Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dawson hopes to kick down Pro Bowl door

December 5, 2008

By Tom Withers

BEREA - Phil Dawson hasn't been to Hawaii since his honeymoon. He'd like to take his wife back in February to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary.

And maybe play in his first Pro Bowl.

"It could be two trips in one," Dawson said with a smile Thursday as he laced up his spikes before practice. "I could even play it off as, "Honey, I'm taking you back to where it all started, and if you don't mind, I'm going to kick a few balls while we're here.'"

Shannon Dawson wouldn't mind mixing some sun and fun with football.

Overlooked for years, Dawson may deserve a Pro Bowl spot.

Cleveland's rock-steady kicker has been one of the few bright spots this season for the dismal Browns (4-8), who have failed to live up to high expectations. But while his teammates commit penalties, drop passes and miss tackles, Dawson, as always, has been dependable, exact and consistent.

Just like his kicks.

The lone player left from the Browns' 1999 expansion team, Dawson has converted 26 of 30 field-goal attempts and made three of the longest kicks of his 10-year career, including a game-winning 56-yarder to beat Buffalo on Nov. 17. Dawson recently made 13 straight field goals - three over 50 yards - and his next make will match his career high (27) for a season.

Only Lou Groza and Don Cockroft have scored more career points for Cleveland than Dawson, who also scored the first rushing touchdown for the new Browns on a fake field goal in 1999.

However, one thing has remains out of Dawson's range: a Pro Bowl.

"It's a career goal of mine," Dawson said. "Sometimes you wonder if people notice what you do. Unfortunately, I've been on a losing team eight of the last 10 years. There's been probably about three seasons sprinkled in there where I thought I had a chance. Not to take anything from the guys who were named because the AFC is loaded with great kickers, but I feel pretty good about what I've been able to do in the conditions I find myself in."

Ah, the conditions.

In Cleveland's lakefront stadium, the weather in November and December can be unbearable and unpredictable. With swirling, gusting winds, lake-effect snow, freezing temperatures, rain, ice and sleet, it's no place for a picnic.

No, it's not San Diego and it's not under an inflatable roof, which is why Dawson's precision - he's currently the league's seventh most accurate kicker of all-time at 83.2 percent - is so impressive. Dawson has to kick on a natural, grass surface as temperamental as the weather. Even on dry days, Cleveland's turf can be unforgiving.

"For Phil to have the career he has had here is unbelievable," said long snapper Ryan Pontbriand, a Pro Bowler last season. "I'd rank him above just about everybody because of where he has played and what he has done."

Week after week, visiting kickers and punters express their disbelief to Dawson and Browns punter Dave Zastudil about the challenge of doing their jobs well in Cleveland. In last week's 16-6 loss to Indianapolis, Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri missed a 46-yarder and later told Dawson he can't imagine kicking here all the time.

"When Adam, who has made game-winning kicks in the Super Bowl, tells me how difficult it is to kick in Cleveland and how glad he is that he doesn't have to kick here, that means a lot," Dawson said.

Never one to make excuses, Dawson was wide right with a 34-yard kick last week that he said looked perfect as it came off his right foot.

"I did everything exactly how I wanted to, and the ball didn't go in the air the way I thought it would," he said. "That's why I say I'm close to going insane because as hard as I work and as prepared as I am, when you kick in Cleveland you are going to have kicks that don't go through that should.

"That's just the way it is. It's a different ballgame when you kick here."

Players and coaches will vote on the Pro Bowl teams next week, and Dawson figures to get strong consideration from his peers. But in the subjective and often skewed fan voting, Dawson doesn't get the recognition he's due. Partly because he plays on a losing team, Dawson isn't perceived to be in the same class as Vinatieri or Tennessee's Rob Bironas, a Pro Bowler last season who missed his only field goal try in a 2005 game at Cleveland.

"It was probably one of the second-windiest or third-windiest games I've ever kicked in," Bironas said.

In the most recent Pro Bowl fan balloting, Dawson isn't among the leaders (the league only releases the Top 5 vote-getters) and will need overwhelming support from coaches and players to win.

"I think this is another one of those years where I've got a shot," Dawson said. "But there's a lot of good guys out there having good years."

Dawson can help his chances with a strong game against the Titans (11-1) on Sunday. He'll have family members on hand, including his 5-year-old son, Beau, who'll be seeing his first NFL game. Last year, his oldest son, Dru, came to his first game in Baltimore and Dawson kicked a 51-yarder on the final play of regulation, a boot that caromed off the goal post's neck and over the crossbar.

"Hey," Dawson said, raising his eyebrows. "Let's see what happens this time."

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