Special Teams That Really Are

Just where would the Browns be without their trio of specialists? Steve King takes a look at that question and just what Dawson, Pontbriand and Zastudil mean to the organization...

Fifty-four and a hundred and six.

Written out like that, it has all the numbing effect of a paper cut.

But appearing numerically in its normal statistical form, 54-106 sends chills down the spine of Browns fans. Heading into 2009, that's the record for the Browns through the first 10 seasons of the expansion era. Considering that the team has won eight league championships and has been on the doorstep of earning a lot more, a .338 winning percentage is hard to swallow.

As bad as it's been, however, it would have been worse – much, much worse, in fact – had it not been for the special teams. To look at it another way, if the rest of the club had been as good as the special teams, then that disappointing record over the last decade might have been reversed 180 degrees to 106-54.


Everybody knows about Josh Cribbs. How you can you not know about Josh Cribbs? The best returner in Browns history, he strutted his stuff again last Saturday night in the 27-10 win over the Detroit Lions. He raced 95 yards for a touchdown on the opening kickoff only to have it called back because of a holding penalty. No problem. Seven minutes later when the Lions punted for the first time, he took it 84 yards for a score that did count.

If Cribbs and the Browns can't come to some sort of agreement on his contract situation and he decides to walk out, then the club will lose the one legitimate, consistent scoring threat it has and the fans will lose out on seeing the most exciting player on the team. And did we also mention that he's the Browns' best kick and punt coverage man?

But it's more than just Cribbs. There are three other players in Phil Dawson, Dave Zastudil and Ryan Pontbriand who are just as good at what they do as Cribbs is with his skills. In fact, you could make a strong case – and you'd probably be right – that Dawson, Zastudil and Pontbriand are the best kicking/punting trio in the league.

Long before Cribbs arrived, the Browns had their best player in the expansion era – one of the best kickers in the NFL right now and arguably the best the Browns have ever had – in Dawson, the only player left in the league from the team that returned to the field in 1999 after a three-season absence. No one will ever replace Lou Groza, the Browns' first kicker who went on to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- the man who could be called the father of kicking in modern football, and the man for whom the road to Browns Headquarters is named.

However, for those who never saw Groza play – and that's the majority of Browns fans today – then Dawson is giving them an idea of just what it was like when the Martins Ferry, Ohio native performed for 21 of the club's first 22 years of existence. He is approaching, or has already passed, Groza on most team kicking lists, and he goes into 2009 at No. 7 in NFL history in career field-goal accuracy at 82.8 percent.

"Maybe they'll name something for me out front when I retire," Dawson joked the other day, using a self-deprecating line he has often employed to mask his humility in being compared to the legendary "Toe."

And in that same vein, Dawson is quick to tell you that Pontbriand, the long snapper, and Zastudil, the holder, deserve a lot of the credit for the success he's had in the last three seasons that they've worked together.

"As a kicker, if your timing is off – if the snap isn't just where it needs to be and if the placement isn't just as it's supposed to be -- then the kick is likely going to be off, too," Dawson said. "I can't worry about things like that. If I do, then it will take away from my concentration on kicking. But with Ryan and Dave, I don't have to worry about it because they're the best at what they do."

The best for Dawson, and also the best the Browns have ever had at that specialty – at least in some respects.

Everybody howled when the Browns, after conducting an extensive search for a new long snapper after the departure of talented Ryan Kuehl to the New York Giants in free agency following the 2002 season, used the first of their two fifth-round picks in the 2003 NFL Draft to take a long snapper from Rice. But Pontbriand has proved to be more than worth it. He's the best long snapper in team history, having become the first Browns long snapper to make it to the Pro Bowl when he was selected the last two seasons. It's well-deserved. On one of those rare occasions when Pontbriand delivers something other than a perfect strike with one of his snaps – maybe he's high and wide by an inch or two – it becomes a running joke between the three men.

But there's something else that's no laughing matter. Considering the way the Browns have struggled mightily offensively in most seasons to score touchdowns; they didn't have an offensive TD in the final six games of last year, a team record.  As a result, they need every point they can get from the leg of Dawson, who, with 897 points, is now third on the club in career scoring, behind Groza and fellow kicker Don Cockroft.

"To be a good long snapper, you have to be consistent with your snaps, you need to be able to do it in all weather conditions – and we certainly all know what the weather is like around here in the fall and early winter – you have to protect with your blocking, and you have to be able to cover," Dawson said. "Ryan does all of those things very well, which is why he's the best overall."

The best. When it comes to Browns punters, that man has to be Horace Gillom. It was said when he was at Massillon (Ohio) High School that he amazed everyone by kicking the ball above the stadium lights, and he took that talent to the Browns from 1947-56. The ball came off his foot as if it were shot out of a cannon, helping him to lead the NFL in punting in both 1951 and '52.

But after averaging 45.5 yards last season, Zastudil, the Bay Village, Ohio native and Ohio University product, has moved past Gillom and into first place on the team's career punting average list. He is at 43.9, just .1 of a yard, or about 3.6 inches, ahead of Gillom.

Zastudil was not aware of that until informed of it by a reporter fairly early in training camp.

"Really?" he said, his eyes lighting up.


Now, Zastudil, entering his fourth season with the Browns, will have to do it for 10 seasons, the length of Gillom's time in Cleveland, before he can truly be called the best. But the fact Zastudil is No. 1 – at least for now – does not surprise Dawson.

"Just like I was saying about Ryan with his long snapping, to be an effective punter in Cleveland, you have to be able to kick in all conditions, and Dave has had his best games in the worst weather," Dawson said, in reference to the fact Zastudil placed three punts inside the 20 against the Buffalo Bills in 2007 in a near-blizzard, some of the worst conditions the Browns have ever played in.

"And Dave is positively at his best under pressure."

For that matter, Dawson says, Zastudil has been under constant pressure from the moment he arrived as a free agent from the Baltimore Ravens in 2006. "It's not been an easy situation for Dave. Playing in your hometown never is," said Dawson, who was 4-for-4 in field goals in a 2004 game at Dallas, the only time in his Browns career that he has played in his hometown. "You're playing in front of your family and friends, and you're also having to always deal with ticket requests."

Dawson continued, "But the biggest thing about the three of us is that we have a level of trust. We all support each other and care about each other. If I need to do some extra kicking, Ryan will make himself available to snap, and Dave to hold. If Dave needs to punt, Ryan snaps and I shag balls. No matter what one guy needs, the other two step in and help."

When Dawson broke in with the Browns, he had Kuehl as his snapper and Chris Gardocki, an outstanding punter, as his holder. They worked very well together, and Dawson was worried when they left (Gardocki signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency after the 2003 season), that he would really struggle with their replacements. After all, there was no way the new snapper and holder could be as good, right?

But with first Gardocki and later Zastudil, that machine is humming right along again, better than ever. If only the other units on these expansion era teams had been on par, then nothing would be chilling about the Browns' expansion era record.

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