Friday, June 11, 2010

Phil Dawson's stellar record gives him a leg up in talks with Cleveland Browns

By Tony Grossi

June 11, 2010

BEREA, Ohio — There are two philosophies when it comes to player contract disputes in the NFL.

One is to shut up and do your job and things will take care of themselves. The other is the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Josh Cribbs was the most recent example of the latter.

The Browns are lucky that Phil Dawson abides by the former. If he voiced his case for a better contract, it would be hard to argue against him.

As it is, kickers are largely dispensable and interchangeable, and players like Cribbs are rare.

Dawson showed up for mandatory minicamp on Thursday and refused to discuss his widening rift with the club. Unlike absentee restricted free agents D'Qwell Jackson, Matt Roth and Abram Elam, Dawson is under contract and would be subject to a fine of about $9,000 a day for missing the three-day camp.

Dawson -- the only full-time kicker the Browns have known since their expansion rebirth in 1999 -- is in the last year of a contract that pays him $1 million.

It's a lot of money, of course, for kicking a football. But in the fantasy world of the NFL, Dawson is underpaid. At least 21 kickers are scheduled to make more in 2010.

Dawson signed his deal as a five-year extension in 2005. That $7 million contract put him in the top tier at the time, but the parade has since passed him by.

The top three kickers in base salary more than double Dawson's -- Pittsburgh's Jeff Reed and Seattle's Olindo Mare will receive the franchise tender of $2.814 million from their respective clubs, and Atlanta's Mike Koenen will get $2.731 million. Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski raised the bar for kickers this year when he signed a four-year deal for $16 million, including $9 million guaranteed, though his 2010 base salary will be "only" about $2 million.

Dawson has been seeking to catch up for three years and it's been difficult navigating three different Browns regimes in that time.

"I don't know how many regimes you've been through," a reporter said, prefacing a question.

To which Dawson interjected, "I don't either."

That's about as terse as Dawson got in disclosing his feelings on Tuesday.

"Regardless of whether there's a new regime or not, you have to prove yourself again every year, especially at my position," he said. "There's only 32 of them and there's always somebody waiting for that phone to ring.

"Whether you have a new coaching staff or new front office, you've got to prove yourself not only every year but I think every day. That's kind of been my mentality my whole career. That's why an undrafted kid that nobody expected much out of is standing here today."

It's beyond debate that Dawson is the most productive free agent signed by the Browns since 1999. He has missed only nine games in 11 years. What Dawson may never be recognized for, however, is being the greatest kicker in franchise history.

Lou Groza secured his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame first as a left tackle. Advances in kicking have rendered Groza's 58.1 field-goal percentage painfully obsolete. But Dawson's phenomenal 83.3 career percentage also easily surpasses the numbers of the modern Browns soccer-stylists Matt Stover (80.6) and Matt Bahr (74.09).

Groza's longevity (17 seasons) enabled him to set the franchise record with 234 field goals. Dawson, 35, entering his 12th season, will pass him with his sixth field goal in 2010.

Dawson missed five games last year with a right calf injury and then had no attempts in three of his first four games back. But when the weather turned ugly in December and the Browns mounted that four-game winning streak that saved the jobs of the coaching staff, Dawson was money in the bank, making 10 of 11 field goals including no-gimmes from 42 and 47 yards.

"I really like Phil," said coach Eric Mangini. "It's a tough environment to kick in. It's different than a dome when the elements are controlled. He's done a good job for a long time.

"I remember the Snow Bowl [when Adam Vinatieri kicked field goals of 45 yards to tie and 23 yards to win an AFC divisional playoff game in a blizzard]. You're thinking, 'How did he do that?' I should have named one of my kids Adam. Phil, to be able to do that same type of thing in cold weather, it's hard. You appreciate that. He's a perfectionist. I'm excited to have him here at camp."

Being with perennially mediocre teams robs Dawson of the national stage to audition as the league's best cold-weather kicker. His numerous memorable moments here include 12 game-winning kicks, not to mention the game-tying shot in Baltimore off the "Dawson bar" in 2007 and field goals of 35 and 49 yards in an 8-0 win against Buffalo that year in a December blizzard.

"I feel good about what I've done," Dawson said.

Even the one knock on Dawson -- the length of his kickoffs -- was shattered last season when the Browns were first in kickoff coverage, limiting opponents to a kickoff return average of 18.9 yards and an average drive start after kickoffs of the 31.4-yard line.

"In this league, you get a label and it kind of sticks with you," Dawson said.
Nobody expected him to boycott a mandatory team event or do anything to detract from the team. That's a label he also wears, with pride.

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