HOUSTON — Watch Alex Mack run. You won’t do this, of course, because the Super Bowl features Tom Brady and Matt Ryan and so many other great players, and anyway, Mack is a center. Nobody watches the center. Who watches a center run?
The Falcons watch Mack run all the time. They noticed it right away, when Mack signed with them last off-season, after seven years with the Browns. Julio Jones would catch a Ryan pass 25 yards downfield, and there was 311 pounds worth of Alex Mack, running toward Jones.
“He finishes, especially running downfield, better than anybody I have ever seen,” Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews said Wednesday. And the Falcons’ other starting tackle Ryan Schraeder said: “It’s pretty special, man. Linemen just don’t run as much as he runs.”
There are two reasons most linemen don’t run like this: 1) They are tired, and 2) What’s the point? By the time they get down there, the play will almost certainly be over.
Mack runs anyway. You could say it’s because somebody might fumble, but Mack has played in 117 regular-season games and recovered two fumbles. He has made seven tackles. That’s a pretty low rate of return for all that running.
Matthews says, “There’s been a lot of times where he’s gotten an extra chip that got us a couple more yards.” And then there are all the times when Mack is the first Falcon to help a running back off the ground after a tackle.
Mack has an injured left fibula; he is expected to play against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, but nobody knows how well he can play. The answer may decide the Super Bowl. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told SI Thursday that the single biggest factor in the Falcons going from 8–8 to the Super Bowl was the addition of Mack to the O-line.
We will know Mack is O.K. if he runs downfield the first time the Falcons make a big play.
Why does Mack run? Because there is no benefit to not running.
Listen to Alex Mack talk. The Falcons do this all the time, too. The linemen noticed it early on, in meetings. He is a perennial Pro Bowl player, maybe the best center in the NFL. But he asks the most questions, by far, of any lineman.
He is not shy about it. Sometimes he will ask a coach to repeat a point. Or he’ll say he was writing something down and didn’t hear it. Sometimes he asks a question he knows the answer to, just because he isn’t sure his teammates know the answer, and he thinks they need to hear it. Some of them may be more timid than he is.
They wondered, for a while, why the best student in class also asked the most questions, and then they realized: That’s why he’s the best student in class.
Mack does not just ask about what the defense does. He wants to know what the defense might do that it’s never done before.
“We’ll be looking up at a front and he’ll go, ‘Let’s say this guy moved here, and he wasn’t 53 any more, he’s 54 … it’s a lot of what-ifs,” Matthews says.
Says Schraeder, “When he first came in that first week, you could just tell. The way he approaches his game, the way he studies and gets guys in position, he’s been a huge benefit for us. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Mack is not a particularly loquacious person, but he takes great care in how he uses words. On Thursday, he declined to talk about his injury, saying his answers would be “boilerplate.” When he stumbled over the end of a sentence, he then finished it again and pointed out that he saved me from a parenthetical: “You’d have to put it in brackets, and it would be: What did he say, actually?”
Soon after he signed with the Falcons, Mack stood up in front of his teammates and talked to them for the first time. Some of the new players did this. It was a form of introduction. Mack talked about himself and his career, and then he finished with this fact: In seven NFL seasons, he had never played for a winning team.
Watch Alex Mack play. Joe Thomas may do it this Sunday, and you wonder how he will feel. Thomas was the Browns’ left tackle for every single play of Mack’s Cleveland career. Thomas will likely be in the Hall of Fame one day. He has endured nine straight losing seasons with the Browns, and they are worse than they have ever been. Thomas has said many times that he wants to finish his career in Cleveland anyway. He will probably never play in a Super Bowl.
Mack and Thomas are friends. They talk and text sometimes. Mack said Thomas has not directly asked what this feels like, to finally win after so much losing.
But Mack had to do it. He had to find out. He admitted it would have gnawed at him if he never played for a winning team. Losing in the NFL is brutal—players know they are destroying their bodies, week after week, and for what? The paycheck, sure. But we tell them not to be happy just cashing checks. The ones with pride, which is almost all of them, play to win.
Mack feels better on Mondays now. Film sessions are more fun. His labor has finally borne fruit. While Mack runs down the field after big plays and helps teammates out of the pile and celebrates wins, Joe Thomas still plays every down and finishes every block during losses. They are both winners.