Alex Mack has played in more NFL games than every Falcon other than Matt Ryan and lived more losses than most could stomach, but even with all that, the center hasn’t enough knowledge to offer post-graduate level advice for teammates carrying a six-game losing streak to New Orleans.
That’s because when you’re on a 1-7 team that kicked off with high expectations, all the losing is so confusing.
The Saints (7-1) will greet a team dropping from a cloud of questions.
You might think a season like this feels longer because of the way it’s going. Mack only sort of agrees.
“I would say it’s definitely harder,” he said. “I don’t know about longer or shorter. I know it’s more difficult because if you’re winning, what you’re doing is right and you’re being rewarded for your actions with that good, winning feeling. You’re like, ‘I did this last week, I’ll do it again.’
“When you’re losing, it’s tough because maybe you are doing the right thing and you should keep doing it, but maybe you need to change something, so you don’t really know.
“Do you second-guess, or is it whatever I’m doing is not working? Do we need to change something or do we need to do whatever we’re doing more? Do we need to do less? It’s uncertain because whatever your payoff is, it is not producing the outcome you want.”
Mack is a smart guy. He won scores of academic awards on the way to graduating from Cal with a 3.61 GPA in legal studies. Then, the Browns drafted him No. 21 overall in 2009. And in seven years by Cleveland’s lake, his teams lost double-digit games five times. The Browns were 33-68 in his time.
He went through five head coaches and six offensive coordinators, so Mack knows churn.
After spending some time in his native California during last week’s bye, the fourth-year Falcon is back to work and trying to figure out what’s what. That’s not easy.
“I can see guys that enjoy the time to sit and watch a game or do something like that. I like to get away, refresh the mind,” Mack said. “I like how it breaks up the monotony; each week’s the same. Middle of the year is a really good time, kind of freshen up, catch up on sleep, because it’s hard.
“The season’s long. It’s tough. It’s long hours. You’re up early, you’re staying up late, you’re playing games. So, just to have a chance for your body to recover is a big deal.”
The NFL season is not year-round, although players spend 11 months or so in the calendar year either in the game or preparing physically for it.
And when the season hits, the work becomes repetitive and over-constant. Teams prepare for different opponents each week, sure, but the weekly routine is, other than game-planning, the same every time.
It’s like factory work with the background knowledge that at the end of the week you’re going to be in the coliseum, competing, with hundreds of thousands or millions judging in person or while watching on TV.
Most weekdays start around 7 a.m. with meetings and more meetings and end around 5 or 6 after practice and then more meetings.
If you want to make a difference as a Falcon, you probably need to put in more time than that, at least on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
And that is the undergraduate-level advice Mack is offering teammates, particularly younger lads like rookie right tackle Kaleb McGary and rookie right guard Chris Lindstrom, who may return from a foot injury soon.
Always, there are questions.
“The other thing that’s tough is when you’re winning and you’re staying after and watching film (you think), ‘Oh, it’s totally worth it because it will let me win again,’” Mack said. “When you’re losing, it’s time to stay after and watch film, and it’s like, ‘Oh, God, it’s really tough. Maybe I should just go home and get some sleep.’
“You’re not ever certain of what you need to do, or what your path is, so you second-guess there. You’re not getting the payout of your work.”
And there can be self-doubt.
“There’s a bit of that. It’s also a matter of not knowing what to do different, what to fix, what’s wrong,” Mack explained. “On the other hand, the sunny side of that, and unfortunately I have some experience of not the best teams, is that the only way forward is to work harder and do better.
“If I play a better game and it’s going to help myself and it’s going to help my team. So, every action I do should be towards that goal. If you’re unsuccessful, you need to work harder and get better.”
In times like these, human beings – whether they’re six-time Pro Bowlers such as Mack or not – may struggle. There are wrestling matches in the brain. There are battles against doubt, and questions about methods. Offering advice to others may be more difficult for intelligent people when they can’t in the first place put their finger on what’s happening.
Mack has played 157 NFL games, starting every one. Other than 11 games missed with the Browns in 2014 when he broke a fibula, he’s always started. He played every snap for Cleveland in five seasons before that. With one more season under his NFL belt, Ryan has played in 181.
Mack hyperextended his left elbow earlier this season and is wearing a sturdy brace now to keep him from doing it again. He said it doesn’t affect his ability to do his job, but who knows about that?
“It’s still attached,” he said.
Alex wishes he knew more about why what’s happening to the Falcons is happening.
All he really knows, deep down, is that, “It’s really hard to win games in the NFL and you need to be working really hard every day or your opponent is going to be working harder. You need to be working hard. You can take it as you need to be working harder for the team’s sake, or for your own sake.
“But the better you play, the better the team plays. That’s all the team wants from you. That’s all anybody, any fan, any coach, owner wants is for you to play the best you can. That’s your job and should be your goal.”
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