Will Mack be back?
So Alex Mack has chosen to keep Browns fans prisoners with regard to his future plans.
Will the Pro Bowl center remain with the club after the upcoming season? Or will he bolt?
His contract forces him to play at least one more season with the team that drafted him seven years ago. It also permits him to leave following this season as an unrestricted free agent should he choose to.
There are those who say, “Who can blame him?” if he opts to depart. After all, playing for one of the losingest teams in the National Football League can be awfully depressing.
The Browns’ front office, while hopeful Mack will choose to remain loyal, must be more pessimistic privately. Why else draft Cameron Erving in the first round of the recent college football draft?
Sure, he was an offensive left tackle at Florida State. A very good one, too. But when the Seminoles’ starting center went down midway through last season, Erving moved over and played the pivot as though he had played it his whole life.
Speculation immediately rose that the selection of Erving was insurance against Mack departing Cleveland following this season. Understandable deduction. Basically, General Manager Ray Farmer was hedging his bets on Mack’s decision.
If Mack stays, Erving is locked into a position that suits his strengths better. And if Mack leaves, the rookie merely shifts over to anchor the offensive line. Win-win.
But that does not answer the main question. What will Mack, whose departure with a broken leg in game five last season coincided with the demise of the Cleveland offensive line, finally do?
He partially answered that the other day at the club’s organized team activities session in Berea. “I’m going to defer,” he told reporters. “I’ll talk about that at the end of the season.”
He said he has not made up his mind. “No,” he insisted. “Absolutely not, Let’s play the games. Let’s see how the season goes. I’m really not interested in talking about that until after the season.”
So it appears as though how the Browns fare this season will factor into his Mack’s decision. “I definitely want to win games,” he said. “It’s very important to me. No one likes losing. Across any job, anything, at all times. It’s tough without a doubt.”
And what else will it take? “What you always do,” Mack said. “You just want to come out here, play the games, play well and win games. That’s what every person in this building’s goal is.”
So all the Browns need to do, at least according to Mack, is win. Win more than they lose. Beyond that, he was vague, if not non-committal.
Okay, let’s break this down and figure out how much of a chance the Browns have at equaling Mack’s standards regarding his future with the club.
Defensively, they can’t be any worse at stopping the run than they were last season, when they were the NFL’s caboose in the category. Adding top draft choice Danny Shelton and free agent Randy Starks and larger doses of health can’t hurt.
Dropping opposing passers, another huge problem last season, ostensibly got better with the drafting of outside linebacker Nate Orchard, who will join fellow Utah alum Paul Kruger in an effort to improve those numbers.
The secondary, which didn’t get picked on nearly as much because opponents were so successful on the ground, should be that much stronger than last season if we are to believe Justin Gilbert is a reformed young man in the commitment category.
Now then, let’s take a look at the offense, where Mack is expected to be a vital contributor. Let’s start with quarterback.
Mack will be snapping the ball to either Josh McCown or Johnny Manziel. Stop for a moment and think about that. One is journeyman who defines the very term. The other is a question mark at best.
The most important position on the offense, if not the entire team, is in the hands of, no matter who wins the starting job, the worst – by far – quarterback in the AFC North. If not the entire NFL.
With the exception of a brief period when he excelled a few years ago with the Chicago Bears when Jay Cutler was injured, McCown and mediocrity have traveled hand in hand down the same path.
And Manziel is a puzzlement wrapped in an enigma. No one, maybe not even him, knows what to expect from him when the Browns gather in Berea for training camp later this summer.
Maybe he can recapture his glory days at Texas A&M when he won the Heisman Trophy and became the darling of the college football crowd. Maybe he can overcome a substance abuse problem that required a long stay at a treatment facility.
There is always the possibility that maybe he can’t.
Now let’s look at the running game. Second-year running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, if they don’t suffer the sophomore jinx, should provide the Browns with a strong running game, especially now that Mack is back.
The addition of third-round choice Duke Johnson can’t hurt, especially in the passing game, where the return of the screen pass is highly anticipated. The addition of Johnson definitely improves that position.
Up next the wide receivers corps. Not exactly a group that excites.
With Josh Gordon down for at least one year, the Browns own what might be the most non-threatening group of pass receivers in the entire NFL. There is not a single deep threat, unless you consider little Taylor Gabriel and brittle Travis Benjamin.
The addition of free agent Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline will not improve the speed. Both men are possession receivers. So are Andrew Hawkins and rookie Vince Mayle. The Browns might lead the NFL in possession receivers.
The tight ends will not be a major factor in the passing with the departure of the brittle Jordan Cameron. Good blockers in Jim Dray, Rob Housler and Gary Barnidge. That’s about it.
As for the offensive line, it should be one of the best now that Erving, a strong candidate to open at right tackle, has arrived. That move should push Mitchell Schwartz inside at guard, where he can be more effective.
The Cleveland offense, clearly bucking the NFL trend toward the forward pass, will be run centric. Their entire success on that side of the ball will be predicated on that phase of the game.
As for the special teams, it cant get any worse than last season for the return teams. The punter is boringly mediocre. And the Browns still can’t find a reliable placekicker.
Summing up: A good defense that can get better if the offense can stay on the field, an offense that most likely will be extremely one-dimensional and might have trouble remaining on the field and special teams that won’t excite anyone.
Now factor in a schedule that includes the tough NFC West (as opposed to last season’s weak NFC South) and only four games against teams that had losing seasons last season and you have a formula that mitigates against a winning record.
Mack hints he might stay if the Browns win games. He didn’t say how many, but one gets the impression it had better be more than last season’s seven.
Bottom line: He’s gone.