Passan: Kickin' It With Phil

Rich speaks with the longest-tenured Cleveland Brown about what it's like going from the outhouse of the early part of the decade to being inches away from the penthouse. And just who holds the keys to open the door...

He has seen it all over the last nine years. As the lone survivor of that first training camp for the new Browns in 1999, Phil Dawson has witnessed the good, the bad and the very ugly.

Especially the very ugly.

The only placekicker these Browns have ever known has been through the lowest of lows and the highest of highs. Not one member of the 2008 Browns looks forward to the upcoming season more than Dawson.

The most accurate kicker in Browns history has waited too long not to thoroughly enjoy this season's training camp. He had experienced only one winning season (2002) before the Browns threw a surprise party for the rest of the National Football League last season.

And Dawson, also the fourth-most accurate kicker in NFL history, sees a difference in the club's approach in the Berea training camp. A sizable difference.

"It's very workmanlike," he said. "We've grown up as a team. We have some success to build on. Hopefully, we capitalize on some momentum. The biggest difference, though, I'd have to say is the unity and continuity. We know our coaches. The coaches know us. We've got guys returning at major positions.

"There's been so much up in the air, it seems like, in years past. Whether it would be a quarterback or a starting tackle. There would always seem to be a lot of questions marks. There seem to be very few question marks this year."

The body language is different. The confidence level has risen to heights not seen in Cleveland since the days of Bernie Kosar.

"I don't necessarily think the team has bought into all this stuff you're reading about high hopes and expectations," said Dawson. "We just know we can play football now. In years past, we didn't necessarily know that. We hoped we could. Now, we know we can. And we know how we have to play to give ourselves a chance."

It's that kind of attitude that has translated into a very smooth camp for coach Romeo Crennel and his staff.

"It's just the workmanlike attitude every day," said Dawson. "You don't have the highs and lows. It seems that in years past, in practice some guys would come out great and we'd have two or three who were just kind of whatever.

"Now, every day, guys are coming out and working the process. They're using training camp to get ready for something bigger than training camp. In years past, we kind of got lost. We were just out here trying to have a good practice. Now, we know the Dallas Cowboys are coming to town in week one and we're using this to get ready for that."

All of which gives Dawson a special feeling. You see, this is the first time he's going through something like this in Cleveland.

"Football is a tough business when you don't win," he said. "To have successes like we did last year, key guys have a little more confidence this year. The expectation of playing well is the thing I enjoy most."

As one of the team leaders, Dawson believes it is incumbent to step up when necessary. "I'd like to think I am (a leader)," he said.  "But it's up to the other guys how they view you. Any time I have a chance to share things I've learned through my experiences here the last nine years, I will stand up and share. Sometimes as the captain, you've got to do stuff like that."

Over the years, the Browns have become almost too reliant on Dawson to put points on the board. And even though the Browns have amply demonstrated the ability to put large numbers on the scoresheet, the pressure on Dawson has not diminished.

"This is good pressure," he said. "Pressure isn't new around here. When your team is struggling, there's a negative tone in the Stadium on game day. The first time your team crosses the 50-yard line and you trot out for a 46-yard field goal, there's a lot of pressure on that. And when your team is scoring only 10 points a game, that's a lot of pressure in a negative way.

"Now, we're trying to make positive things happen. There are expectations, there are high hopes, there's confidence. There are good things happening. That's all good pressure. Now, you've got a good chance to win games. You go out on the field and everyone is feeling good about what we're doing. It's much easier to do your job in that environment."

 It all started last season, Dawson pointed out, shortly after the Browns began what looked like another one of those seasons when the Pittsburgh Steelers sauntered into Cleveland Browns Stadium and punched the Browns silly.

It took shape, Dawson said, "When DA (Derek Anderson) started throwing the ball around the yard. He played tremendous. For a guy who stepped into a situation like that, that's an extremely tough thing to do and the way he handled himself and helped this team win, I hold DA in very high regard. When he got in there and starting making plays and our playmakers started making plays, before you know it, we just had momentum."

Anderson's emergence did not surprise Dawson. "A lot of us knew that given a chance, DA could so some things," he said. "We'd seen the way he could throw the ball the past couple of years and the way he conducted himself.

"Obviously, we had some playmakers at the receiving positions. We just needed to get the ball to them. That's a pretty good combination. A guy who could throw and receivers who could catch. And when our passing game opened up and you hand the ball to 31 (Jamal Lewis) and he starts running down people's throats, that's a pretty good thing.

And with Joshua Cribbs consistently giving the Browns good field position with his stunning returns, scoring became somewhat easier. So did Dawson's job. The football wound up in the end zone 43 times. And when it didn't, Dawson was there to make certain three points went on the board on 26 other occasions.

"It sure helps when your kick returner is bringing the ball out to midfield every time," he said. "Special teams had a tremendous year for this club. We're going to need that again this season. With an improved defense and an offense that's more comfortable and hopefully the special teams contributing like we did last year, that's pretty good."

Next stop the playoffs?  "Let's just win the first game," he said.

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