As we count down to the NFL season, XN Sports will be bringing you 32 questions in 32 days. Each day, we’ll feature one of the most important questions for a different NFL team heading into the opening weekend of the league.
Today’s feature team and question?
Cleveland Browns: Will the loss of kicker Phil Dawson hurt?
At 5-11 last season, not much went right for the Cleveland Browns in 2012. The team ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in both offense and defense and while 29-year old rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden showed some promise, throwing for nearly 3,400 yards, the first-year player also proved he had a lot to learn. Weeden threw only 14 touchdown passes, completed fewer than 60% of his passes, and added 17 interceptions, proving the extreme difficulty of being a rookie quarterback in the NFL.
The poor season wasn’t only his fault, though. Rookie running back Trent Richardson had 950 yards with 11 scores, but his paltry 3.6 yards per attempt weren’t good enough. Wide receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little weren’t all that impressive and while they led the team, neither had a 1,000-yard year. There were also few impact players on defense. The unit as a whole made some big plays, ranking 8th in forced fumbles and 11th in interceptions and sacks. Unfortunately, they also gave up a lot of yards and points as well.
With a down season in both offense and defense, it’s safe to say that Cleveland had a tough time winning games. One area where the team had a lot of production, though, was on special teams. In particular, kicker Phil Dawson had an outstanding season.
Making 29 of his 31 field goal attempts, Dawson was second in the league in field goal percentage at 93.5%. Dawson also made all of his extra point attempts and was one of the league’s top kickers in 2012. He even excelled from long range, converting all seven of his kicks from 50 yards and longer. With a struggling offense that found it difficult to get into the end zone (Cleveland was only 25th in the NFL with 31 touchdowns), Dawson’s leg was a real weapon.
His impact wasn’t only on last year’s team, either. Dawson was a mainstay of the Browns and the veteran had played the entirety of his 14-year career with the franchise since being signed back in 1999. Last season was a bit of an anomaly and the 93.5% was a career high for the kicker. He’s had his ups and downs, but has largely been a quality NFL kicker, making 84% of his kicks in his 14 professional seasons.
For the first time in 15 years, however, Cleveland will be looking for a new kicker. As a free agent after the season, Dawson was signed by the San Francisco 49ers leaving a big hole on the roster. His replacement was expected to be former Houston Texans kicker, Shayne Graham. However, despite making all three of his field goals this preseason, Graham didn’t impress the team enough to earn a roster spot and was cut over the weekend, leaving the Browns without a kicker again.
The good news for the Browns is that kicker is a position where a veteran can step in immediately and generally fit in quickly. Unlike other positions where an extensive playbook must be digested, a kicker can step in and contribute right away. Still, not having one this late in the preseason is a concern.
As of Saturday, a few options available were veteran free agents Billy Cundiff and Dan Carpenter. Cundiff previously played for the Browns and after being signed by the Jets less than a week ago, Carpenter was recently cut himself. Both are serviceable options, but neither will likely be the kind of kicker that Dawson was last year.
Cleveland still has time to find a reasonable replacement. However, Dawson’s departure coupled with the recent cut of Graham just means the franchise has one more thing to worry about as we inch towards the season.