Good day, Browns fans!
This article concludes the postseason review of the 2003 Cleveland Browns. This is part 3, looking at the special teams. Parts 1 and 2 covered the offense and defense, respectively. Part 4 will examine coaching and the front office.
The special teams were a key factor in the success of the 2002 Browns. Two successful onside kicks, three kick returns for touchdowns, clutch field goals, and solid punting all were key factors in winning games. In 2003, other than a successful fake field goal and great punting, the Browns did not get a lot of difference-making plays on special teams. This was a factor that hurt the offense by consistently placing it in bad field position.
Let's examine each of the special teams units.
Chris Gardocki finished his fifth year with the Browns. In 2002, he was solid, but it was probably his weakest season with the team. He bounced back to have a strong 2003, placing a lot of balls inside the 20. Gardocki continued his string of nearly 1000 punts without a block in his career.
With Gardocki's contract up and the fact that he made $1 million in 2003, it is looking as if Gardocki will not be back. The Browns say they are talking to his agent, but while Gardocki wants to play another four or five years, Butch Davis says he could play another two. Then there is the fact that the Browns signed punter David Frost to the active roster late in 2003 to stash him for the future. The Browns have had their eye on Frost for a while. He is said to have a strong leg and also does kickoffs. Is this a negotiating ploy or do the Browns think Frost can be the man in 2004? It isn't clear right now.
Phil Dawson had a pretty decent year with his field goals. With so few scoring opportunities, every missed kick was magnified. Still, Dawson made enough kicks to raise his field goal percentage to the highest for a Brown. I have long complained about how short Dawson's kickoffs are, and in 2003, this might have been his worst season in this department. It is really hurting to have opponents starting at their own 30 consistently. Dawson made a tackle or two as well.
After Phil Dawson broke his arm in the St. Louis game, the Browns signed Brett Conway. He had real game experience as opposed to Jay Taylor who the Browns had in the last two preseasons. Conway missed two field goals in limited attempts, one of which might have made a big difference in the Denver game. One nice thing about Conway was that he did have some booming kickoffs.
The Browns got two punt returns for touchdowns from Dennis Northcutt in 2002, and several more that were long returns that put the team on a short field. This season, Northcutt had a return for a touchdown that was wiped out by a holding penalty. Several other long or average returns were killed by penalties, and with the Browns' struggles on offense, moving the ball back 10, 20, or even 30 yards really hurt the team. This was a consistent problem on both punts and kickoffs.
The Browns tried a number of players on kickoff returns. Andre Davis didn't have the same zip as a year ago. Return after return, it seemed like all he did was look for where the most guys were and run there and fall down. After a while, the Browns tried some other players. Quincy Morgan had once decent return. For several weeks at the end of the season, Lee Suggs took over this job and did very nicely. Andre King is a stop gap on kickoff returns at best. Surprisingly, the Browns did not use Jamel White here despite the fact that he was little used on offense for most of the year. Kickoff returns yielded very little production overall.
Too many kicks, whether kickoffs or punts, had good returns. While the Browns did not allow some very talented return men like Dante Hall to burn them, too many average players were able to get above average returns against the Browns. Perhaps the best thing that can be said is that some of the gunners like Michael Lehan and Leigh Bodden did a nice job downing kicks inside the 20. Also, kudos to Brant Boyer who always seems to come up with a good special teams play.
The fake field goal run by Phil Dawson against Oakland was the key play of the game. The Browns got a touchdown on the next play to secure a 13-7 win.
The Browns tried two fake punts. The first was run at New England. The Browns were around their own 35 and direct snapped the ball to Brant Boyer who bulled forward for the first down. The Browns ended up punting a few plays later anyway. The other play was at Denver. The Browns were once again around their own 35. They tried having Boyer throw a shovel pass to Michael Jameson. Boyer's pass was low and the play failed. Butch Davis said that had the pass been successful that the play would have gained "40 or 50 yards". I watched that play several times and I am not convinced Jameson would have gotten the yard or two for the first down.
The Browns never found themselves in position to try an onside kick after executing two successfully in 2002.
The Season is Short. Bark Hard!