If football positions were ranked by degree of glamour, center would sit somewhere between last and the laundry room.
Even on a good day, the center plays in the middle of the offensive line. Amid a mass of thundering blubber. Far from the unobstructed view on the outside, where blockers can bulldoze pretty-boy cornerbacks.
There’s also the indignity of having to bend over every play and knowing the play won’t start until the quarterback puts his hands … there.
“In college I used to just tell people I played football and then hope they didn’t know enough about the sport to ask me what position,” said Randy Cross, a former Pro Bowl center and guard with San Francisco. “Besides, I played at UCLA. If I told them I played center, they would think I was Bill Walton.”
The Falcons haven’t made the playoffs in three years, but it’s not because they’ve lacked glitz. They’ve lacked the requisite number of competent uglies.
They’ve lacked a center who knew how to make pre-snap reads, hit like cinder block and not make snapping the ball look like it requires a degree in astrophysics.
They’ve needed Alex Mack. (He doesn’t have a degree in astrophysics, but he did win the “Draddy” while at Cal, the equivalent of the academic Heisman.)
Mack is this team’s most important addition since Julio Jones. Maybe more important. Doubt that? We’ve seen what happens to the offense, and Matt Ryan, when the Falcons’ weekly flotsam at center is getting steamrolled or boat-raced.
The offensive line has been one of the Falcons’ weaknesses. It may now be one of their strengths.
Why is the center position so important?
“It’s important to have a guy in there who sees the whole defense, can make the right points and tries to get the whole offense on the same page so you can run the play efficiently,” Mack said. “You try to take the pressure off the quarterback position so all he has to do is throw the ball and read the coverages, not that that’s easy.”
Pushing veteran center Todd McClure through the exit door after the 2012 season ranks as one of the worst personnel decisions in franchise history. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith believed draft pick Peter Konz was ready to take over. They were wrong — about Konz and every misfit or spare part that followed him.
McClure “literally fixed everything,” former Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said. “Todd always made sure somebody was on a body, which alleviated pressure on Matt.”
Is there an echo in here?
Cross said a good center “creates calm for an offense, especially if things aren’t going well. I liken the position to an old-school coffee cup. If you turn it upside down and pour something on it, everything just spills off to the side. That’s what you want because the middle doesn’t move, and it gives the quarterback an area to step into. He makes everybody else’s job easier.”
The calm works both ways. The Falcons are providing Mack with needed serenity after he was subjected to seven years in Cleveland, over which time the Browns had 13 starting quarterbacks, from Brady Quinn to Seneca Wallace to Brandon Weeden to Jason Campbell to Johnny Manziel.
You think that didn’t have anything to do with his decision to exercise the escape option in his contract and come south?
“It was enticing to come here knowing they had a quarterback,” Mack said of the Falcons.
Would he have stayed in Cleveland if the position wasn’t such a mutant circus?
“I like the way I answered the question,” Mack said, smiling.
The Falcons gave him a $45 million contract, with $28.5 million guaranteed. That also helped. Liking coach Dan Quinn and being familiar with the scheme and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan from Cleveland also were factors.
“This offense has a chance to be really good,” he said.
We’ve thought that before. Then the middle collapsed. This might be the smartest money the Falcons have ever spent.