Wednesday, October 14, 2009

That Special Something

By Steve King

October 13, 2009

While the Browns struggles since 1999 are well known, Steve King looks at something they've done better than anyone else, and makes some bold statements about how these players may be regarded in team history...

The Browns don’t have the best team in the NFL.


After all, have you looked at their record?

But they do have the best special teams. In fact, they’re so much better than the rest of the clubs that it isn’t even close. They are as far ahead of the rest of the NFL when it comes to special teams, as they are behind the rest of the league when it comes to overall play.

That was evident – again – last Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. They did a lot of things wrong, most of which were on offense, in struggling past a bad Buffalo Bills team 6-3. But as been the case for several years now, their special teams carried them.

On most Sundays, even the special teams can’t do quite enough to secure a win. There is still too much wrong with the rest of the club to be able to overcome all those mistakes.

But on some days, such as last Sunday, their special teams are so overwhelming that even one of the worst passing performances in team history can’t get in the way.

You start with Joshua Cribbs. He is the one player on the entire team who scares the daylights out of opposing coaches because he is truly a threat to score every time he touches the ball, no matter where he’s at or who he’s playing against. When he settles under a punt or kickoff, you can feel the electricity in the crowd as everyone holds their breath in anticipation of something really spectacular happening.

Those fans have not often been disappointed.

On a team that has had a slew of great returners with the likes of Bobby Mitchell, Greg Pruitt, Eric Metcalf, littler Dino Hall and even Dennis Northcutt, Cribbs may be the best the Browns have ever had.

How in the world can a slash-type quarterback in college transition into being such a great returner? Who knows? But he just may be the best rookie free agent the Browns have ever signed.

Then there’s Ryan Pontbriand, who is the best long snapper the club has ever had. After all, he’s been to the Pro Bowl the last two years. No Browns long snapper has ever been to the game.

How important is a long snapper? The Cincinnati Bengals blamed their long snapper for the great Shayne Graham having an extra point and field goal blocked against the Browns. The reason? The snaps were too high, throwing Graham off his stride.

Everybody knows how good Phil Dawson is, and has been. He is arguably the best kicker the Browns have ever had. Again, that’s saying a lot since Lou Groza, Don Cockroft, Matt Bahr and Matt Stover kicked for this team.

Dave Zastudil doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He’s the team’s career leader in punting average, ahead of the great Horace Gillom, Chris Gardocki and Gary Collins.

He never ceases to amaze in terms of kicking them not only very high and long, but also very accurately. Time and time again, he places balls near the goal line – sometimes just inches away – to help the Browns almost always win the battle of field position.

He was at his best last Sunday. It may have been his best game ever – and he’s had some great ones.

But there are other special teamers who also deserve recognition. Mike Adams takes a back seat to no one when it comes to covering kicks. Ditto for a newcomer this year, Blake Costanzo, who recovered the fumbled punt to set up the game-winning field goal against the Bills.

And have you heard about the nose tackle named Shaun Rogers? Just as he pushes the pile backward on defense, so, too, does he do it on special teams, making a blocked kick a real possibility every time he’s on the field.

Brad Seely is doing a great job coaching the special teams.

But so did Ted Daisher before him.

And Jerry Rosburg before him.

There is some real tradition here.

People want to point to all the things the expansion era Browns have done wrong since taking the field again in 1999. And that list is long. We don’t need to belabor it here again. Everybody knows what those things are.

But what the Browns have done right – right from the get-go in 1999 – is the way they’ve played special teams, all aspects of special teams.

If only the offense and defense had been up to par with the special teams all these years, then the Browns wouldn’t have had all those disappointing won-loss records, with just two winning seasons and one playoff appearance, with no victories.

It’s a place to start, and as we watch head coach Eric Mangini try to build a winning club overall, it’s a place to watch every Sunday.

Groza and Gillom were far ahead of the competition when the original Browns started in the All-America Football Conference over 60 years ago. A lot of things have changed since then, but that hasn’t.

Thank goodness it hasn’t.

Browns fans, for the way they have supported this team over the years, and for the way they fought to get the club back, deserve to watch the very best on Sundays.
And they get that chance.

Now the Browns coaches and personnel people need to make the rest of the club special year after year as well.

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