Vikings running back Latavius Murray remembers exactly what he was thinking Sept. 1 when the Bears traded two first-round picks for Khalil Mack.
Minus the expletives, he said he wished his former Raiders teammate and 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year had been traded to any division but the NFC North.
“They got a heck of a player,” Murray said. “One of the best defenders in the league. Arguably the best.”
Sorry, Latavius. Even that high praise undersells the impact Mack is having on the league’s most surprising team and the only current division leader who finished last in its division a year ago.
In the 61-season history of the Associated Press’ NFL Most Valuable Player award, Alan Page (1971) and Lawrence Taylor (1986) are the only defenders to win. Mack could become the third if he keeps playing outside linebacker like Taylor, the Hall of Famer and godfather of the modern strip sack.
Mack has had a strip sack in all four games, five sacks total. He also has a fumble recovery, an interception, two passes defensed and a touchdown. All by the end of September.
“He just has some things you can’t coach,” Murray said. “I saw it every day in practice. His size, his speed, his strength. When you put him one-on-one with a guy, he can choose whichever he wants.
“That’s hard on an offensive tackle. And I’ve seen him with four hands on him and it doesn’t matter, either. He’s a special talent.”
Under new coach Matt Nagy, the Bears are 3-1 and riding their first three-game winning streak in five years. They’re also only three wins from surpassing last year’s season total.
Meanwhile, for the first time in years, the Packers (2-1-1), Vikings (1-2-1) and Lions (1-3) are looking up at Chicago in the standings.
“Am I surprised at what the Bears are doing?” Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said. “No. This is the NFL. Everybody is good.”
Asked if he saw Sunday’s 48-10 beatdown of the Buccaneers, Richardson said, “I didn’t. I was too busy worried about my own life.”
He’ll see them soon enough when the Vikings travel to Soldier Field on Nov. 18. For some, however, there’s already a sense of urgency for a team that’s still trying to digest a 21-point home loss to Buffalo and Jared Goff’s perfect passer rating in Los Angeles.
“I still think the division is wide open,” Murray said. “But we have to win now. We can’t keep sitting here saying, ‘Hey, this thing is wide open. We still have a chance.’ It has to start now. We have to start winning now so we don’t have to worry about what these other teams are doing.”
Chicago already is doing that. And even though second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky threw six touchdown passes Sunday, there’s no question this turnaround is being fueled by the defense and its fourth-year coordinator, Vic Fangio.
Fangio has Mack, of course. But Fangio also has Mack making everyone around him better.
Chicago already has 13 defenders with either a sack or a takeaway. And its eight interceptions already match last year’s season total, which ranked tied for 29th.
The result is a Bears defense that ranks fourth in yards allowed (294.5) and tied for third in points allowed (16.3).
“I’m not going to say I’m surprised when a team is doing well or bad,” Murray said. “You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t find a way to come together and perform the right way and perform together, you’re going to get the outcome you’re not happy with.”
That certainly describes the Vikings’ league-worst rushing attack (63.0 ypg) and underachieving defense.
But then there’s Chicago.
“Give them credit,” Murray said. “They’re putting it together.”
Especially defensively, where 10 starters returned from last season. The only new faces are rookie first-round draft pick Roquan Smith and Mack.
The former has potential. The latter is proving right now that he has what it takes to be the first defensive player to win league MVP in 32 years.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org