Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Browns’ Dawson as good as it gets when it comes to kickers

By Dan Coughlin

November 25, 2008

Browns kicker Phil Dawson rejects the hero’s crown.

“I don’t like it. I’m more comfortable going to work,” he said the other day in the Browns’ locker room.

He thinks of himself simply as a guy with a job and, in this economy, anyone with a job considers himself lucky.

The Browns were equally lucky when they picked him up as a free agent back in 1999, when the franchise was getting started. Dawson has been winning games with last-minute field goals since he was in high school, later as a four-year starter at the University of Texas and for the last 10 seasons with the Browns.

His 57-yarder Monday night to beat Buffalo was his personal best, but it was just another day on the job. It was his third successful 50-plus kick of the season. For his career, he’s 10 of 14 from 50 yards or more, an incredible success rate.

Looking at that tiny opening between the uprights from 57 yards away is like looking at a vertical mail box slot.

“If I stared at that narrow opening I’d get a lot of negative vibes. I pick out a spot and aim for it. I’m glad it was 57 yards. No one expects you to make a 57-yarder,” he said.

He didn’t elaborate about the location of the “spot.” It’s probably some metaphysical dot somewhere in the spectrum that you and I wouldn’t understand. It’s like pondering how the Father, Son and Holy Ghost work. There are some things mortals are not supposed to understand.

According to accuracy percentages, Dawson is the fourth-best kicker in NFL history and the all-time best in Browns annals, which is saying something. The Browns’ kickers include Lou (The Toe) Groza, Don Cockroft, Matt Bahr and Matt Stover, a star-studded cast unparalleled in NFL history. Groza’s widow, Jackie, still drives around with the most recognizable license plates in Ohio. “TOE,” they say and that’s not vanity, that’s fact.

Field-goal kicking is not a one-man job, however. It’s a three-man operation, probably the most symbiotic play in football.

Most plays involve no more than two people working together. The quarterback hands off to a running back or he passes it to a second person.

In Dawson’s line of work, he depends on a long snapper and a holder to perform their jobs perfectly. If the snap is a couple of feet up, down or to the side, the timing is thrown off and four things can happen. Three of them are bad — ball fumbled, kick blocked, kick missed.

Long snapper Ryan Pontbriand might be the best who ever snapped the ball. Now in his sixth season, the 29-year-old Texan from Rice vindicated Butch Davis, who drafted him in the fifth round, one of the few times in the history of the draft a pure long snapper was picked.

I can’t remember Pontbriand ever making a bad snap. Not even one that’s a little bit off. Dawson says every snap has the same number of revolutions so the laces are always in the same place when holder Dave Zastudil catches it. Ideally, the laces always face away from the kicker. I’ve been watching the pro game for almost 60 years, and I’ve never seen anyone better than Pontbriand.

(I probably just jinxed him.)

Dawson says he kicks from a spot exactly 73/4 yards from the line of scrimmage, which means he starts every kick with a math problem.

“If the ball is on the 12 1/2 yard line, I’ve got to add 7 3/4. I’m glad I help my second-grade son with his math homework,” he said.

“If you miss, is it because you did the math wrong?” asked a reporter.
“That’s what I’m going with,” said Dawson.

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