ALAMEDA – Raiders edge rusher Khalil Mack typically talks in front of his locker after games and during the practice week. After Sunday’s 15-12 victory over the Denver Broncos, he was given a formal press conference.
Recording five sacks and a forced fumble against a division rival can cause a chance of venue. Mack walked into a large interview room, stood before the press and whispered something amplified by the microphone.
“Man,” Mack said. “First time at the podium.”
Dark sunglasses guarded his nonverbal reaction to the moment. They weren’t worn because Mack’s future’s so bright, he’s gotta wear shades.
Joe Cool was nervous. Mack conducted himself well Sunday night but simply isn’t a big talker.
He doesn’t have to be.
Derek Carr’s a pretty good team spokesman. The second-year quarterback came to the podium, as he does after every game with an odd, well-timed message. In hindsight, he’s happy to be a second-round pick.
“I’m glad they picked Khalil first,” Carr said. “I’ll take being a second round pick as long as that guy’s on my team, that’s for sure. I love the guy. He’s one of my closest friends and has been ever since we got here together. We believed in one another, we believed that we could help be a small part of turning around our organization.”
General manager Reggie McKenzie made a ton of moves trying to turn a losing franchise around, but that 2014 draft was his pivot point. He selected Mack fifth overall, and Carr at No. 36. In two rounds, McKenzie got a supreme talent to anchor the offense and defense.
Carr and Mack are different personalities, but have similar drive to achieve a common goal. They have long talked about working together to make the Raiders respectable again. They are allies in this uphill battle, and are starting to make serious gains in production and leadership.
The need for a franchise quarterback around here was well documented. Carr has certainly grown as a player, but his natural leadership was evident from draft day on. He has been a squeaky clean public face of the franchise, someone who speaks publicly and privately with great ease.
Mack has taken a bit longer to come out of his shell. Veteran safety Charles Woodson has been pushing for it on the field, challenging Mack to become the alpha on defense, take control of that unit with his play and his passion.
Woodson remains the defense’s emotional leader, but the 39-year old won’t be around forever. He’s trying to set up a seamless baton pass when he hangs ‘em up for good.
“We talk often about different things as far as me stepping up in that feature role, and so it’s good because you have him and he’s the best player I’ve ever played with, arguably one of the best safeties of all time,” Mack said. “It’s big when you hear that coming from him. He wants me to step up into that role.”
Mack doesn’t need Woodson’s eloquence or Carr’s polish to lead, especially if it doesn’t fit his personality. The 24-year old is someone a defense can rely upon to make a big play when it matters most.
Let’s take the Denver game as a prime example of that. We’ve all seen videos of Mack dominating Denver’s offensive line, but now for a second focus on timing over method.
Sack No. 1: Denver forced to punt after sack on 3rd-and-5
Sack No. 2: In the end zone, Raiders get a safety
Sack No. 3: Broncos pushed to edge of FG range, Broncos miss FG try
Sack No. 4: Broncos go from 2nd-and-4 to 3rd-and-15
Sack No. 5: Sets up 3rd and-long with under two minutes remaining
That’s coming through in the clutch, exactly what the Raiders defense needs from their best player. His play inspired others. He gave Carr a chance to complete a comeback with two touchdown passes.
Carr has led the Raiders to victory several times this season. Sunday afternoon was Mack's turn. Both game-changers won't be on each week. If one of them dominates, the Raiders have a chance against almost anybody.
Mack garnered national attention with five sacks, and now nine in three weeks. This run won’t continue forever, but his status as alpha dog probably will. He has the talent and drive to be one of the best in the league.
“For a young guy like him that’s just kind of really coming into his own, you’re just seeing flashes of what he’s going to be,” Woodson said. “Today is an awesome game, but this guy, throughout his career [if he] stays healthy, the sky is the limit to what he’s going to be able to accomplish in this league.”
If Carr and Mack stay on track and McKenzie continues to build around them, the same can be said of a Raiders team on the rise.