Mack decision not an easy one

When assessing the Alex Mack dilemma, my first thought is – what would Paul Brown have done?

Mack put the Browns into an uncomfortable situation Friday when he signed a five-year, $42 million offer sheet with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Because Mack is a restricted free agent, the Browns had five days to match the offer, which is exactly what happened.

It’s a classic case of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Browns officials had to decide if today’s NFL warrants giving a center $18 million of guaranteed money over two seasons (Mack can void the contract after the 2015 season) and $26 million guaranteed for five years.

Brown, the Browns coach in the 1950s and early ’60s, held centers in high esteem when he was part owner and coach of the expansion Cincinnati Bengals in 1968. He proved his point by making Tennessee center Bob Johnson the Bengals’ first-ever draft choice and the second overall pick in the ’68 draft behind USC offensive tackle Ron Yary.

How would Brown have handled the sticky situation the Browns faced? Would his belief in the important role of centers have caused him to match the Jaguars’ offer, or would he have looked at the salary-cap situation and concluded that it would be unwise to devote 15 percent of the salary cap on two offensive linemen (Mack and left tackle Joe Thomas)?

The absurdity of matching Mack’s contract is that he’ll be snapping the ball to a quarterback (Brian Hoyer) who will be in the second year of a two-year contract with an average base salary of $982,500 and no signing bonus. Hoyer has a $250,000 roster bonus and incentives totaling $1.15 million this year.

Once again, the Browns will be viewed from the outside as being a misguided franchise that pays their center infinitely more than their starting quarterback. Although, in fairness, they also would have been ridiculed by many for letting supposedly one of the NFL’s elite centers slip from their grasp if they hadn’t matched the Jaguars.

Times have changed dramatically in the 46 years since Brown conducted his first draft in Cincinnati. There was no salary cap in 1968, mainly because wages were so low that players had to take jobs in the offseason to pay their bills. At that time, centers were more valued because the NFL was a run-first, smash-mouth game that was just three years beyond the career of Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown.

The dearth of quality quarterback prospects undoubtedly played into Brown’s thinking in 1968. The first quarterback selected was Greg Landry, who went 11th overall to the Detroit Lions. The next quarterback chosen was Elridge Dickey, who went 25th to the Oakland Raiders.

As the game has evolved on the pro level, so has the center position. Today it isn’t so much how well a center handles a defensive tackle in an over or under 4-3 front. If he can’t get the ball into the quarterback’s hands with a long snap out of the shotgun formation, he’s useless.

Another important trait as the man in the middle is to make blocking adjustments to handle threats to weak areas, which means making sure uncovered guards know their responsibilities. Half his work is sometimes completed before the ball is snapped.

This isn’t to say that a brainy, computer geek from Harvard can do what Mack does. It’s just that centers aren’t what they used to be, which makes establishing their financial value in relation to other positions a challenging proposition.

Those who wanted the Browns to match the offer point out that losing Mack would have left the line with only Thomas as a top-tier talent and a gaping hole in the middle. That hole could have been filled by one of the seven picks the Browns have in the first four rounds of the draft, or guard John Greco could have moved to center.

Moving Greco would have caused a ripple effect at the guard spots, an area that lost Shawn Lauvao to the Washington Redskins. Paul McQuistan, signed away from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, will start at one guard spot. A potential candidate for the other spot could have been Chris Faulk, a rookie free agent from LSU last year. Faulk, who missed the entire 2013 season while recovering from a knee injury suffered in college, was considered a possible first-round pick prior to the 2012 season.

Perhaps the main factor that needed weighed is Mack’s wishes at the prime of a career in which he has yet to miss a game in five seasons. Every media person claims to know what is really in Mack’s heart, apparently buying into second-hand information gathered from agents and other sources.

If the NFL was set up so athletes coming out of college could choose the team of their choice, the Browns wouldn’t be good until the average temperature in Cleveland is about 70 all year and there are signs of downtown nightlife. There’s only so much a player can take of losing seasons, winter pot holes and cold weather.

Kicker Phil Dawson, to his credit, stayed around as long as possible or, more precisely, until the Browns ran out of transition tags that all but tied him to Cleveland. The Browns applied the same tag on Mack after he showed no desire to sign a long-term contract last year.

That should speak volumes for where Mack’s head is at. Yes, the Browns were able to easily match the offer with their considerable cap space, but why bring back a player who has a desire to live elsewhere?

The moves the Browns have made this offseason (mainly the signings of Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner) indicate a desire to win now. They know they’re going to get a lot younger because of all the draft picks, so there’s a need to balance that out by adding some seasoned veterans.

That’s where Mack fits in, even if bringing him back might not have been a wise move.