BERKELEY, Calif. – Alex Mack was flat on his back, staring up at his stunned ex-teammates and fellow NFL draft prospects, uncertain whether to laugh or scream with rage.
Having slipped and fallen while doing a routine step-up drill near the end of a workout in the Cal weight room last month – on the day before he would fly to Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine – the All-American center felt his right ankle throbbing with pain.
Nice timing, Mack thought to himself. The No. 1 prospect at his position, a 6-foot-4, 311-pounder so flexible he can do the splits as effortlessly as most of us bend down to pick up the morning newspaper, now occupied a spot on the floor that was drenched in irony.
"My strength coach [John Krasinski] called it a 'Mack-cident,' " Mack said last week, recalling the sprained right ankle that kept him from working out at the combine, thus putting added emphasis on Wednesday's pro day at Cal's Memorial Stadium. "It was a freak accident, with no rhyme or reason, in a drill I'd done a million times before and a lot of times since.
"And, of course, there I was on the ground – just like I always am."
The latter comment, a testament to the erudite Mack's dry sense of humor, refers to his reputation among pro talent evaluators. Though they love the punishing blocker's intensity, athleticism and grasp of the game, tape-watching scouts consistently find themselves hitting the pause button to note yet another play that ended with No. 51 at one with the turf.
"The guy's a terrific player, and he plays really nasty for such a smart kid, which is a good thing," one NFC front-office executive says. "I think he'll go in the first round. But he's always on the ground, and that's the biggest question with him."
It doesn't take a Bill Walsh-like genius to figure out that NFL teams prefer their linemen upright. Mack, a Cal graduate who last December won the Draddy Trophy as college football's top scholar-athlete – he even brought novels into his post-practice ice baths – made a conscious decision to be literally less grounded after choosing to return for his senior season in '08.
In addition to becoming a better leader and finishing his career on a more positive note – the Golden Bears, who lost six of their final seven regular-season games in '07 after ascending to No. 2 in the national rankings, rebounded to go 9-4 and win the Emerald Bowl in '08 – Mack showed he can stay on his feet a bit more frequently.
Yet when he arrived at the combine last month for interviews, medical tests and other non-physical activities, he knew a chorus of skeptics awaited him.
"In a bunch of my interviews with teams, people would ask, 'What do you need to fix? What can you improve on?' " Mack recalls. "I'd say, 'Well, I'm on the ground too much.' Nobody protested. It was, 'Yeah, we know.' That's been the No. 1 complaint about me for a long time. To me, being on the ground was about being aggressive, sacrificing everything and giving it my all. But it looks bad on film."
It's a habit that was formed when Mack was a freshman on the San Marcos High JV team in Santa Barbara, Calif., where his position coach (Dennis Kittle) relied upon a powerful motivational prop.
"My coach was what you'd call old school, and he did not want us putting our hands on guys," Mack says. "On our first day he showed us the knife he'd use to cut up our fingers if we got called for holding. We'd be out there warming up for games and we'd see him on the sidelines whittling his pocketknife.
"He taught me to block with the top of my shoulder; I was almost on all fours at times. I'd be crawling over people – it was like a wrestling pose. From there, my playing style evolved, and I remember getting to college and being told to use my hands and thinking, Really? Isn't that illegal? He also taught me to play snap to whistle, to go hard every play, and that lunging for that extra inch could make the difference between a bad play and a big play."
Though he expected to be grilled on his forward-leaning technique at the combine, Mack was surprised by the overall intensity of the inquisitions. At his first meeting, with Cleveland Browns coaches and executives, Mack sat at a small table in a hotel meeting room, surrounded in a circle by men at similar tables.
"I was on the hot seat," Mack says. "I thought I was going in for a nice chat, and I was completely unprepared. The offensive line coach [George Warhop] put a play on the screen and started shouting questions, with other people chiming in and murmuring in the background: 'What are you doing on this play? What does the tight end do?' I said, 'I think he's out.' He said, 'You think he's out? Or he is out? Which is it?' It was intense."
Later, in an interview with the Miami Dolphins, Mack had an even more unnerving experience: "The offensive line coach [Dave DeGuglielmo] blurted out, 'Your girlfriend's pregnant – who do you call?' I was like, 'What?' "
Mack, who eventually answered DeGuglielmo by giving a friend's name, laughed last week as he remembered the interview while sitting at a table with friends in a downtown Berkeley microbrewery. Most of the crew downed pints of seasonal ales while Mack chugged ice water from a plastic pitcher.
Looking back on his decision to stay for his senior season Mack, who earned a bachelor's degree in May 2008 and enrolled in Cal's graduate school of education last fall, said, "I think everyone agrees it was a good thing. I think it would've been really stressful being one of the only juniors at the ['08] combine, and when everyone asked, 'Why are you coming out?' I don't know how I'd have answered. 'I want money'? That would've sounded terrible.
"This way, I have all my teammates supporting me, and I don't feel like I skipped out on anybody. I also feel like I've gotten better."
