Kyle Shanahan has always been very particular about his centers. He is demanding of them, especially from a mental standpoint, in terms of making checks at the line of scrimmage and reading pressure to provide the right help on double-team blocks, but also to be physical and athletic enough to make blocks at the second level, and to put out fires quickly.
After an arguably slow start to the season, Alex Mack, who has now been with Shanahan at some point in every one of his career’s stops (Cleveland, Atlanta and now San Francisco), looks as reliable as ever. The Cal alum turned 36 on Friday, another milestone in a 13-year career, in a league with an average career length just above three years.
One aspect of Mack’s game that is impossible to miss is just how excited he is to play football. He is a bit of an odd duck; a very intelligent, goofy guy who admittedly sweats too much and literally sprints around practice like he’s at recess. See: below.
After the win over the Bears, Shanahan was asked about Mack and how energetic he is, even at 36. On the 50-yard completion from Jimmy Garoppolo to Deebo Samuel at the end of the first half, Mack was one of the first players to the line, which was crucial to spiking the ball and at least taking one more shot at the end zone.
“Going back to Cleveland, he’s always been that same way,” Shanahan said. “That’s why I used to call him, I still do, I call him our golden retriever because he does that in practice every play. He’s always running down the field, chasing the — I say — the tennis ball, wherever you throw it. And he enjoys playing football and he never stops and that’s exactly how he is in practice every play.”
Garoppolo echoed that, saying he loves the energy Mack provides. He was also asked about the tendency he has to get under defensive players’ skin.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Garoppolo said sarcastically, while laughing. “But you love to see that though. Especially from the center, he sets a tone for the rest of those guys too.”
Mack told KNBR that he’s played and practiced the same way since high school.
“Something I’ve always prided myself on is finishing plays and going to the whistle and being around the ball,” Mack said. “I think there’s one way to play and I try to do that every day. So that starts in practice. You have to be used to doing that and rushing downfield and finishing and covering and that’s something I’ve done since high school. I was the same way in college and really tried to press that and use that to my advantage because it doesn’t take any skill to have effort.”
Below is just a short compilation of Mack being Mack, which means being annoying to opponents and providing a funny, arguably unnecessary amount of effort. Most of the few clips are from Arizona.
In the first clip, Mack throws what is basically a punch at the end of the play. In the second clip, he annoys Cardinals linebacker Zaven Collins. In the following clip, he gets a talking to from both linebacker Jordan Hicks and safety Budda Baker for a late shove on Hicks. In the next one, he fights at the bottom of the pile, holding onto Collins for a long time, and gets pulled away.
In the final clip, the one Garoppolo and Shanahan were asked about, you can see, especially at the end, Mack absolutely hauling towards the red zone to get up and spike the ball.
Mack acknowledged that his continued effort can sometimes rub players the wrong way, and even if it looks ridiculous at times, he views it as a necessity. Even if a play might seem dead, Mack said it’s not worth taking the risk by taking part of the play off. Getting under players’ skin is a natural byproduct of extended effort.
“There’s a bit of that,” Mack said. “I want to always be finishing and you never know where the ball’s going. Be downfield, pushing things; I only know one way to do it. And so I go all the way to the whistle and you don’t know if the guy’s gonna get up or what’s gonna happen. At times, maybe, it’s very obvious you should let it go, but you never really know and if there’s a line, you want to be on the side that’s going hard.”
Shanahan said Friday that Mack’s intelligence is part of what sets him apart and a key to his longevity.
“Alex was a first-round pick. He was extremely talented coming out, but for him to play this long and still play at a high level there’s so much more in there,” Shanahan said. “He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever been around. Not just football players. He’s extremely smart, works at it, the guy practices at a certain level that sets an example for everybody. He goes hard all the time, runs to the ball every single play and he enjoys playing football. He enjoys practicing, you can see why he’s lasted so long.”
That was highlighted on the 49ers’ second possession of Monday night’s win, when a Garoppolo hard count drew Aaron Donald into the neutral zone, and Mack snapped the ball immediately.
A few plays later, Donald threw Mack to the ground. Mack immediately got up, and in typical fashion, hand-jousted with Donald a couple of times. It feels simultaneously like he’s joking with Donald, but also dead serious about cutting him out of the play — which at that point is dead — on the off chance it continues.
It’s that appreciation for intelligence that Shanahan appreciates that also drew Mack to him.
Mack said he that despite being with Shanahan in Cleveland, Atlanta and Santa Clara, “he’s the same guy” and part of what makes him a great coach is that he’s simultaneously demanding and empowering of his players.
He said that part of the decision not just to keep playing, but to join the 49ers, was that Shanahan knew how to take care of him as he got older, and ran an outside zone style he loves.
“Being an older player, they took pretty good care of me when I was in Atlanta as I got older,” Mack said. “So just knowing Kyle as a coach and having a bit of a personal relationship and knowing that he would be able to know what it takes to play through a whole season — and then for him to declare that you’d be taken care of, is comforting. And then just knowing the system. The big part was really the system, the offense and what it takes and kind of the style we play here is something that I really enjoy and I wanted to be a part of.”
Nine games into his 13th season, in a system and with a head coach he picked specifically, Mack said he’s not thinking about anything long term.
But as someone who’s been a starting center for 13-straight years, with six Pro Bowls under his belt and a spot on 2010s Pro Football Hall of Fame All-Decade team, there is a very substantial legacy Mack will leave behind, when he does make the decision to retire.
“I feel I still have work to do,” Mack said. “I’m taking it one year at a time and the top thing on my mind is what is the next game and how can I be best for this team. When it comes to legacy, anything else, I would like to think that I’m remembered. But the real takeaway is that there’s no way you can do that beyond just focusing on now and being the best player you can be.”