HOUSTON − Alex Mack stays on the high road. What's he supposed to say about those seven seasons he spent with the Cleveland Browns? That they were like a recurring nightmare? That he felt perpetual hopelessness and despair?
It was one losing season after another. Anyone who has been a part of the Browns in any capacity since their return to Cleveland in 1999 knows the feeling.
But since arriving here for Super Bowl LI, Mack has stayed classy about the fact that, in only his first season after joining the Atlanta Falcons in free agency, he's playing for the Lombardi Trophy. The closest the veteran center has come to saying anything that could be remotely interpreted as a dig at the Browns is this: "I think I was ready for a change of pace."
Yes, he was.
Mack refused to allow the malaise to take away from his desire to consistently perform at his best. He managed to establish himself as one of the top centers in the NFL and commanded a contract that reflected as much ($45 million, including $28.5 million guaranteed, over five years) when he hit the open market last March.
After Mack joined the Browns in 2009, as a first-round draft pick from Cal, the team went 5-11, 5-11, 4-12, 5-11, 4-12, 7-9, and 3-13.
In 2016, his first year in Atlanta, the Falcons went 11-5.
More than anything, Mack is humbled by the journey he has traveled since his rookie season. It has given him a greater appreciation for what it takes to reach the sport's biggest stage.
“I know it’s really tough to make it to the Super Bowl," Mack said. "It takes a whole season of a lot of guys playing well. Early in your career, you’re excited about one day having the opportunity to do that, and it’s tough. Games are tough to win.
"During my time in Cleveland, we were just trying to get a winning schedule to make it the playoffs. This year, to come to Atlanta and to have the opportunity to play well throughout the season and win enough games for a chance at the playoffs, is super exciting.”
He'll tell you that learning the Browns had made him first-round pick, 21st overall, is still a bigger deal than learning the Falcons had signed him as a free agent. "To be on a team that let me play early and groomed me as a player ... I don’t regret a single day of my time in Cleveland,” Mack said.
Nevertheless, he has received a monumental upgrade, especially considering the Browns' NFL-worst 1-15 finish in 2016. But it isn't just that Mack has been part of a winning team for the first time in his professional career.
It's that he is part of the No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL. It's that he snaps the ball to one of the very best quarterbacks in the game, Matt Ryan, and gets to block for him and a couple of superb running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
It's that he helps create the time necessary for Ryan to find one of the game's best receivers, Julio Jones. It's that he carries out plays designed and called by star offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who will become the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers after the Super Bowl.
"Our success on offense is almost uncanny," Mack said. "The amount of guys that we have that have been able to step up and score touchdowns for this team is incredible."
Shanahan played a significant role in Mack's decision to join the Falcons. Mack liked playing in Shanahan's offense when he was the Browns' coordinator in 2014.
“Kyle as OC has been really fun to play for because the outside-zone scheme has been really friendly to offensive linemen," he said. "We love running the ball as offensive linemen and when you run the ball and have a coordinator committed to running it, it helps you on pass plays."
Mack has been dealing with a sore ankle that has Falcons coach Dan Quinn admittedly concerned.
Mack has tried to play down the injury, which bothered him more in the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay than it does now. His greater concern is the Patriots' defense.
“It’s absolutely going to be a hard time for our offense," Mack said. "They do a great job, especially (with) their front guys. They’re big, heavy guys. They read the run very well, they stop really well (and) they commit to making it really tough. They have a bunch of guys that work really well together and they do a lot of different, complex things.”
Considering the long, difficult road Mack has traveled, it's fair to say he has faced bigger challenges.