Browns Once-Great Kicking Game Has Been Booted To The Curb
By Steven King
The Cleveland Browns haven’t had the best of anything many times in the expansion era. The worst of anything? Yes, on too many occasions in that regard. But the best of anything? Not so much.
One exception is Joe Thomas, who is the best left tackle in the NFL. The other exception is – or was – their kicking game. When K Phil Dawson, P Dave Zastudil – the Browns’ career punting leader – and two-time Pro Bowl LS Ryan Pontbriand all played together in Cleveland from 2006 through half of 2009, they were the top trio in the league.
Somewhere, the late, great Lou “The Toe” Groza and Horace Gillom were smiling.
Now all three stalwarts are gone and the kicking game is like other parts of the Browns now in that there are numerous – and major – questions. The problem is so pronounced, in fact, that the Browns could possibly decide to use a pick in this week’s NFL Draft to select a punter or a kicker.
Well-traveled K Shayne Graham, who has performed against the Browns in FirstEnergy Stadium many times as a member of the AFC North rival Cincinnati Bengals, was signed recently and could well hold down the job for 2013. But he will turn 36 before the end of the season, so he is almost certainly not the club’s long-term answer. Not with Browns CEO Joe Banner – who likes aging kickers about as much as he likes getting a root canal – calling the shots.
After all, if Banner was unwilling to get serious in contract talks about retaining Dawson, a Pro Bowler last season, is he going to want to keep Graham beyond this year? Probably not.
Christian Yount will be heading into his third season as the long snapper, but he is just average. Maybe the best thing that can be said about him is that when Dawson signed with the San Francisco 49ers recently, he bequeathed Yount his prime locker-room spot at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The punter? It’s hard to tell who will end up landing that job. But whomever that player will be, he has to be better than Reggie Hodges, who had been with the Browns since 2009. Last season, his gross average of 41.8 yards was next-to-last in the NFL while his net average of 37.1 was third from the bottom. The Browns are not good enough to overcome those poor statistics every time they’re forced to punt.
Maybe the Browns’ next punter played in college last season. UCLA’s Jeff Locke (44.2-yard average in 2012), Louisiana Tech’s Ryan Allen – a two-time Ray Guy Award winner – and LSU’s Brad Wing are considered the top three prospects in the draft.
But they will never be as good as Zastudil, who was allowed to leave in free agency after the 2010 season. Last year with the Arizona Cardinals, he broke a single-season NFL record by landing 43 punts inside the 20-yard line. Ironically, Zastudil and Dawson – who are good friends – will be competing against each other twice a season now as their teams are rivals in the NFC West.
The Browns erred in letting both Zastudil and Dawson go, but it was a totally different situation with Pontbriand, who was a fifth-round pick in 2003 and a rare draft find in the Butch Davis era. He forced the Browns to release him. Pontbriand, who had been pinpoint accurate with his long snapping going all the way back to middle school, was waived by the Browns late in 2011 when he inexplicably got Steve Blass Disease and was suddenly unable to hit the target.
Even spending part of last off-season with the 49ers and well-regarded special teams coordinator Brad Seely – who had had the same job in Cleveland for two years when Pontbriand was there – couldn’t get him back on track. That’s a shame, as is the fact that the fine work of Pontbriand, Dawson and Zastudil is nothing but a distant memory.
At least Thomas is still around.