Derry: Dawson's Peak

In an off-season of change, the Browns made a quiet move in recent weeks which might have a large impact. Frank Derry looks at how the new administration regards special teams, and the role the Phil Dawson is set to play in the team's future...

With the start of Training Camp right around the corner, the Browns made possibly their most important move of the off-season, one which barely got noticed by anyone other than the most diehard Browns fans.

Place-kicker Phil Dawson, who along with Daylon McCutcheon are the only players who have been with the team since its return in 1999, signed a five-year contract extension that will keep him in Cleveland through the 2010 season.

Give credit to the new regime for realizing the importance of Dawson, who won't turn 31 until next January. Based upon the longevity of solid NFL kickers, Dawson should be in his prime throughout the length of the contract.

Through the team's first five years of their return, Dawson was probably the second Most Valuable Player on the team, trailing only punter Chris Gardocki in importance.

Unfortunately, former head coach Butch Davis deemed Gardocki expendable at the end of the 2003 season. It seemed as though Davis thought Gardocki's talent had diminished, that his hang time wasn't acceptable and that he could bring in just about anyone to handle the rigors of punting in Cleveland's unpredictable weather.

Unproven Derrick Frost proved him wrong.

It's impossible to say that Frost's poor punting was the reason Davis had panic attacks and had to abandon his team late last season, but it's a darn good bet that Frost did little to calm Davis's nerves.

It's an even better bet that Dawson will help Romeo Crennel's transition to being the new head coach of the Browns a whole lot easier. Not having to worry about the place-kicking situation for five years will eliminate one huge headache that would have been created had Dawson been allowed to leave after his previous contract expired at the end of this season.

If the Browns ever get good enough to where a field goal might make the difference when it comes to making the playoffs, Dawson's presence could prove vital.

Crennel obviously knows how important a dependable kicker is to a Super Bowl caliber team, having witnessed Adam Vinatieri make one clutch kick after another as the Patriots rolled to three Super Bowl titles over the past four years.

And first-year general manager Phil Savage obviously knows how important Matt Stover has been to the Baltimore Ravens ever since they came into being in 1996. Stover went with the former Cleveland franchise when owner Art Modell moved the team and he has been solid for nine straight years with no sign of slowing down.

Both Vinatieri and Stover have enjoyed much more notoriety than Dawson, mainly because they have played on very good teams (four Super Bowl titles total).

But statistically, Dawson takes a back seat to no one.

He ranks as the franchise leader in field goal percentage at 81.8 percent, having connected on 108-of-132 career attempts. Overall, he ranks seventh all-time in NFL history in accuracy.

His six game-winning kicks over the past six years pales in comparison to some NFL kickers who happen to play for teams sometimes win as many games in one season as it takes the Browns to win in three.

You can't blame Dawson for that.

The fact the Browns tied up Dawson for the rest of this decade, plus went out and quickly signed veteran Kyle Richardson to provide Frost some tough competition in the preseason, tells you just how much importance Crennel and Savage place on special teams.

Savage undoubtedly remembers Richardson from the Ravens' Super Bowl team in 2000. Richardson came up huge in the post-season that year, averaging 42.4 yards per punt in Baltimore's four post-season victories.

Something tells me that Frost, who had never kicked in an NFL regular-season game before last season, would not have had the same success as did Richardson had he been in that situation.

At first blush, the numbers put up by Frost last year were acceptable (40.0 average on 85 punts, 24 of which were inside the 20), until you look at what he did after Dec. 1.

In the Dec. 5 game against Crennel's Patriots, he averaged just 36.8 yards per punt. The next week at Buffalo he averaged 37.5 per punt. He followed that up by averaging 35.4 yards per punt at home against San Diego.

His only solid December game came Dec. 26 at Miami when he averaged 42.3 yards per punt, but then in the finale at Houston, had a season-worst 32.7 average against Houston. That game might have earned him a ticket out of town.

To Frost's credit, he did out-kick his opponent in two of those five games, but that fact alone probably won't make him the favorite heading into Training Camp. In fact, Richardson, an eight-year veteran, will likely have to fall flat on his face during the preseason in order for Frost to have a shot at retaining his job.

However, don't expect the winner to be announced until the very end of camp. You like to have at least two punters in camp in order to have them share the workload. And you also have to be cognizant of the ever-present injury possibility.

Let's just say that Frost has a lot better chance of beating Richardson than does Tyler Jones, the rookie place-kicker out of Boise State, has in beating Frost.

Jones had signed as a free agent with the Chicago Bears after he went undrafted. However, the Bears thought so little of him during their mini-camps that they released him in late June. He was signed by the Browns on June 30.

This isn't to say Jones has no chance. Dawson's kick-offs could be improved, so there's an outside possibility that he might make the team as a kick-off specialist.

Frankly speaking, though, if I was an free agent place-kicker, Cleveland is not the place I'd want to try and win a job with Phil Dawson being the player I have to beat out.

Now, if the less-than-immortal Dave Jacobs, who replaced Don Cockroft to start the 1982 season, was still around, I'd jump at the chance. But with consistent Dawson around, it's likely time for Tyler Jones to get on with life in the real world.


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