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Alex Mack 'fired up' about Cleveland Browns after unique ordeal

If Alex Mack was looking for a metaphor -- for his fresh start with the Browns, the deep freeze the franchise applied to his fleeting Floridian flirtation or both -- the Pro Bowl center was confronted with an obvious one Tuesday morning when he peeked out the bedroom window of his suburban Cleveland home and saw white where there should have been green.

The overnight springtime snowfall surprised Mack, who'd worn shorts and flip-flops to the Browns' training facility the previous afternoon, his first workday since the team matched the five-year, $42 million offer sheet he'd signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Clearly, regrettably, the transition-tag deal carried no requirement that Cleveland also match Jacksonville's weather. "Wouldn't that be nice?" joked Mack, who nonetheless put an entirely positive spin on his return to the franchise that selected him in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

The only disappointment Mack expressed in the wake of his new deal was that his first foray into faux free agency played out so deliberately. A little more than a month ago, when he and I dined with veteran free-agent lineman Will Svitek at a bustling Manhattan Beach pub, Mack spoke excitedly of the impending start of the league year, which was a little more than 12 hours away. "I've never been in this position before, and it's exhilarating to contemplate how it will play out," Mack said at the time, between bites of a massive burger. "I could be on a plane tomorrow afternoon. We'll see."

As it turned out, Mack spent the day holed up in his beach pad watching old movies and fiddling around with his Xbox One, pursuits that went uninterrupted by calls from suitors. He and agent Marvin Demoff soon realized that the seldom-applied transition tag, which tendered Mack a one-year salary of $10.039 million and afforded the Browns the right to match any offer, complicated his situation, adding a strategically nuanced layer to any potential courtship.

"That night we were out, I was expecting everything to happen fast, and that it would all be over maybe five days from then," Mack said Wednesday evening. "It obviously took much longer than that. After a couple of days, it was very obvious that I was in a special category. I was more difficult to sign because (of the prospect that the Browns might match), and so I was kind of tabled for a while."

Eventually, the Jaguars took a swing, hosting Mack on a visit that both sides described in glowing terms. "Jacksonville did a really good job," Mack said. "It's a really cool city and a nice facility. The coaches were great. The players I met were really nice. The vibe was great. I thought, 'Absolutely, let's do a deal.' "

The challenge for Demoff and Jags general manager Dave Caldwell was to structure a contract that worked for both sides while sufficiently repelling the Browns, which was not an easy task. In belated response to the Vikings' infamous poaching of Seahawks guard Steve Hutchinson via a "poison pill" provision eight years ago, the transition-tag rules were amended following the 2011 lockout to eliminate such devices.

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The best the Jags could do was to include $26 million of fully guaranteed salary over the first three seasons while inserting a clause allowing Mack to void the deal after two years (and denying the team the possibility of retaining him via the franchise or transition tags). The Jags believed Mack wanted to play for them and hoped the Browns would not try to keep him against his will.

It didn't play out that way: The Browns, who had five days to match, exercised the option after five hours, with new Cleveland general manager Ray Farmer phoning Mack to deliver the news. Had the Browns allowed Mack to leave, Farmer would have been heavily criticized for the move, given that he could have easily avoided the predicament by franchising the center, rather than using the transition tag. By guaranteeing Mack a one-year, franchise-tag salary of $11.6 million, the Browns could have essentially taken him off the market, as any team signing him to an offer sheet that the Browns decided not to match would have had to surrender a pair of first-round draft picks.

If Mack truly wanted out of Cleveland, he did an excellent job of concealing his sentiments.

"I never wanted to burn bridges," he said. "That was really important to me, from last offseason on, when we started talking about (a possible long-term extension). Nothing about this is personal. Whatever the path of my career, I'm determined to leave positive impressions and be one of the good guys."

Throughout the Jags' courtship, Mack said he carefully weighed the two situations, furthering his reputation as an obsessive list-maker.

"When I wrote out the pros and cons on a sheet of paper -- which I do all the time, anyway -- there were a lot of positives in both columns," he said. "And I knew throughout the process that I had to be happy with either outcome."

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Having surpassed the Carolina Panthers' Ryan Kalil as the NFL's highest-paid center, and having afforded himself a shot at unrestricted free agency in two years, Mack can't be too broken up about his fate. His Browns teammates sure aren't. Said All-Pro offensive tackle Joe Thomas: "I'm happy to have all the contract stuff behind us and excited to have big Mack back."

Everyone's certainly in a better mental place than they were three-and-a-half months ago, when, in the immediate aftermath of the Browns' season-ending defeat to the Steelers in Pittsburgh, Mack and his teammates learned of first-year coach Rob Chudzinski's impending firing on the bus ride home.

"That was a very surreal moment," Mack said. "It's an interesting game; things change all the time. People are traded, things move around. It's just part of what life is."

However, life in Cleveland -- home of the *Factory of Sadness* -- has been inordinately tumultuous since the Browns drafted the brainy ex-Cal star with the 21st overall selection in 2009. There have been defeats (at least 11 in each of Mack's five seasons), regime changes (Randy Lerner/Eric Mangini to Lerner/Mike Holmgren/Tom Heckert to Jimmy Haslam/Joe Banner/Mike Lombardi to Haslam/Farmer) and coaching casualties (Mike Pettine will be Mack's fourth head coach in six seasons).

Yet Mack, who has taken each of the Browns' 4,998 offensive snaps since 2009, is putting his head down and hoping for the best.

Last season, the Browns' promising start gave Mack and his teammates a glimpse of what life around town might be like if the team were to start winning consistently.

"That'd be awesome," he said. "You felt a little bit of it last year, but then we had a couple of injuries, lost some tight games and it got out of hand. If we start really getting up there, this city will go nuts.

"I'm fired up. It's exciting to think about where the Browns are going. We've got six Pro Bowlers. We can be good."

The upshot: After a month's worth of list-making limbo, Mack seems convinced that a metaphorical thaw has arrived.

"Things are warming up," he said. "No, literally, the snow has melted."

And if the Browns finally provide some heartwarming moments to the Factory of Sadness? Well, wouldn't that be nice?

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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