By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
Lonesome Phil: I nicknamed Phil Dawson “Lonesome Phil” because he has been the lone consistent great player for the Browns in their expansion era.
It also became quite apparent to me several years ago that Dawson had surprisingly many detractors in Cleveland, which was remarkable considering his record and resiliency while kicking for one of the worst offensive football teams in perhaps the NFL’s toughest kicking environment for 13 years. A double whammy, if there ever was one.
Dawson has obliterated Hall of Famer Lou Groza’s fanchise record for field goals and now is within sight of Groza’s franchise record of 1,349 points scored.
“Two-and-a-half years (away),” said Dawson, who has scored 1,155 points – 34.2 percent of the team’s total points in 13 seasons.
Yes, Dawson has kept tabs on all of Groza’s records. What else is there to motivate him after kicking for a team with a record of 68 wins and 140 losses in 13 seasons? Who could blame him for pining for free agency the last couple years, for the ticket to a playoff contender, maybe a Super Bowl appearance, before he hangs up his cleats?
But after the Browns applied the franchise tag on Dawson for the second year in a row, denying him the opportunity to perhaps finish his NFL career with his hometown Dallas Cowboys, Dawson is left to chase Groza’s last meaningful record on the Browns’ books.
“That was a goal I set in 1999 when Danny Kight and Chris Boniol were out here competing against me in training camp,” Dawson said at minicamp this week. “If I had admitted back then that that was one of my goals you guys would have laughed me out of town, and I wouldn’t have blamed you. So a lot of work, a lot of years, a lot of effort has taken place since then. To even be remotely on the horizon close to that is a pretty neat thing.”
But what about those kickoffs?: One of the more amazing things I’ve encountered in my years on the Browns beat has been the relentless criticism I hear about Dawson’s depth on kickoffs. A vocal minority believes Dawson’s inability to kick the ball out of the end zone is grounds for getting rid of him.
“That’s been a consistent critique of mine since Day One,” Dawson said. “But I would remind everyone that so was not being able to hit a long field goal, and I led the league in 50-yarders last year (tied with two others with seven). It used to really bother me, I’ll be honest.
“My whole high school and college (careers), leg strength was never a question. I was kind of known as the big-leg, inaccurate guy. I was a 73 percent kicker at Texas, but I made a ton of 50-plus yarders. And I come to the NFL and I’m the highly accurate yet weak-legged guy. That label follows you around.
“Those people that have those problems, I just ask to compare it on a week to week basis. Look at my kickoffs against the guy I’m playing when we’re in the same conditions.”
Kickoff specialists beware: Some day – sooner than you think – the NFL will eliminate kickoffs altogether in the name of player safety. The league thinks the majority of concussions in the game are suffered on the kickoff play.
Until then, the league has liberally changed rules to reduce the number of kickoff returns. For the second year in a row, kickoffs start at the 35-yard line, making it easier for beefed-up kickoff specialists to blast the ball out of the end zone for touchbacks, which eliminate exciting returns and give the opponent the ball on the 20-yard line.
Except in Cleveland.
Although the Browns claimed Spencer Lanning, a combination punter-kickoff specialist waived by the Bears, Dawson does not believe a long kicker is of value in windswept Cleveland Browns Stadium.
“I’ll say it like I’ve said for 15 years – you’re not going to have a touchback guy in Cleveland,” Dawson said. “I see it every week, these so-called touchback guys come to Cleveland and they don’t do it. Two years ago, when (Baltimore’s Billy) Cundiff had 40-plus touchbacks -- this was from the 30-yard line -- he set the NFL record and came to Cleveland and had zero touchbacks in seven kickoffs.
“I put over 85 percent of my kickoffs in the end zone last year. I only had 10 touchbacks and people say ‘What’s wrong with Dawson?’ Well, teams were bringing them out. That was the trend, people bringing them out from nine (yards) deep. In order to get touchbacks, you had to put it out of the back. Well, nobody’s putting it out of the back in Cleveland. They’re just not doing it.
“So I can hit it eight (yards) deep and it’s not a touchback. I think here you’ve got to be versatile. A lot of kickoff guys have one kick. So how do you help your team in Cleveland when that one kick is not effective? You have to move the ball around, go high, short, low, line drive it. All the different things we do is a product of the environment we’re playing in.
“Now, do I wish sometimes I was in an environment where I can just lay my ears back? Of course.”
Those thoughts do cross Dawson’s mind at this stage of his career, along with kicking for a winning team. But at least for another year, he’s still kicking for the Browns, chasing Groza and his crown as the best kicker in Browns franchise history.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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