it hasn’t mattered. He’s been one of the lone bright spots during a dark season in Oakland. His play may ultimately save a few jobs in Oakland by the end of the season.
Mack “gained the respect of everybody on our team,” Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer said after the Browns' Week 8 win against the Raiders, via Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle. “That guy is one of the best players we’ve gone against this year, and that’s a unanimous decision in that locker room.”
What that respect amounts to is a fun player to watch. If it were possible to watch Mack play and just ignore the rest of the defense, then Oakland’s defense would be among the more watchable in the game. That’s impossible to do live, but after the fact, we can focus in on just Mack’s play.
Check out Mack here in the first quarter against the Browns last week. Note that Mack has pushed the tight end three yards backward and shed his block before the running back arrives. The result was a tackle for a loss for Mack.
Mack used his arms to stay disengaged from the blocker while driving him back before shedding the block and making the tackle. Great play, but take note of the order.
He did the same thing in the third quarter. He pushed the tight end back, shed the blocker and made the tackle. No team in its right mind is going to leave tight ends on an island with Mack after what he did Sunday to the Browns.
“When he goes fast, when he starts fast on the line of scrimmage, leads with his hands, as powerful as the young man is, he can really knock people around and he’s improved and improved and improved,” defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said Thursday, via Raiders.com. “He’s not letting formations mess with him anymore."
In this example, Mack switched it up based on the formation. Mack shed the block first, crashed down, used his hands to stay clean when another blocker got in the way, kept his eyes up and wrapped up the running back for a loss. It was the opposite order, but the same result.
Mack is making an impact and changing games, but he’s yet to make the game-changing play that the great players in the league make. A forced fumble, a sack fumble or an interception off a batted pass. Interim head coach Tony Sparano said he thinks he is getting close.
“I think Khalil has done a really good job of forcing the issue in a lot of situations,” Sparano said on Wednesday, via Raiders.com. “[He] is really, really close to...changing a game at some point here real fast.”
The Raiders may not be fun to watch, but Mack is. Keep your eye on him because it’s only a matter of time before he does something special. That’s a lot less depressing to think about than 0-16.