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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dawson Taking Nothing for Granted



Steve King

July 29, 2008

At year ago at this time, Phil Dawson was put on notice.

But by the end of the 2007, the Browns kicker had earned all sorts of notice -- in a positive way.

Such is the life of an NFL kicker, whose worth is measured every time he walks onto the field.

"I've always said that you're only as good as your last kick," Dawson said this week following a training camp practice.

For the first 7½ years of his career, Dawson was about as accurate as any kicker in the game's history, somehow finding a way to succeed against the tricky, windy, cold and sometimes icy conditions on the shores of Lake Erie.

He was cruising along midway through 2006, setting a franchise record with six field goals against the San Diego Chargers. Overall, he was at 85 percent, hitting 17-of-20.

Ho, hum, another season, another Dawson success story.

Then he experienced the first slump of his career, going just 4-of-9 the rest of the way to finish 21-of-29. His 72.4-percent success rate was the lowest since his rookie year.

How off was he? Consider that in 2005, he also had attempted 29 kicks but made 27 of them for a career-high 93.1 percentage.

"I was still hitting the ball well late in 2006, but they weren't going in," Dawson said.

Head coach Romeo Crennel knew that since his offense was struggling at the time to score touchdowns, the team needed an accurate Dawson to be able to score enough points to be competitive in games. He was right, for when Dawson was having his issues down the stretch in 2006, the Browns lost six of their last seven games. In four of those defeats, the club scored seven or fewer points.

You can't win like that. So Crennel told Dawson he needed to do better -- much better.

So the kicker spent the entire offseason busier than he had ever been, skipping the normal after-the-season respite he took to let his body -- and his leg -- recover from the long, grueling year. If he wasn't studying tape, he was working out or practicing his kicking. It was all football, all the time.

Dawson entered 2007 under the first real pressure he had faced since his rookie season of 1999, when he had no NFL resume and was trying to make an impression on head coach Chris Palmer.

His work paid off. All the things that had gone wrong in the last half of 2006 suddenly started going right.

"I was hitting the ball the same way last season as I had in 2006, but the bounces began to go my way," Dawson said.

Bounces? Yes, literally and figuratively.

His kick at the end of regulation in Baltimore hit the goal post support bar and then caromed back out on the field. Originally signaled as no good, the ruling was eventually changed to good following several minutes of discussion and after the Ravens had left the field, tying the score and forcing overtime. The game was won 33-30 by a Dawson kick that went cleanly through the uprights, sans any drama.

A month later in an 8-0 win over the Buffalo Bills, Dawson, in an effort that defied the laws of physics, somehow kicked two field goals, including a 49-yarder, during a virtual blizzard.

Browns special teams coach Ted Daisher, who has been in coaching for nearly 30 years, was impressed by both kicks but said the 49-yarder, which was aimed to the left, halfway between the left upright and the sideline, to compensate for a strong wind blowing left to right, was the greatest kick he has ever seen.

By the end of the year, Dawson had hit 26-of-30 field goals, a success rate of 86.7 percent, the third-best of his career, and scored 120 points, No. 2 in franchise history behind only Jim Brown (126 in 1965), and ahead of Lou Groza (115 in 1964).

Brown and Groza. You may have heard of those two.

"I'm almost embarrassed for my name to be used in the same sentence with Jim Brown," Dawson said. "He's the greatest football player of all-time."

And Groza?

"I have all the respect in the world for him, Don Cockroft, Matt Bahr and Matt Stover, the people who have preceded me here in Cleveland," he said. "I feel very honored to be mentioned in the lineage of great kickers this franchise has had."

Getting back on track last year, starting strong and staying strong throughout, also meant that Dawson moved back into the top five in the NFL in career field-goal percentage. He is fourth at 82.7.

So, what means more to him, his place in NFL kicking history, or in that of the Browns?

"The Browns," he said, "because I know how hard it is to kick in Cleveland."

But the best part to come out of last season for Dawson is the fact the Browns, after so many struggles since returning to the field in 1999, won a lot of games -- they went 10-6 and nearly made the playoffs following four straight losing years -- and he had a big hand in it.

"I took a great deal of satisfaction in that I was able to help this team win," he said. "At the end of the day, all that matters is if this team wins or not. I had gotten tired of all the losing over the years. I want to win. I'll trade all the personal accomplishments for a win anytime."

He didn't have to last season, and he won't have to this season if the Browns perform as well as most people predict they will.

Yes, things have certainly done an about-face for Dawson and the Browns from last year at this time.

"Did I deserve what Coach Crennel said about me last year?" he asked rhetorically. "Yes, certainly I did. Believe me, I wasn't happy with the way I kicked, either.

"But when you struggle, you can't just abandon everything you're doing. You have to fix only the things that are wrong and stay confident that the other things you're doing -- and all the stuff you've believed in over the years -- are solid. That's what I did."

And when Dawson followed that strategy, you couldn't help but notice the difference.

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