Mack kept striving for improvement even after the end of his senior season, working extensively with former Rams tackle Jackie Slater, a Hall of Famer, in advance of the Senior Bowl. Mack showcased his versatility in that game by playing guard, though he'll likely be primarily a center for the team that drafts him.
Several teams in the latter third of the draft's first round, including the Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans, are said to be interested in Mack, who's ahead of Oregon's Max Unger as the top center on most draft boards.
"Unger's a better athlete, a guy who's going to be able to pull and play in space, but to me Mack's the superior player," an AFC scout says. "He does everything really well, and he's very, very strong for a center. Not a lot of centers can get the kind of movement on the line of scrimmage that he does, and he's tough and plays extremely hard and is spotless off the field, the kind of guy you want in your program.
"As for the stuff about him being on the ground, he does get a little overextended on some blocks. But sometimes he's on the ground because he's busting his ass trying to make a play."
Because Mack didn't work out in Indy, Wednesday's session at Cal in front of visiting talent evaluators is especially important. Given his impressive body of work at a position for which one's performance on film is paramount, it's not likely that a subpar showing will have a severe impact on Mack's draft status. Still, he's eager to prove his worth in a controlled setting.
"I was hoping that most of my work would be done at the combine, and I'm frustrated that I wasn't able to do that," Mack says. "But I'm on my home turf, and I've put in the work, and I'm confident it's all good. It's a big day, but it's not going to make or break me. Unless, you know, I completely fall on my face and can't get up."
That's one Mack-cident he absolutely hopes to avoid.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Dear Mr. Silver, Very complete and interesting article on [Troy] Vincent. I enjoyed watching him play in the NFL for years. Of the four candidates he seems uniquely qualified. As a St. Mary's grad and former longtime Cali boy, I would suggest that he hire a fashion expert to help with his wardrobe. In the picture used for your piece, his tie, shirt and jacket mesh about as well as T.O. and Tony Romo last season. My mantra from my time in the Marine Corps has always been Look good – Feel good – Do Good. Pass this on to Vincent and see if his fashion faux pas doesn't change for the better. My daughter is graduating from Berkeley North [University of Oregon] this June. Go Cal Bears!"
Congratulations to your daughter – she is a Lucky Duck. Vincent, however, is not feeling so fortunate right now.
"Thanks for finally giving Troy Vincent some positive press. I don't know much about his career as an executive, but as a player he was one of those stand up guys that every fan couldn't help but love. He, Bobby Taylor, Brian Dawkins (who will be missed terribly and hopefully will have a few solid years in Denver), and several adequate strong safeties (Blaine Bishop?) formed some of the best secondaries the Eagles have ever had. When Troy got older he went to Buffalo and was more than willing to play safety, a position thought better suited for him at the time because of his declining speed. I hope that his reputation from his playing days is enough to carry him through the paranoid allegations of a declining dictator and his cronies."
East Stroudsburg, Pa.
In terms of your last sentence, you certainly pegged it. Consider Vincent's defeat Gene Upshaw's last act of autocracy – though I have high hopes for DeMaurice Smith.
"Congrats on picking Buffalo for the next place where TO would go. You were the only writer I saw to get that one right. Course, maybe you just needed something to rhyme with 'go', 'Mexico', 'T.O', 'Romo' and 'Bledsoe.' "
Perhaps I was influenced by the fact that the lyric "buffalo" is in the original "Cowboy Song." Or perhaps I'm simply a sage. I'll never tell.
"I loved the article on Jay Cutler. You nailed this issue. The new leadership of the Broncos is clueless."
They certainly seem more clueless now than they did two weeks ago.
"Hi Mike, Nice column, but us Bronco fans are tired of Jay Cutler whining like a little girl. This guy is more sensitive than a high school teenager! Why doesn't he react like this when Philip Rivers is punking him from the sidelines? Dude has to grow up quick otherwise no team will want him and his so-called 'team leader' status will disappear!"
I can see why some frustrated fans believe Cutler is behaving like a diva, albeit a diva who can throw the deep out. Yet given his talent, and the way he produced last season despite Denver's defensive deficiencies and injury issues at running back, I'm fairly sure there are a lot of teams who'd be happy to take their chances with him running the show. It's one thing to applaud when a coach refuses to indulge a star, but when the coach is a 32-year-old neophyte with no proven alternative at the team's most important position, I think it's a stance you may end up reconsidering come September.
"So where is Pat Bowlen with his statement when he fired Shanahan 'Jay is our man.' Ya right. [Josh] McDaniels should be in draft – but he'd go in seventh round if lucky."
Sorry, Chase, but I guess you weren't speaking for every Broncos fan after all. Thanks, Jeanne, for bringing up the owner's culpability in all of this – he's done a lot of impressive things since buying the Broncos, but this is not Bowlen's finest hour.
"Do you think that the Broncos seriously entertained offers to acquire Matt Cassel in place of Jay Cutler? Last year the passing game was just about the only thing about their season that actually went right. Meanwhile Cassel has been a career backup who played well for most of one season while throwing to Randy Moss, one of the top deep threats around who is only one year removed from breaking the record for receiving TDs in a season, and Wes Welker, perhaps the best possession receiver in the game. Throw in the fact that Cassel was coached by everyone's [least?] favorite evil genius in a hoodie, and you get a player who I hope most NFL personnel men realize is not worth an investment in excess of $14 million [more than the Cardinals think your boy, the indomitable and battle-hardened Kurt Warner is worth]."
