Friday, November 30, 2012

For Lonesome Phil Dawson, it's always been lonely at the top

Lonesome Phil, still kicking: For the vast majority of Phil Dawson’s 14 NFL seasons, inept offenses made him the league’s most underused kicker.

By Tony Grossi
November 30, 2012

Touchdowns have been scarce on his Browns teams, so he generally had the fewest extra points, field goals and kickoffs at his position. For those reasons, I nicknamed him Lonesome Phil long ago.

The moniker is more appropriate than ever.

Dawson is 24th among the 32 regular kickers with 20 point-after attempts. He has made them all, of course. More importantly, he has made every one of his 21 field goal tries – the only kicker this year who has been statistically perfect.

In addition, Dawson not only is the only player from the Browns’ expansion start-up year of 1999 still on the roster, he is the only one still active in the league.

One of his original teammates, Lomas Brown, is on the ballot for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Two others – Orlando Brown and Orlando Bobo – have died.

So his underuse and his longevity make Dawson Lonesome Phil. But there’s yet another reason the nickname applies. In the first batch of fan balloting for this year’s Pro Bowl, Dawson’s name is nowhere to be found.

Another injustice: Dawson has made 27 consecutive field goals dating to last season, matching his career-best streak. Philadelphia’s Alex Henery has the next-longest active streak at 18.

Sunday in Oakland, where torrential rains and high winds are forecast, Dawson will match accuracy and length with Sebastian Janikowski, the Raiders’ hefty lefty, who happens to be leading the fan vote for AFC kickers.

Janikowski’s only miss among 24 attempts was a 64-yarder on Oct. 21. Janikowski doesn’t miss many meals at 257 pounds, or many long field goals. He co-holds the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal a year ago. And yet, over the last two seasons, Dawson beats Janikowski in long-distance accuracy. Dawson is a league-high 12 of 13 on field goals of 50 or more yards. Janikowski is second at 10 of 14.

But when Dawson recounts his amazing strength and accuracy at the age of 37, he is most proud of his length on kickoffs and career-high number of touchbacks. Unfounded criticism of his kickoffs always has rankled him.

“We’re No. 1 in kickoff coverage – with eight rookies covering,” Dawson said. “I think 11 were my most (touchbacks) ever. Our opponents only have 16 so far this year. We have 19. I always keep track of those things.

“I’ve always said you can’t compare numbers when you play in certain climates compared to others. Even touchback to touchback. Some teams have twice as many touchdowns as us. (Janikowski) has 30 touchbacks.”

Plagued by bad offenses, Dawson has excelled as the league’s best outdoor kicker in one of the most difficult home venues for a long time. He shouldn’t have to be perfect to gain traction for the Pro Bowl, but even now he is being overlooked by fans in the early vote totals on

The top five vote-getters are Janikowski, Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, New England’s Stephen Gostkowski, Denver’s Matt Prater and Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham. The players' and coaches' votes, which count two-thirds towards the total, are cast later this month.

Dawson is hoping their votes will send him to his first Pro Bowl berth.

“It’s always been a goal,” he told me. “It certainly isn’t a make or break event to make me feel good about my career, but anytime you can accomplish a goal it’s a good feeling. To be close many times and not get it, I think, would probably make me enjoy it a little more, if that day every does come.

“I can only do what I do. I know the feedback I get from other players and coaches from around the league is extremely positive, so that’s encouraging. When you can earn the respect of those people, that’s what you’re really hoping for.”

Is this his last year in Cleveland?: Numbers-crunching CEO Joe Banner arrives in Cleveland at a pivotal time in Dawson’s career.

For two years, Browns GM Tom Heckert has been unable to negotiate a multi-year contract with Dawson’s agent, Neil Cornrich, of Beachwood. The Browns used the franchise tag – for the first time in their expansion era – on Dawson for two years in a row. Now they face a crossroads.

The fine print of the new NFL collective bargaining agreement allows for a financial windfall for a player if he is tagged three years in a row. Dawson would receive the franchise number for quarterbacks – expected to be over $15 million -- if the Browns tagged him again.

That’s cost-prohibitive, of course, so Banner would have to try his luck with Cornrich on a multi-year deal, or Dawson would leave in free agency. In an interview with ESPNCleveland two weeks ago, Banner was noncommittal on re-signing Dawson.

Dawson has been the Browns’ longest-tenured player, but also their most consistently good player, since 1999. There are five games to go, and it would be fitting for him to go out as the league’s only perfect kicker. For Dawson, it always has been lonely at the top.

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