Long before the Browns and Titans began their game Dec. 29 in Adelphia Coliseum in Nashville, place kicker Phil Dawson walked the field, checking it out the way the greens-keeper at Augusta might meticulously check out every blade of grass on his course before the Masters.
Dawson is a master of his craft. While his teammates are watching ESPN or HBO the night before a game, Dawson is watching the weather channel to get a jump on what to expect at kickoff. Then, during his pre-game inspection of the field, he takes note of the wind currents, knowing that the ribbons atop the uprights can be deceiving.
As most Browns fans know by now, that knowledge helped Dawson kick the game-winning field goal in the 41-38 victory over the Titans.
The third-year place kicker made 15 straight field goals and 19 of his last 20 heading into the final game of the season in Pittsburgh. He had his success quietly until the Titans game, because before then he hadn't had the chance to kick a game-winner.
His only other game-winning field goal beat the Steelers 16-15 in Pittsburgh Nov. 14, 1999. But without the kicks he did make earlier this season - three against the Jaguars, two against the Chargers and four against the Bengals - the Browns wouldn't be 7-8.
Dawson made his final eight field goal attempts last season. Combining that with what he has done this season means he has made 30 of his last 33 3-point attempts. Those are Pro Bowl numbers.
"It seems like my field goals have gone in spurts," Dawson said. "I'll go along and have none or one then I'll have three or four in a game.
"But I have my career percentage up over 80 percent (44 of 54, 81.4 percent). That was a goal of mine. I've been pleased with that. I'm focusing on finishing strong. If I do that when the offseason rolls along I'll be able to really enjoy it.
"A couple of the kicks have been in the last two minutes and some have been important in the close games we've had. It's fun to be a part of that. I look forward to when we really get this thing going because there are going to be some real meaningful kicks."
Next to Dawson, no one is happier for the kicker¹s success than head coach Butch Davis. It was Davis who stood by Dawson when he wasn't in the groove during the pre-season and early in the regular season.
"Trust me," Davis said at the time. "Phil Dawson is kicking better than he ever has in the three years he's been here, from what people tell me. His leg is stronger. He's going to go out and kick 10 in a row."
So Davis is off by five, and he might be off by more before the streak inevitably ends. But the coach's words meant a lot to Dawson when the kicker read them in the paper.
Dawson's last miss was a 48-yarder against the Chargers Oct. 10. His longest since then was the 44-yarder against the Titans (because the wind was at his back and he was kicking off a favorable surface, Bermuda grass, Dawson told Davis he felt comfortable from 53 yards).
When he made his 10th straight, a 27-yarder against the Patriots Dec.9, Dawson went to Davis and said: "That one was for you. I appreciate you sticking by me in the beginning. I'm glad I'm able to prove you right."
"He shows a unique understanding of the kicking game that a lot of head coaches don't," Dawson said. "A perfect example is in New England when they were heading into the wind in the third quarter. We stopped them on third down and Butch called time out with one second to go so though they would have to kick (a 45-yarder) into the wind. They made a 54-yarder going the other way in the first half, but missed a 45-yard kick."
Players and coaches around the league did their Pro Bowl voting Dec. 26. Players are not permitted to vote for teammates and coaches must vote for opposing players. When asked which Browns deserve to play in the Pro Bowl, Davis included Dawson because he made 22 of 25 kicks, an 88 percent success rate.
"Personally, I would rather have a kicker at or near 90 percent inside 43 yards than a 75 percent kicker who two or three times a year might make a 56-yarder," Davis said. "Then you can game plan. You know if you get the ball inside the 30 you're going to automatically get three points.
"The one thing last year Phil caught a little criticism for was his kickoffs. Earlier this year, before the temperature dropped, they were the best they've been in his NFL career."
Dawson still gets grief about his kickoffs from fans that don't understand how football has changed since the league introduced the hated 'K-balls' three years ago. In an effort to get more kick returns, the league mandated kickers and punters must use balls that remain in the original box until 10 minutes before the game. The balls are rubbed down by officials and stored, but the rubdown isn't nearly as thorough as what kickers would do.
Kickers would "cook" the balls in a sauna before the league clamped down on the practice because they travel further that way.
"Quarterbacks put the balls they're going to use in a game in the sauna," Dawson said. "They're doing what the league doesn't want the 'weird' kickers doing."
Only two of Dawson's kicks have been for touchbacks. But guess what? Opponents have had only two touchbacks against the Browns and at least one opponent, the Ravens, have a player whose only job is to kick off Danny Kight. Kight has six touchbacks. Thirteen teams have five or fewer.
The league total for touchbacks is 194. There have been significantly more by teams playing home games in warm weather cities. San Diego has 17, Miami and Oakland 12 and the Tennessee 10. Tampa Bay has an NFC-high 10 and the Rams, playing half their games in a dome, have nine.
"Unless you're kicking, I don't think people understand what a difference it makes," Dawson said. "You get creative by placing the ball instead of just kicking deep. The cold weather and balls not only affects the distance, it affects hang time. Earlier in the year I was getting 4.0 and now it's 3.7."
A football fresh out of the box is almost white with a waxy coating. A brush is included in the box so the coating, a preservative and waterproofing, can be rubbed off. But sometimes the surface is still slippery. Dawson said the K-balls are one reason for numerous fumbles on punts and kickoffs.
Originally published on 1/7/2002 in Bernies Insiders Magazine