Frankly Speaking: A Decision to Regret

Bernie's Insiders magazine readers are no doubt familiar with Frank Derry, who has been a key part of our print publication since Day One. Today, we're delighted to welcome Frank as a featured columnist on You can look forward to regular appearances from Frank, starting with his analysis on decisions the Browns have made regarding their kicking game...

Over the course of time, there have been many famous trios.

For those of you who are into music, there are the world-famous Three Tenors -- Jose Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo; The Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary; and, my favorite, Three Dog Night, just to name a few. (Of course, we all know there were more than three members of Three Dog Night, but in my one-man effort to get them inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I vow to mention the group's name whenever and wherever possible. Besides, they are the ones who made famous the classic "Three Is The Loneliest Number.")

Most of us are probably familiar with The Three Stooges; The Three Musketeers; the three daughters on Petticoat Junction -- Billie Joe, Bobbie Joe and Betty Joe; Popeye's three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie; the original Three's company gang of Jack, Chrissy and Janet ; My Three Sons – Mike, Rob and Chip; Ben Cartwright's three sons on Bonanza – Adam, Hoss and Little Joe; and, of course, the unforgettable Winkin, Blinkin and Nod.

For Browns fans, probably the most familiar trio of players from 1999-2002 were Phil Dawson, Chris Gardocki and Ryan Kuehl.  But after Kuehl left via free agency following the 2002 season, they went from being the Terrific Trio to the Dynamic Duo.

And then, when Gardocki realized he was no longer a wanted man in Cleveland and signed with the Steelers in early March, the one-time Terrific Trio became the Super Single.

And that, my friends, is a real shame. As has been the case far too often over the past few years, there has been far too little loyalty shown to the players who were with the Browns when the team rejoined the NFL in 1999. Even to the players who have played well over the past few years.

Granted, the salary cap has something to do with a few of the players not being asked to return. But in the case of the "Terrific Trio," we're not talking huge monetary numbers.

While most of the units on the expansion team struggled to achieve any type of consistency over the first few years, Dawson, Gardocki and Kuehl fit like a three-fingered glove.

Individually, they were very good. Together, they were outstanding. They were, more often than not, the best thing the Cleveland Browns had going for them starting when the team returned in 1999.

Through the first four years of the team's return, they were the placekicker, holder and long-snapper for the Cleveland Browns. They were as reliable as the mailman. They delivered in rain, sleet, mud, snow and even the occasional sunny day that greeted the Browns on Sunday afternoons in the fall and winter.

No matter what the conditions, never did Gardocki ever have to worry about Kuehl's snap and, because of that, Dawson was totally confident the hold by Gardocki would be perfect every time.

But then a strange thing happened. Following the 2002 season, a year in which the Browns went to the playoffs and appeared on the way to becoming an elite team in the National Football League, Kuehl was allowed to leave via free agency. Obviously, the Browns were up against the salary cap, resulting in several high-priced veterans being released.

But Kuehl wasn't in an upper tax bracket. His paycheck paled in comparison to a majority of his teammates. Kuehl made just $525,000 base salary in 2002, with a $5,000 bonus. When you take into consideration the problems encountered by the New York Giants in the '02 playoffs, when a bad snap cost them a game against the San Francisco 49ers, it seemed almost imperative for the Browns to make sure they didn't break up the most efficient unit on the team.

And yet they did.

Kuehl, admittedly unhappy that several of his teammates -- Corey Fuller, Dave Wohlabaugh and Earl Holmes, just to name a few – were let go, opted to sign a five-year, $3.6 million contract with those same New York Giants, who were well aware of the need for a reliable long-snapper after Trey Junkin's miscue against the 49ers.

That worked out to an average of $720,000, less than a $200,000 raise per year over what the Browns paid him in 2002. It seems to me the team could have somehow found an extra $200,000 to pay one of their most consistent performers, even if the salary cap is a factor.

But the fact is, they didn't re-sign Kuehl. That then led the team to draft Ryan Pontbriand in the fifth round of the 2003 draft.

This is no knock on Pontbriand. He had a fine rookie season, one in which he performed very well. But he certainly did no better than Kuehl had done the previous four years. And while he did save the Browns some money on their salary cap, he did cost the team a precious fifth-round draft choice, a select that caused a lot of second-guessing among draft experts who truly thought Pontbriand would not be drafted by anyone. 

History shows there have been a lot of great players taken in the fifth round or later. Do the names Earnest Byner, Brian Sipe and Cody Risien, just to name a trio, ring a bell?

In reality, the field goal unit didn't skip a beat with one Ryan (Pontbriand), replacing the other Ryan (Kuehl).

But I seriously doubt the team will get as lucky when it comes to replacing Gardocki, arguably the team's Most Valuable Player over the previous five years.

While Gardocki has been solid as a rock as the holder on Dawson's kicks, he's been even better as the team's punter.

He is second on the team's all-time list with 466 punts, trailing only Don Cockroft, who had 651. His 20,220 yards are second to Cockroft's 26,262. And he is also second all-time with a 43.39 gross average, trailing only Horace Gillom's 43.82.

And it's been well documented that Gardocki has the ongoing record of 978 straight punts without a block. Ryan Kuehl certainly deserves part of the credit for that record in that virtually all of his snaps to Gardocki from 1999 through 2002 were perfect, eliminating any opportunity the opposition had of blocking the punt.

The fact Gardocki holds the team records for most punts in a season and most punt yardage in a season tells you exactly how vital he was to the expansion Browns during their formative years.

But now, he will be punting for the hated Pittsburgh Steelers after agreeing to a five-year, $6.5 million deal. That's just $1.3 million per year, which doesn't seem like a whole lot to pay your Most Valuable Player.

Instead, the Browns will now apparently turn to Derrick Frost, who was added to the roster last December. Frost has never punted one time in the NFL, much less in the oft-unpredictable conditions that exist in Cleveland in November and December.

Understandably, the attention of most Browns fans over the past few weeks has been focused on the turbulent quarterback situation. That has always been the "glory" position in football. And when your No. 1 draft pick is being kicked out the door, that story steals the spotlight.

But the reality of the matter is, the Browns can win with Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb or Jeff Garcia calling the shots, if surrounded by the proper supporting cast.

And, while Gardocki never threw a block or caught a pass from Couch or Holcomb, he played a vital role in the field position provided the Browns' quarterback by often pinning the opponent in bad field position with his excellent punts.

Now, that advantage will be gone.

Derrick Frost might indeed one day be as solid, consistent punter in the NFL. Who knows, he might be another Ray Guy. Then, again, he might turn out to be another Lee Johnson, who had a successful NFL career except when he punted for the Browns. Johnson simply never could adjust to the weather conditions that existed in Cleveland and was booted out of Cleveland faster than a Steelers fan cheering his team at a bar in The Flats.

The fact is, the Browns already had a very, very good punter in Gardocki.   And a very good holder. And a very good guy, who never said a disparaging word about the city of the team even though his efforts were far too often overlooked because he was surrounded by inferior talent. 

Had he been with a winning tam over the past four or five years, I am quite certain he would have made one or two Pro Bowl teams. As it was, he often labored in anonymity, appreciated by browns fans, but apparently few others, including his current coaching staff.

Obviously, they do not believe in the old saying that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

That's exactly what the Browns did in allowing Chris Gardocki, not to mention Ryan Kuehl, leave via free agency.

I have a very bad feeling that come next December, the Cleveland Browns will be kicking themselves for not having Chris Gardocki around to punt the ball.

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