The special teams are being in a unique position this year as for the first time since 1999, the Browns are going to have a new kicker. Phil Dawson is now in San Francisco try got get a championship ring after being one of the best players on the Browns for over a decade, which means he was a great kicker but also means the overall talent was not great. The punter spot is also going to be different and the uncertainty heading to training camp and going into the season is a dynamic the Browns have not had to deal with in quite some time.
First, there is plenty of bad information out there about Dawson’s exit from the Browns. This was not an issue of money or contract. Dawson wanted out and he frankly earned the right to be able to leave. He is a class act who has never said a bad word about the franchise despite the amount of times that it was warranted, so he is the type of guy who fans would enjoy seeing get to win. Finally, he earned an overdue trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl and seemed to love every second of it, which was great for him.
The reality of the situation is Dawson would have left last year if not for the franchise tag, which is conveniently forgotten by people who are trying to blame the front office for this situation. Dawson wanted two things starting last year and then going into this year. First, he wanted to play closer to home. Home for Dawson is in Texas and his family actually moved back to Texas last year, so he was hoping to kick closer to his family. He also wanted to kick for a contender. The Browns are headed in the right direction but their schedules do not match, so Dawson wanted to get to kick in the playoffs. He has played in one playoff game in his entire career. This was not a move about money or age or anything else that has been spread around regarding this move. It came down to being closer to the family and getting a chance to win the Lombardi trophy. He ultimately ended up getting the latter with the San Francisco 49ers where Dawson has a fantastic chance to do it. One cannot help but wonder what the 49ers would have given the Browns just for the ability to have Dawson come to kick just for the playoffs. They struggled at that spot and Dawson is incredibly accurate and reliable, so this made a ton of sense for both sides.
Anyone throwing blame at the front office and how they did not make an effort or went the cheap route on this move does not understand the situation. And fans in Cleveland should be happy for Phil if he is kicking a clutch field goal to win games in the playoffs next year, especially if the Browns are going to be at home at that time. The Browns and professional sports teams in general cannot get enough people like Phil Dawson. Dawson made a decision and the front office had no option to do anything about it, so they let him go and moved on without dwelling on the subject. If Dawson wanted to come back, he would be a Cleveland Brown this year, period.
When the announcement was made that the Browns had signed Shayne Graham, criticism was lobbed at the team for picking up another old kicker by multiple members of the local media from multiple outlets. That is far and away the most analysis ever done on a kicker’s age and contract in Northeast Ohio. Graham is not going to get anyone excited as he is an average kicker at best. He is a decent option when no better option is available. The likelihood is he is the backup option and an insurance policy. He is on a one year, nothing contract that makes him disposable at any point in time should they want to be rid of him. The hope is the rookie they have competing in camp will be a better answer.
In 1999, Dawson was brought in as an undrafted free agent out of Texas, earned the job and never looked back. The Browns have another undrafted free agent in Brandon Bogotay out of Georgia in camp this year. While the likelihood of him being the next Dawson is incredibly low, the team is hoping he can at least prove to be a better option than Graham and someone worth holding onto beyond training camp and this season. If he is unable to win the job, they have Graham, but the team knows what Graham is, so it would not be surprising if Bogotay gets every opportunity to prove he is not good enough to win the job.
The punter job is a competition between two much younger players. Spencer Lanning and T.J. Conley will face off for the job and while neither guy may end up being a great option, they cannot be worse than what the Browns had last year. Reggie Hodges was not just bad; he was dreadful and he was as bad as Dawson was good. After the injury he suffered a few years ago, he has not been able to get back to being the player he was and one wonders if he ever will. It remains to be seen if either of these options in camp is actually a good one, but they are working from rock bottom and can really only go up from what they were getting from the position last year. The best thing that could happen this year is just a significant drop in the number of punts the team has to make and that will come down to the offense being better.
Special teams is one of those areas where little attention is paid until things go wrong and Phil Dawson became an incredibly reliable option as his career progressed. The misses came as surprises by the end, so having the possibility of field goals missing will be a real adjustment for fans. Rest assured, the first time the new kicker misses, there will be fans calling into local radio and criticizing the front office for not paying Dawson to stay and perhaps some misinformed hosts and writers who pounce on that talking point as well. Punting got a lot of attention because of how brutally ineffective it was last year and it should improve this year, but the question is how much. With any luck, the kicker and punter will be good enough to make it so the Browns do not have to consider using a draft pick one either option next season.