Return of the (Alex) Mack: Cleveland helped Falcons center become great – NFL Nation

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Alex Mack might soon be subject to a fine under the category of excessive celebration.

No, the Atlanta Falcons center hasn’t orchestrated a touchdown dance with props hidden inside goal posts. Actually, the circumstances surrounding such a punishment would be beyond Mack’s control.

As right tackle Ryan Schraeder explained, the entire Falcons’ offensive line assessed a “fine” to Mack when the team visited Cleveland in the preseason of 2016. It didn’t carry a monetary figure, but the “fine” was a result of Mack being recognized with a brief video tribute and ovation at First Energy Stadium for the seven seasons he spent with the Browns.

“Yeah, the guys made fun of me for that one, helping the enemy,” Mack said with a laugh. “They showed a couple of highlights, and it was my first year gone. It was a preseason game, so it didn’t really matter.”

Another such highlight video is unlikely to be part of the plan this go around, but Mack could get another warm reception when he returns to Cleveland for the first time in the regular season. Sunday’s 1 p.m. ET game has a bit more meaning, with the 4-4 Falcons trying to keep a three-game winning streak rolling against the falling Browns (2-6-1).

“It will be a little weird again, I assume,” Mack said of the homecoming, of sorts. “I went to a friend’s wedding in Cleveland this offseason. To fly in there and for it to not be home, it’s a bit of a weird feeling. And I wasn’t going to my house. Plus a lot of people I used to know there on the team are no longer there. It’s just strange.”

The five-time Pro Bowler, now the unquestioned leader of the Falcons’ offensive line, doesn’t reflect on his time in Cleveland as a complete disaster despite never winning more than five games in any season. In 101 starts with the Browns, Mack’s teams went 29-72. The 2009 first-round pick (No. 21 overall) played for four different head coaches and seemed to snap to a new quarterback on a weekly basis.

“It was pretty frustrating when coaches would get fired,” Mack said. “You believe in the rhetoric of turning things around, and they would fire a coach after a season and not give him a chance. I never had a coach for more than two seasons there.”

It didn’t prevent Mack from developing into arguably the best player at his position. He established an unbreakable bond with his entire line, including future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Joe Thomas.

“We had an excellent offensive line, and Alex was one of the leaders of the group, being the center and being the All-Pro that he is,” Thomas said. “We shared struggles and hardship with the record that we had, but we still put forward some good performances, from an offensive line standpoint.”

Mack credited his first NFL offensive line coach, current Tampa Bay assistant George Warhop, for guiding him through the nuances of the center position. Mack was known as a highly intelligent player from Day 1.

“Cleveland made me a great player,” Mack said. “I had great coaches. I had great teammates. We had a good O-line. I wouldn’t be the guy I am today if I didn’t have Cleveland and the Browns to thank for that.”

Something cooking

Mack’s transition from California to Cleveland wasn’t so seamless. He recalled one of his first dining experiences one night when he craved Bay Area-type Chinese food.

“I was tired, I was hungry, so I was like, ‘I’ll just go order some chicken chow mein,'” Mack explained. “Chicken chow mein on the West Coast is chicken and noodles. Well, that’s chicken lo mein, I guess, on the East Coast and in Ohio.

“So when I got home with my to-go box of chicken chow mein, it was just this bean-sprout mix of gross food. I was like really disheartened.”

That would explain why cooking became one of Mack’s primary hobbies during his time in Cleveland. The offensive line would hold potluck dinners, and Mack often came through with his Korean short-rib recipe he borrowed from the wife of one of his college coaches. Mack even signed up for a vegetable farm share program where he would get a box of customized food to cook for himself.

“I think one of the things for that offensive line, and Alex was one of the ring-leaders, was how much they liked to cook,” Thomas said. “Mitchell Schwartz and Alex and John Greco, they were like almost Cordon Bleu chefs. They were fantastic. It was pretty amazing.”

Mack didn’t spend all his time away from football in the kitchen. He picked up on duck hunting from the Wisconsin-born Thomas and ventured out to some farmland an hour outside Cleveland to get his fix.

