For the past five years or so, special teams has been the most redeeming quality of the Cleveland Browns. Whether it was Josh Cribbs running back yet another kickoff for a touchdown or Dave Zastudil and Phil Dawson single-handedly earning a victory against the Buffalo Bills, the special teams unit has consistently executed. However, with a new season comes new expectations.
Former special teams coach Brad Seely has moved on to the same position with the San Francisco 49ers, in addition to a new assistant head coach position along with it. While I’m sure everyone agrees with me when I say he deserves the opportunity, I desperately hoped for him to remain with the Browns, as he is one of the top special teams coordinators in the league.
Having said that, new coordinator Chris Tabor is an up-and-comer. In his three years as the Chicago Bears’ assistant special teams coach, Chicago was a top-five team in kickoff return yards, total return yards, kickoff return average, punt return average, and punt defense. They totaled six return touchdowns in that span of time.
One of the hottest discussion topics during this past off-season was the new kickoff placement. This new rule has largely been trashed by Browns fans due to the value that Josh Cribbs brings in every facet of special teams. Tabor has worked with other dynamic returners, including Devin Hester, Danieal Manning, and Johnny Knox, so he knows what having a game-changing returner can bring to a team. Finding a way to maximize the value of a hard worker like Cribbs will be one of Tabor’s top priorities.
Another notable headline is the loss of Reggie Hodges for the season. You know the lockout is having an effect on the health of the players when your punter ruptures his Achilles during a routine practice. Richmond McGee will attempt to fill his shoes both in the punting game and as the holder for Dawson. McGee seemed to settle into his game as the preseason went on after a shaky start, and there’s no denying the strength of his game. The Browns have been winning games based on battles for field position for years, and precise punting is a must-have in the AFC North, so McGee must produce or the Browns need to find someone better on the street.
Dawson and Ryan Pontbriand return as the two stalwarts of the kicking game. The big obstacle in front of these two is developing a level of comfort and timing with McGee on field goals. The Browns had a field goal blocked by the Philadelphia Eagles during the preseason, which just cannot happen to a team with a new offensive scheme. If the Browns don’t execute on special teams on any particular Sunday, they will not win the game – it’s that simple.
A couple guys to watch for on special teams are the other players with returner responsibilities apart from Cribbs: Joe Haden, Buster Skrine, and Jordan Norwood. When Cribbs was rendered somewhat ineffective by injuries last season, it was Haden who stepped into his place and flashed a lot of potential. He has great field vision to go with a quick burst that he can turn on in one step, so look for him and Skrine to split time as the second returner back deep with Cribbs on kickoffs.
Norwood made the team this season partly because of what he showed in the way of punt return capabilities, and while his speed isn’t great, he has an ability to regularly find lanes and help field position.
The Browns are certainly set up to maintain their usual excellence on special teams, but the deciding factor will be the new faces. Who are you looking at as a special teams lynchpin this season? Leave a response in the comments!