Featured Falcon Friday: Center Alex Mack

Aug 11, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack (51) is introduced before a game against the Washington Redskins at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 11, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack (51) is introduced before a game against the Washington Redskins at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports /

In this week’s Featured Falcon Friday (FFF), we take a look at the effect that the Falcons’ biggest offseason addition, All-Pro center Alex Mack, has had on the team.

Something was missing from the Falcons offense. In fact, some one has been missing since the 2012 season. If you haven’t figured it out, the player the Falcons have been devoid of since coming ten yards from the Super Bowl is center Todd McClure.

The Falcons have not had to replace a center, the most important position along the offensive line, since McClure became the starter during the 2000 season. In the three years following “Mud Duck’s” retirement, Atlanta experimented with four different pivot men, each one flaming out for a different reason.

Joe Hawley looked to be the second coming of McClure, but injuries ended his Falcon career. 2012 second round pick Peter Konz lacked the functional strength to play the position, relegating him to mostly guard duties. The combination of undrafted free agent James Stone and career backup guard Mike Person suffered from the inability to perform a shotgun snap, leading to the most inopportune of turnovers.

The lack of a true anchor along the offensive line has had a ripple effect on the entire offense. Most notably, Matt Ryan experienced a dip in his production from 2013-2015 and a playoff drought ensued. In walks three time Pro Bowler Alex Mack and look at the difference in Ryan’s production:

The Falcons made Mack their number one priority during the offseason and the result was a five year contract in the neighborhood of $45 million. Money well spent considering the team’s recent turnstile of centers. Not only was this a perfect marriage for the Falcons, the former Cleveland Brown and Cal Bear benefited as well.

Alex Mack spent his entire career as the Cleveland Browns starting center since the day he was drafted 21st overall in the 2009 NFL draft. During his time with the Browns, Mack brought a level of consistency to the position that could not be expected from neither Cleveland’s quarterbacks nor its head coaches. The Los Angeles native blocked for 13 different starting quarterbacks and played for four different head coaches in his seven year tenure with the team.

Winning also alluded Mack his entire career as the Browns managed a pathetic 29-70 record during his days in Cleveland. In an interview with cleveland.com, Alex cites winning as one of the biggest factors in his decision to leave the Browns organization, despite the close relationships he built with his offensive line mates.

But there was no guarantee his Cleveland brethren would remain intact so Mack made a shrewd business move and decided to join the Atlanta Falcons. Becoming the league’s highest paid center in the process helped ease his decision. And so far, Alex Mack has been worth every penny.

He has taken the burden of calling protections at the line of scrimmage off Matt Ryan’s shoulders. The result: Ryan leads the league in nearly every statistical category and pegged by most analysts as the quarter pole MVP.

He has also helped to improve the play of guards Andy Levitre and Chris Chester. While Chester still remains a sore spot along the Falcons’ offensive line, the video below courtesy of Allen Strk demonstrates how Mack makes up for the line’s shortcomings.

Arguably Mack’s greatest asset to Atlanta’s offense has been his efforts in the run game. Part of what made Mack such a perfect fit in Atlanta was his prowess in Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme. The two enjoyed great success during their lone season together in 2014 before the center broke his fibula.

Shanahan’s outside-zone blocking scheme requires its pivot man to explode off the ball and reach its second level blocks as quickly as possible. Atlanta’s former center, Mike Person, struggled mightily with that task, often times getting pushed back into Ryan post snap. Alex Mack, on the other hand, excels at this as seen in this compilation courtesy of Brandon Thorn.

Mack’s addition to the Falcons offensive line has propelled the team to sixth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (124.5) and tied for fourth in yards per carry (4.7). The latter should come as no surprise given the huge holes Mack has provided his ball carriers.

The tipping point of Atlanta’s season last year came in its Thursday night showdown with the Saints. In the game, the then 5-0 Falcons began to exhibit the sloppy play that would go on to derail Dan Quinn’s rookie season. No play typified the second half version of the 2015 Dirty Birds better than the butt fumble snap executed by James Stone in that game.

Alex Mack was brought in to clean up those issues and bring stability to a position the Falcons have sought for years. In return, the Falcons offered the type of offensive firepower that Mack was never afforded in Cleveland. Matches don’t get more perfect than this. The only regret may be that Atlanta didn’t offer him a contract sooner, like in 2013, when Mack first hit the market and the Falcons first needed a center.