INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The biggest sack of Aaron Donald’s career wasn’t a sack at all.
The Bengals lined up at the Rams’ 49-yard line with 1:25 left trailing by three with 43 seconds to play Sunday. They had a receiver split to either side, a tight end in the left slot and a running back to the left of quarterback Joe Burrow. The Bengals just failed to run for a first down on third-and-1 — and took a timeout to draw up a pass play.
The Rams defensive tackle, the best defensive player on the planet, lined up across from Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams. The ball was snapped, football history on the line. Within 2.2 seconds — one thousand one, one thousand two … — Donald had both arms around Burrow, spinning him counterclockwise. After one full rotation, Burrow — looking for all the world like a rodeo cowboy — tried to fling the ball forward. It landed harmlessly in the flat, and chaos erupted. The Rams, in their home stadium, had won the Super Bowl 23-20.
Donald had clinched it — the way he should. He finished the night with two sacks for 10 yards, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries.
Other teams have tried to get their own version of him, but Donald has been a unique figure on the NFL landscape since the Rams drafted him 13th overall in 2014. He’s what the Bears thought they were getting when they traded for Khalil Mack in 2018.
“For the offense to find a way and for Aaron to be able to finish it off, it’s poetic, man,” Rams coach Sean McVay said.
Long before they got Mack, the Bears thought they were getting Donald. Receiver Odell Beckham — who starred in the first half Sunday before hurting his knee — was taken 12th overall by the Giants in 2014.
The Rams, picking 13th, already had maybe the best defensive line unit in the game. They had former No. 1 overall pick Chris Long, future Bears edge rusher Robert Quinn — who was coming off a 19-sack season — and Michael Brockers.
The Rams, though, thought they could make the line even better. When they drafted Donald out of Pittsburgh, the Bears, who were picking next, were crushed. General manager Phil Emery took cornerback Kyle Fuller with the 14th pick.
Unable to draft their own Donald, the Bears set about trading for one. Four years later, a different Bears GM, Ryan Pace, traded two first-round picks and a third-rounder as part of a package to pry Mack from the Raiders.
Mack had stayed away from the only franchise he’d ever known because he wanted a new contract. While he waited, the Rams signed Donald to a six-year, $135 million deal that included a $50 million guaranteed at signing. In that moment, Mack would joke later, he let out a curse word that would have embarrassed his parents.
One day later, he was traded to the Bears and had his own deal, specifically designed to top Donald. Mack got a six-year, $141 million deal with $60 million guaranteed at signing it.
The day he was introduced, Mack acknowledged Donald’s role in his contract — and that he compared himself to the Rams star.
“But even then, that’s one part of it,” Mack said then. “That’s the one part of it. The other side is, you want to — I want to be great. I want to be great. I want to be known as one of the best to play the game. And that’s what it’s all about for me, regardless of how you look at it.
Four seasons later, Donald has been to two Super Bowls, winning one. Mack has been to two playoff games, losing two.
During the lead up to Sunday’s game, NBC Sports analyst Rodney Harrison said Donald told him he could retire in the offseason were the Rams to win. If he does, he’ll be five years away from a gold jacket. The Bears — and the rest of the NFL — would still be green with envy.
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