CLEVELAND – Alex Mack stands tall inside the Browns’ weight room on a dreary March day, wearing team workout gear and sporting a thick beard. He’s ditched the crutches and the wheeled cart he once used to support a shattered left fibula.
He’s looking like a 6-foot-4, 311-pound Pro Bowl center again. And he’s excited to talk about football again, bringing up unprompted his love for when a play is “executed correctly, touchdown” -- a fitting comment for the savvy orchestrator of an offensive line, whose presence was sorely missed in 2014.
That joy wasn’t there for the 11 weeks Mack spent on injured reserve after breaking his leg against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 6. The more he got involved in team meetings and walkthroughs, the more sobering his reality became.
“I couldn’t walk out there and stand next to the guys. I had to wheel out there on a little cart,” Mack said. “They didn’t necessarily need my support -- they’d rather have me protecting the passer. That was tough.”
Mack is slowly regaining his form.
The center will participate in the Browns’ offseason workouts, though to what extent is still being worked out. Mack acknowledged it's possible he won't go full-on during team OTAs, but that's not because of a setback. Mack and the training staff plan to be overly cautious because the goal is a fully healthy return for Week 1 in September. The Browns’ rushing offense dipped from 146.4 rushing yards per game with Mack to 90.5 without him.
Helping cope with a rigorous rehab was a series of offseason trips, including a week with three other NFL players on a USO tour in the Middle East, which Mack chronicled in a feature for clevelandbrowns.com. He spent a week in Turkey helping teammate Gary Barnidge’s American Football Without Barriers initiative. Mack also served as a volunteer for the Browns’ First and Ten program, which assisted with a Play 60 football festival for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District Special Olympics.
The trips helped Mack “refresh,” he says, supporting troops while spreading support for a game that’s “given me so much.”
Mack rehabbed in the shadows all year, rarely appearing in the locker room and declining interviews on the final day of the season. Coach Mike Pettine during the season alluded to Mack dealing with “something more” than a traditional leg break, suggesting ligament damage was possible.
“We’re making some pretty steady progress, doing what we need to do to get out there for training camp,” Mack said. “But it’s more important that I’m out there for game day. Those two feelings have to balance out. It just takes time, having patience. Two weeks after the surgery, I wanted to be up and running around. I’m not 18 anymore.”
Considered one of the game’s best centers, Mack isn’t anticipating a production drop-off upon return. But he wasn’t exactly shocked to see the team's rushing numbers drop without him. That would have happened anyway, he said. The Browns were running the ball at a fervent pace, so he knew defenses would eventually adjust and the offense needed a counter move that never came.
Mack, who enters the second season of a five-year, $42 million deal, expects the offensive line to reignite the vibe they had in first five games of last season.
“The core of who we are is going to stay the same,” Mack said.
In between visits to various job sites, Mack took questions from troops overseas. He would answer a question about what drives him in life. Then a Browns fan asked him who will be “our quarterback this year?” Browns fans were everywhere.