Friday, December 11, 2015

49ers’ Phil Dawson was loved in Cleveland

San Francisco 49ers' Phil Dawson (9) kicks an extra point during the first half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

By Eric Branch
December 10, 2015

It’s rare to see an NFL placekicker form a close connection with a blue-collar city, but that’s what happened with Phil Dawson and Cleveland.

In fact, at some point during Dawson’s 14-year tenure with the Browns, longtime radio analyst Doug Dieken noticed a phenomenon he figured was unique to Cleveland’s home games: fans roaming FirstEnergy Stadium with a No. 4 on their back.

“Not many places have people walking in wearing a kicker’s jersey,” Dieken said, “but Phil earned that respect from the fans here.”

On Sunday, those fans — including members of the Dawg Pound he came to know personally — will welcome Dawson back to his once-adopted home when the 49ers visit the Browns.

Dawson, 40, joined the expansion Browns in 1999 and hung around for 215 games, 363 field-goal attempts and 14 seasons that included two winning records, one playoff berth and zero postseason wins. During his stay, the Browns had six head coaches, 18 starting quarterbacks and … Dawson.

In the Browns’ revolving-door existence, the lone constants were losing and Dawson, who ranked 12th in NFL history in field-goal percentage (84.0) when he signed with the 49ers in 2013.

Dieken, 66, an offensive lineman who has spent 42 years with the team as a player or broadcaster, said Clevelanders appreciated Dawson’s dependability amid a sea of dysfunction.

“When you don’t win a lot of games, you don’t have a lot of heroes,” Dieken said. “But the guys who are professional, consistent, go about things at the highest level and are just good people off the field? That gives the fans someone to grab onto. And Phil was all that.”

The Browns’ ineptitude has made them a popular punchline, but Dawson speaks only respectfully of his time with a much-ridiculed franchise that resides in a much-ridiculed city. He said he “always considered it a privilege to be a Cleveland Brown” and the Dallas native established deep roots. Dawson and his wife, Shannon, raised their children, Dru (14), Beau (12) and Sophiann (9) in Cleveland.

“I was very blessed to be there for so long because I became a member of the community,” Dawson said. “I wasn’t just popping into town, playing and leaving. I lived there. I raised my kids there. I was able to form relationships all over the place. I think that’s some of the bond. There was tangible connection between myself and the fans.”

In 2005, on the heels of a 4-12 season, Dawson signed a five-year contract extension. Why stick with a loser? Dawson was motivated to see the city exult in the Browns’ first NFL title since 1964.

“I wanted to see that happen in my time there,” Dawson said. “I didn’t want to just leave and go pursue that somewhere else. That was part of my motivation. I think that would be tremendous city to be in when things are going good.”

The Browns placed one-year franchise tags on Dawson in 2011 and 2012, but Dieken says a new front-office regime that included general manager Mike Lombardi didn’t consider Dawson a priority after the 2012 season.

“They were looking at the budget,” Dieken said, “rather than the production.”

As a result, Dawson signed with the 49ers, and he has shown no signs of slowing down. In his two-plus seasons with the 49ers, he has established the franchise record for consecutive made field-goal attempts (27) and drilled 75 of 86 kicks (87.0 percent), including 13 of 18 from 50-plus yards. On Sunday, he’ll arrive having made 18 straight field-goal tries, tied for the second-longest streak in franchise history.

Dieken hopes the Browns find a way to recognize Dawson in his return.

“There’s kickers in the league and there’s football players that kick,” Dieken said. “Phil has always been to me a football player that kicked. He had the same mentality as the other guys.”

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