The Pat Shurmur coaching staff/Mike Holmgren front office combination that Cleveland Browns fans endured for the past two seasons was an unequivocal disaster. Most of the regimes in the franchise’s expansion era (since 1999) also fit this bill perfectly.
With that history of incompetence in mind, Clevelanders were predictably excited when the team, now under the new Jimmy Haslam ownership group, hired the well-respected Joe Banner from the Philadelphia Eagles to serve as the team’s CEO. New head coach Rob Chudzinski met similar applause, as Browns fans remember him as the offensive coordinator during the magical (term used loosely) 2007 season when the team finished 10-6 and quarterback Derek Anderson miraculously made the Pro Bowl. No, the team didn’t make the playoffs, but the win total was in double digits and Derek freaking Anderson was a Pro Bowler. Of course, fans were ready to march on Berea with pitchforks after the Mike Lombardi hire, but two out of three isn’t bad.
So, the Browns have what looks like a decently competent administration running the show now. How then has that front office and coaching staff so badly mishandled the kicker situation, one that even the various doofuses who previously filled the offices in Berea managed to handle correctly since the team returned in 1999?
Phil Dawson – the beloved Phil Dawson – has been booting kickoffs and playing the Lake Erie winds to perfection since the Browns reentered the league nearly 15 years ago. He has appeared in 215 of 224 games in that time span. In 2010, he passed Hall of Famer Lou Groza for the franchise record in field goals made. The rule that field goals which strike the center crossbar or support are reviewable is colloquially named after him.
It is a hackneyed phrase, but he has aged like fine wine. Scratch that, he has aged better than fine wine. Last season, his 14th in the NFL, he nailed a career high 93.5 percent of his field goals (29/31). He has only missed eight extra points in his career. He was the longest tenured Brown; the only player that has been with the team since that first season back in 1999.
But most of all, Browns fans everywhere loved him with a passion that bordered on how North Koreans feel – or at least say they feel – about their Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Is there another NFL city where a noticeable number of fans at the stadium for any given day are wearing jerseys with their kicker’s name on the back? Browns fans call him Uncle Phil, and after 14 years of reliability, he sure seemed like a member of the greater Cleveland family. In a fantasy football league with a large number of Browns fans, the only way to get Dawson was to become “that guy” who picks a kicker a round or two earlier than is advisable.
The Browns slapped Dawson with the franchise tag before the 2011 and 2012 seasons, but opted to let the aging kicker walk before this season. He wound up with the defending NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers. It would have cost $2 million to franchise tag him again this season, and the new Banner/Lombardi regime was looking to save money and sign younger players. At the time, it seemed like a reasonable strategy.
Undrafted rookie Brandon Bogotay from Georgia and the experienced and accurate – yet notably weak-legged – Shayne Graham were brought into training camp to compete for the starting job. Neither distinguished himself, and both were cut earlier this week when the team was required to get their roster down to 53 players. That left the Browns with no kickers and seven days before their Week 1 contest at home against the Miami Dolphins.
The team brought in Billy Cundiff and Dan Carpenter, both veterans, to compete for the job. Yesterday, they settled on Cundiff and signed him to a one-year deal worth $840,000. That number is important, because it is just $1.16 million less than what the team would have had to shell out to keep Uncle Phil in town. Of course, as of August 23rd, the Browns had almost $27 million in cap space, the highest mark in the league by over $4 million.
Yes, in hindsight, this is completely ludicrous. It would have been one thing if the front office spent some of that measly (when you consider the size of Jimmy Haslam’s fortune) $1.16 million to improve the rest of the roster, but it is absolutely indefensible to sit on that cap space after letting everyone’s favorite player walk.
Now, Cundiff is somewhat of a proven performer. He played five games for the Browns in 2009 while Dawson was injured, making all six of his field goals, including a game winner against Buffalo. Of course, those five games came in September and October, when the notorious Lake Erie gusts that Dawson had made his best friend are relatively calm. The year after Cundiff’s stint in Cleveland, he made a Pro Bowl after making 26 of 29 field goals and booting a league-best 40 touchbacks for Baltimore.
However, he is now infamous in the Charm City for hooking a 32-yard chip shot in the final seconds of the 2011 AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, costing the Ravens a Super Bowl trip. On that day, Browns fans enjoyed Cundiff’s misery, but now the joke is on all of us.
Because I’m a blind optimist, I made a bet with my father this morning that the Browns would lose fewer than 1.5 games because of the kicker position. He has seen a good deal more heartbreak than me and confidently took the over, predicting that Cundiff (or whoever the Browns end up with at kicker) would cost the team three games this season.
No matter which of us wins that wager, one thing is certain. I miss my dear old Uncle Phil, and don’t know why he had to head west for just more than $1 million.