East Stroudsburg, Pa.
Yes, they seriously entertained those offers, and as a result they'll now be dealing from weakness while fielding and/or initiating another wave of offers.
"As usual, you recommend that the Broncos' head coach and GM kiss Cutler's butt and make nice to him. Just like you said Daniel Snyder was right in undermining Jim Zorn in the Clinton Portis saga. You're a bore, man. Same old sad, tired garbage from you week in and week out. You've never sat in the big chair, son. You've always been an employee who thinks he gets how it works. You don't. You're a salaried pencil pusher [and a poor one, at that] who pretends to know how to run a show you've never run, how to lead a business you've never owned, and how to interact with employees you've never had. You are good at one thing – pretending. Anybody with a pencil can do that … pretend to have talent."
Thanks for setting me straight, JJ. Given your opinion that only those Americans who "sit in the big chair" are qualified to comment upon employee-management relations in America, I suppose you have no use for anything that I or my fellow working stiffs might have to say. So I'll save my breath, and I'll be sure to think of you on my next trip to the porcelain chair.
"Michael, I have been reading your fine work on Yahoo! for the last two years. Thank you for working with some songs the last two or three weeks that I have heard of! Thin Lizzy's 'Cowboy Song,' is a vastly under appreciated gem, and Seger's 'Turn the Page,' is among his best work. I'm sure I've missed some other classics, but I hate asking my 14-year-old daughter if she has ever heard of the others you use. Do the Seahawks finally start to consider drafting a quarterback to replace [Matt] Hasselbeck? He may have another year or two in him, but [Charlie] Frye and [Seneca] Wallace are not exactly playoff caliber."
I think Wallace is a legitimate quarterback, and I'd be anxious to see what he might do as a full-time starter. I also think Hasselbeck is far from done. With all of that said, if the Seahawks have a shot at a quarterback they like, drafting one wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. As for the songs, I hope your live-in music critic is as discerning as my 12-year-old daughter, who recently uttered the phrase, "Led Zeppelin is too soft."
"Mike, your 'Turn to Sage' was priceless. Your 'Torn' combined some ingenious lyrics with some Cowboy-ripping, both of which I love, and I thought you could never top that one … but you did. I almost shot some Bock out of my nose, as I was drinking the hometown brew while reading it. Meanwhile, my beloved Texans, who truly became my team when they beat the hated Cowgirls in their first game, trade the RosenCopter and sign Dan Outofboundsky. Uhh, Texans? I'm still waiting on you to live up to the promise you showed in that first game, and you're scaring me … "
There are certain things which make me prone to shooting Shiner Bock out of my nose every time I see them, and Orlovsky's prolonged jaunt through the back of the end zone is one of them. I can see your frustration, but I have a lot of faith in the Texans' offensive coordinator.
"Hey Michael, Great job on the [Michael] Vick article. I just wanted to comment on what everyone is talking about with him. The man has done his time. Leave him alone. Let him redeem himself and give him his job at quarterback back to him. All of these people that's saying that he needed more time, his punishment wasn't just to his crime, he shouldn't be allowed back into the league, shut up! Who are you to judge this man? OK, he made a dumb decision. Everyone sees that and knows that. You people are giving more value and life to an animal than a human which is stupid by all means. So I believe that he should be given his job back at quarterback because he brings people and their money to their seats and TVs. The Falcons and everyone in Atlanta knew that. He was the biggest bankable star ever to hit the Atlanta Falcons and they will miss that."
Alex Mullins (age 17)
Thanks for your email, Alex. I'm tempted to say that you'll soon turn cynical like the rest of us, but I'm going to hold my breath and hope for the best.
" 'I did not mean to imply that somehow the life of an animal is less important than that of a human. I meant to say it outright: Humans [at least from my species-centric orientation] are more important than animals.' Once Pit Bulls learn to read, you are so toast! With an attitude like that, you'd certainly be questioned at the Pearly Gates. If that's where you were going."
"First off I love your column. I work in a restaurant and have been delving into the restaurant subculture. I have become a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain and you may take this as a compliment or an insult but you are to football as he is to the food culture. Witty, eloquent and cocky … a perfect mix."
You left out "spicy," and it's bumming me out.
"Thank you for NFL columns. I enjoy reading them. I think it is interesting that you criticize poor grammar and spelling. I was wondering if you think you have alienated some of your readers, like my brother, who have dyslexia [or a similar disorder] and are unable to write grammatically correct emails. Have you ever offered a disclaimer to people like my brother so they feel free to offer their comments/questions without being overly criticized?"
Here's the disclaimer: Anyone with dyslexia, or who speaks a foreign language, or who simply has issues with spelling and grammar can feel free to write in without being made fun of – unless the primary point of your email is to question the intelligence of the writer. Once that happens, as many of you would say, "your in trubble."
- Alex Mack