Browns center Mack hopes days with team not over

Alex Mack’s five seasons in Cleveland have been challenging – to

put it mildly.

The steady center has endured almost constant losing, seemingly

endless coaching and quarterback turnover, front-office upheaval,

even an ownership change. It’s been tumultuous.

But with so many reasons to leave, Mack, eligible for free

agency this winter, said he wouldn’t mind staying.

Really? Here?

”Cleveland is a very easy place to come back to,” Mack said

Friday. ”I like the coaches. I like the players. I have a house

here. So without a doubt it would be very easy to come back.”

There’s no guarantee that Mack, who has never missed a snap with

the Browns, will return. And as he prepared for Sunday’s game

against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, he considered that his days

in Cleveland could be down to a precious few.

He’s not alone, either. Starting strong safety T.J. Ward and

inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson face uncertain futures, too.

Earlier this week, Ward, also poised for free agency, said he

wants to finish what he started.

”I like my team. I love my teammates. I love being in this

city. I love the organization,” said Ward, who has had a Pro

Bowl-caliber season. ”We haven’t had many wins, but I think we’re

building something here, and I think it’s being built the right

way. Sometimes things don’t happen right away. It takes a little

bit of time, but good things are worth the wait in a lot of

cases.

”We’re starting to build something,” he said.

Jackson, too, wants to remain with the only NFL team he has

known. But the eight-year veteran is due a $4.1 million roster

bonus in March, and because he’ll be 31 next season, there’s a

chance the Browns may decide he’s not worth the investment.

Jackson can’t imagine going anywhere.

”I’m stuck to Cleveland, it’s going to be hard to go somewhere

else and play,” he said. ”I know it’s the nature of the business,

things may change and I’m fully aware of that. Right now, I’m a

Cleveland Brown through and through.”

The Browns, who carry a six-game losing streak into the finale,

will enter the offseason with major decisions. Near the top of the

list are the futures of Mack, Ward and Jackson – unquestionably

three core players.

Mack has not only been durable – he’s started all 79 games since

he was drafted in 2009 – but the 28-year-old has developed into one

of the NFL’s top centers.

Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas, an Iron Man himself with 111

consecutive starts, admires Mack’s sturdiness at a physically

demanding position.

”The center position gets rolled up a lot because they’re in

between the guards and defensive tackles in the run game,” Thomas

said. ”A lot of people are falling on their legs. Alex is a

Gumby-like person. His durability is one of his best assets for any

team because the worst thing that can happen on an offensive line

is constantly shuffling rotations because of guys that are getting

injured, so to have a reliable center is very important.”

Thomas hopes the Browns appreciate Mack’s value.

”He’s one of the best centers in the NFL, and if we don’t bring

him back, now we have a big hole to fill at center, which is one of

the most important positions on the offensive line,” said Thomas,

adding that Mack’s intellect may be his biggest strength. ”He has

to be one of the best in the NFL at understanding the mental side

of the game and getting everybody on the same page blocking

wise.”

Mack was reluctant to talk about what could happen during the

offseason, but Jackson made a strong case for the Browns keeping

the center and Ward.

”That’s the way you build a solid team,” Jackson said. ”You

keep your young talent. T.J.’s having his best year as a pro. Alex

has been steady ever since he’s been in the league. He’s one of the

top centers in the league. You keep those core guys, then you build

your team around those guys. If you look around the league, the

good teams hold on to their solid talent.

”Hopefully those guys are in the plans,” Jackson added.

NOTES: TE Jordan Cameron returned to practice after missing last

week’s game with a concussion. Cameron, who has 75 catches, has to

be cleared by an independent neurologist before he can play Sunday.

… Ward also returned after missing Thursday’s workout with an

illness. … CB Joe Haden (hip) did not practice this week and is

listed as questionable on the injury report. Starting NT Phil

Taylor and G Jason Pinkston will both miss the season finale with

concussions.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org