Alex Mack's Difficult Decision to Finally Leave Cleveland

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMarch 22, 2016

Aug 13, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack (55) in a preseason NFL football game at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency is full of difficult decisions. 

The process is often viewed through two lenses: the team a player left and where he decided to play during the next phase of his career. The individual is often forgotten in these transactions. 

Pro Bowl center Alex Mack spent seven seasons with the Cleveland Browns before deciding to sign a five-year, $45 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons at the start of free agency. People shouldn't misconstrue Mack's intentions, however. He didn't take the money and run, as Steve Miller once sang. Leaving Cleveland became much harder to do than it's generally portrayed.  

While the overall story generally advances from point A to point B, there is a gray area found between these destinations. 

"It’s very tough," Mack said in a phone interview with Bleacher Report. "I spent seven years in Cleveland, knew a lot of great, great people in that building, and the city really grew on me. Finding a place to really entice me enough to let those things go was tough.

"I have a ton of respect for the city of Cleveland. The people I knew during my time there were incredible, and they'll be friends for a lifetime.

"It was an emotional decision and difficult to make."

Plenty occurs during the few days a free agent has to contemplate his future and NFL mortality. Fans are generally ecstatic or downtrodden based on which side of the transaction they sit. And people spew plenty of misinformation within the hours and days between a final decision.

There is always more to the individual's thought process than the finality of what team he eventually chooses.

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 15:  Center Alex Mack #55 of the Cleveland Browns looks on from the sideline before a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on November 15, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Steelers defeated the Browns 30-9. (
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

"This is the only life I get to live," Mack said. "Life in football is even shorter. There are decisions that have to be made that are tough, but you only have so much time to play football.

"I felt it was time to experience a new city and team to make the best out of my football career."

In the center's case, he entered uncharted territory for the first time in his seven-year career. 

The Cal product experienced a small taste of free agency two years ago, but he never hit the open market. Instead, the Browns slapped the transition tag on him. 

Mack eventually signed a five-year, $42 million offer sheet from the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Browns ultimately matched the offer, but an opt-out clause existed within the agreed-upon contract after two years. The 30-year-old blocker decided to exercise his right and re-entered free agency with no restrictions for the first time ever.  

This year's process quickly proved to be different than his previous experience when the transition tag loomed over his head. 

"The surprising thing about the transition tag was it really cooled everything off. A lot," Mack said. "No one was really interested. There was too much of a hurry to sign players who were readily available.

"This year, things happened fast in what was an actual free agency. I had to be near the phone to be updated on the situation."

Five teams expressed interest in Mack during this year's process. Along with the Browns and the Falcons, the center also heard from the San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins, according to a league source. Atlanta simply fulfilled all of the requirements the California native looked for in an organization. 

First and foremost, Mack wanted to be reunited with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The center experienced arguably his best stretch of play under Shanahan's supervision until he suffered a broken fibula against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014. The devastating injury forced him to miss the final 11 games of that campaign, which also happened to be the first missed snaps of his career. 

The familiarity with the Falcons' zone-stretch offense became a big selling point for the mobile center.

"The idea of going to Atlanta and playing under Shanahan—the scheme really fits him really well—plus the fact Atlanta has an established quarterback was important," a league source said. 

The combination of Shanahan and the opportunity to snap the ball to Matt Ryan became a big part, but those two points were only part of the equation. Owner Arthur Blank's organization also presented the best combination of factors Mack preferred.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 20: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons talks to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and head coach Dan Quinn during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on December 20, 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida. The
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"It’s a combination of things," Mack said, "but it was really the entire package. The contract was where I liked it. The team, atmosphere, city, coaching staff, players, the quarterback and a really talented offense were all there.

"I believe Matt Ryan is one of the league’s best quarterbacks. To have stars at the running back and wide receiver positions, I think really good things can happen in Atlanta."

Unlike Cleveland, the Falcons displayed legitimate promise last year by getting off to a 5-0 start. When combined with the talent featured at the skill positions—including Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman—Atlanta became the obvious choice. 

But the Browns were in the mix every step of the way. 

Often, misinformation starts to spread about a particular negotiation or two handled by a certain team. In this case, the Browns didn't respond well at the start of free agency. 

Four key members of the team—Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Tashaun Gipson and Travis Benjamin—decided to sign elsewhere. As a result, many immediately questioned the team's new front office led by executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown, as Bleacher Report's Jason Cole reported: 

Jason Cole @JasonCole62

Multiple agents echoing criticism that #Browns are being extremely hesitant in negotiations

CBSSports.com's Jason La Canfora took it a step further when he described the Browns' inability to re-sign Mack:

Jason La Canfora @JasonLaCanfora

@JasonColeBR I'm hearing it all over, even before Alex Mack fiasco. Very rough first rodeo for new front office thus far.

This isn't the type of first impression any new regime wants to establish, but the overall sentiment might have been somewhat overblown.

Misinformation is often taken as gospel during the NFL's lying season. Of course, there might have been issues with Schwartz's or Benjamin's representation. In Mack's case, the Browns proved to be professional every step of the way.

"Sashi was extremely professional, upfront and dealt with us in good faith," Mack's agent, Tim Younger, said. "He was easy to deal with, straightforward, and I look forward to working with him again."

This is an obvious case where there are two sides to the story. Mack wasn't champing at the bit to leave Cleveland after his previous free-agency experience. Only "exceptional circumstances" and the right situation led to him actually leaving the North Coast, per the source. 

This is when the difficult decisions come into play. Players must assess leaving somewhere they established themselves over a matter of years with friends, a place in the community and a personal comfort level. Fans don't get to see this aspect of NFL life, but it's important to the individuals who play the game.

"We are more than just commodities," Mack said. "There is a person behind all of this.

"Who you are, how you conduct yourself and your actions every day matter. If you’re an upstanding, hard-working guy, it only helps your case because people like that attitude. You’re more than just what you look like on film. There’s also what you add to the people around you."

In Cleveland, Mack didn't just establish himself as a Pro Bowl blocker; his teammates also named him the recipient of the 2015 Ed Block Courage Award. After being a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft, the center established himself as a team leader and integral part of the locker room. 

As such, Mack didn't simply toss the Browns to the wayside once free agency began. They were always part of the conversation. 

"Absolutely," Mack confirmed. "I had a really good meeting with the new staff. There are people there I like. The staff is good. It was a very tempting place to stay.

"After weighing all of the options, I think it was just time for me to move on to Atlanta."

Home is wherever a football player can lay his helmet. Despite the pull of remaining in Cleveland, Atlanta is now Mack's homeand he enjoyed his first visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadiumwhich is scheduled to open in 2017:

With the right circumstances, the Cal product might still be in Cleveland. Unfortunately, the Browns are stuck in a perpetual state of rebuilding. Yet, Mack struggled with the idea of leaving the organization that originally drafted him. 

"The manner in which the Browns handled Alex's free agency certainly reflected respect and appreciation for what he had contributed and could still contribute to an organization," Younger added. "Their approach made his decision to leave very difficult."

Cleveland simply couldn't compete with what Atlanta offers: a franchise quarterback, talent at the skill positions and a team that appears to be heading in the right direction. At one point early in the 2015 campaign, first-year head coach Dan Quinn looked like a shoo-in for NFL Coach of the Year. Despite sputtering to a 3-8 finish after that sizzling 5-0 start, the Falcons still finished seventh overall in total offense.

One of the key missing pieces involved the man snapping the ball to Ryan. The team now has its answer in the middle. 

All quotes obtained firsthand by Brent Sobleski, who covers the NFL draft for Bleacher Report, unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.