Oh, and Mack eventually took a liking to Cleveland cuisine, specifically Crop Bistro and Bar, Nuevo Acapulco, and Mitchell’s Ice Cream.

“Mitchell’s, to this day, is the best ice cream I’ve ever had,” Mack said. “I would recommend for anybody to get the Buckeye, which is like a peanut butter ice cream with fudge and cherry toppings. It’s truly amazing.”

If only playing with Browns quarterbacks was as much of a treat as the local ice cream.

Quarterback carousel

Mack paused for a moment when asked how many different starting quarterbacks he snapped to during his days with the Browns.

“Well, you obviously know the answer,” Mack said with sarcasm. “I would say two or three a year in seven years. I would say it would probably be around 12.”

Good guess.

Mack would have played with 13 different Browns quarterbacks had he not suffered a broken leg that limited him to five games in 2014. During Mack’s rookie season in 2009, coach Eric Mangini played musical chairs with Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson.

“Brady wanted to make every call; he wanted full control, and that’s what he wanted to do,” Mack said. “The quarterback’s always right. That’s the important thing for any offense I’ve ever been in. The quarterback has the final call and what they say goes. He’s the one that ultimately controls everything. So, that made a lot of sense.

“But when Derek would be in, he didn’t really care about making all the calls. He only wanted to worry about a couple calls. So everything else it was like, ‘Yeah, you just do what you need to do. Make the calls at center yourself. Go ahead.’ And so when Derek was in, I had to make all the calls and do everything and try to do adjustments. And as a rookie, I don’t know how I even did anything right.”

The list of Browns’ signal-callers behind Mack also included Colt McCoy, Brandon Weeden, Thaddeus Lewis, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Jason Campbell, Josh McCown, Brian Hoyer, Austin Davis, and, of course, Johnny Manziel. Mack admired the cool, calm demeanor of Campbell and Wallace, while he praised the field vision of both Delhomme and McCown.

For McCown, the respect was mutual.

“What makes Alex unique, in my opinion, it’s his high level of both athleticism and strength,” McCown said. “It allows him to be effective in both the run and pass. He’s also one of the smartest guys I’ve played with. So when you add that to those other traits, you can see why he is one of the best in the game.”

Of all those quarterbacks, Manziel probably was the one who garnered the most attention, although Manziel played just two seasons with the Browns.

“It was nice that he was so mobile,” Mack said of Manziel. “You just had to watch out, because when he scrambled around to throw, you never really knew where he was going to be. But, yeah, that one didn’t work out too well.”

Mack made no secret he was looking for stability, not only at quarterback but in a franchise as a whole. He attracted a variety of interest during free agency in 2016. The Falcons made him the highest-paid center with a five-year, $45 million contract that included $28.5 million guaranteed.

“I think the combination of everything: A big, vibrant city with a lot going on, a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, and it had an offense that I really enjoyed and the outside zone scheme that I think suits me really well,” Mack said. “And I think Dan Quinn’s attitude, his approach to football with competing every day and the positive vibes he’s built around the building, it’s something really powerful. Like, I enjoy going to work. And I think it’s a great atmosphere. People are willing to work hard, and everyone takes care of their business. I couldn’t be happier.”

Cleveland’s loss certainly has been Atlanta’s gain.

Mack made the Super Bowl in his first season with the Falcons and has a 25-15 record in his 40 starts (3-2 record in the playoffs, including the Super Bowl loss to New England.)

“With Mack, it’s his consistency,” Julio Jones said of his teammate. “He’s a great leader. He’s a great role model, especially for the offensive line. He’s the quarterback of the offensive line. He’s making sure his guys are on the same page. And I always talk to him, too. He’s just a great teammate.”

Quinn pointed to a play during last week’s win against the Washington Redskins when Mack hustled down the field after Mohamed Sanu caught a pass and pushed Sanu for some extra yardage.

“It’s the downfield plays that he’s able to finish,” Quinn said. “From the first time being here, I knew he was smart. Probably what I didn’t have the appreciation for his how tough he is, and he’s demonstrated that over and over and over again. … I would say the finish that he has in his game probably shows as good an example as anybody how it can be done.”

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