It’s officially one week until the first Sunday of the NFL season, and all teams were required to have their active rosters down to 53 by Saturday night at 6:00 PM EST. The vast majority of teams follow the time-tested method of keeping three specialists – one kicker, one punter, and one long snapper – on their roster, leaving 50 spots for offensive and defensive players. Last night, however, the Cleveland Browns challenged that traditional wisdom when they cut both undrafted rookie Brandon Bogotay and veteran Shayne Graham, leaving them with not a single kicker on their roster.
Now, it’s folly to pretend that Rob Chudzinski and staff won’t add a kicker via waivers from amongst the masses of players cut by other teams on Saturday. At the very least, one of the two released kickers could be brought back if the front office is unsatisfied with their options on the waiver wire.
But pretend for a second that the Browns left the kicker position unfilled. They could go one of two routes with this decision. The first and clearly more exciting – if quite ludicrous – strategy is straight out of the Madden NFL video games. The Browns could make the conscious and preemptive decision to avoid kicking the ball. On fourth downs in field goal range, they would simply go for it at every opportunity. Every touchdown would potentially be worth eight points (alternatively, of course, they could also be worth only six). Kickoffs would either be handled by punter Spencer Lanning, or, to add even more excitement, the team could train one player to take onside kicks on every Browns kickoff. This absurd tactic puts an enormous amount of faith in a team’s defense, and, though it has been used successfully at the high school level, is probably not a viable option at the NFL level, where game plans are so intricate and teams have much more time each week to prepare than would a high school squad where the players spend eight hours each day in class.
The other option, one I have long argued some NFL team should employ, is to keep only one player whose primary contribution to the team is with his foot. At many high schools and even some colleges, one player handles both the punting and placekicking duties. While they use an entirely different ball, even soccer goalies must be proficient in both dropkicks and kicks taken with the ball on the turf, and they have to spend a good deal of time practicing silly things like blocking shots and cutting out crosses. There is no reason an NFL punter or kicker should not be able to learn to handle both kicking functions in the game of football. There are a number of roster benefits to be gained from consolidating the kicking and punting games into one player. First, a team would save a roster spot that could be used to add depth at an offensive or defensive position where there are always high turnover due to injury. Second, that substitution of a third- or fourth-string player instead of a starting specialist could save a team salary dollars that would ease a team’s cap constraints, potentially allowing them to upgrade another position. While we’re on this topic, why does a team have to keep a long snapper who only plays about ten snaps a game? I don’t begrudge long snappers their jobs or mean to minimize the importance of having a reliable long snapper, but defensive lineman Billy Winn is currently listed as the Browns backup at the position. With a few more reps and extra work at practice, there is no reason he shouldn’t be able to provide performance equivalent to that of starter Christian Yount.
Returning to the kicking games, the Browns did retain punter Spencer Lanning on the 53-man roster. An undrafted rookie out of South Carolina in 2011, Lanning has spent time with the Bears, Jaguars, Jets, and the UFL’s Sacramento Mountain Lions in addition to two separate stints with the Browns. He has yet to appear in an NFL regular season game, but he performed well enough in the preseason to beat out both T.J. Conley and then Colton Schmidt, whom the Browns signed before the fourth preseason game and released on Friday. While it won’t happen, Lanning may actually be an ideal candidate to fill the combo kicker-punter role. While in college at South Carolina, he both punted and, during his final two seasons, also handled placekicking duties. In those two seasons, he hit 34 of 44 field goals for a respectable 77 percent while also making 80 of 84 extra points. While he may not have a leg that will make Browns fans forget about Phil Dawson, those numbers prove he is at least proficient as a placekicker.
Alas, it does not appear that Rob Chudzinski is the man to challenge standard NFL special teams operating procedure. A number of experienced veterans such as Dan Carpenter, Neil Rackers and Billy Cundiff, remain on the market. If any current NFL coach would try the one-man kicking game, my money would be on a noted innovator like Chip Kelly.
So, in spite of the roster deadline’s passing, the Browns work remains incomplete. I’ll have another piece next week once the dust settles on waiver claims and free agent signings. Hopefully by then there will be at least one player on the Browns roster who can put the ball between the uprights.