The special teams of the Browns has been their best unit for roughly ten of the last 14 years. The overwhelming majority of this site’s readers know this and are very sad about it. The team’s MVP for around five straight years was punter Chris Gardocki. Since then, it has been kicker Phil Dawson most years, with kick returner Josh Cribbs deserving it sometime around 2006. Last season was only slightly different.
Let’s focus on the positives of the 2012 Browns special teams unit: Phil Dawson, the reemergence of Josh Cribbs, Phil Dawson, the reemergence of Josh Cribbs, Phil Dawson, and that one punt return touchdown by Travis Benjamin before he never returned another punt for the rest of the season because the coach that people started to not hate never put him back deep ever again.
Dawson was the most consistent, most productive, most surprisingly passionate player on the Browns in 2012. If you caught any of the “Road Tested” show, you saw that Phil Dawson basically just epitomized the spirit of an NFL player, even though he participates in a limited number of plays per game. He seemed like a good guy, his family was as invested in the games as every fan who was watching that show was, and other players just flat-out respected him. You’re all aware that he made the Pro Bowl, which was pretty exciting for everyone.
But Dawson has been a model of consistency for the last few years now. Cribbs, on the other hand, looked as though he was going to get cut before the season. There were warranted concerns about his ability coming into last year – not just because he’s pushing 30 as a return man who has gained some weight since he came into the league, but also because of his impending contract negotiations and the subsequent downfall in productivity.
And what happened? Cribbs barely played receiver, snagging only seven passes all season and rushing six times. His 13 offensive touches were down from 75, 43, and 48 over the previous three seasons. However, he landed himself into the top 10 in yards per punt return and yards per kick return. Both averages were the second-highest averages of his career, despite all the preseason (and mid-season) concerns. He’s lost his place on the offense, but if that keeps going on special teams, I’m fine with him sticking around.
There are more facets to the punt game though. Really, can we talk about Travis Benjamin? A 93-yard punt return touchdown, and doesn’t return another punt all season.
Of course, the final facet of the punting game is punter Reggie Hodges. Woof. And not like the Browns being dogs and barking. Definitely not that kind of woof. He’s not particularly good at the only skill needed for his job. He finished second-to-last in the league in yards per punt, third-to-last in net yards per punt, and had the lowest long-distance punt for anyone who booted it more than six times this season. Yikes.
But on the whole, that strikes me as a slightly above average year, right? Cribbs didn’t house any returns, but he did have a handful of long returns that set the Browns up with decent field position on both punts and kicks. I think 27 yards per kickoff return and 12 per punt are numbers that any fan can get used to. Plus, with Dawson booting home anything within 50 yards, there’s a nice comfort in the special teams. The problem, of course, was that the offense left it for them seemingly every possession.