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Runners And Kickers Have Been A Step Ahead In Cleveland

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In addition to being one of the best players at his position in team history, Phil Dawson is merely the latest in a long line of kickers - a position that has ably manned for the most part since the club's beginning in 1946. Photo by Jamie Squire/Allsport.
In addition to being one of the best players at his position in team history, Phil Dawson is merely the latest in a long line of kickers - a position that has ably manned for the most part since the club's beginning in 1946. Photo by Jamie Squire/Allsport.

The best position the Cleveland Browns have ever had?

That’s a hard question to address because there are really two correct answers depending on the criteria used. If talent. the most awards, the most accolades, the most star power, the highest-profile is the benchmark – then it’s running back, hands down.

But if the intention is to find the position that has done the best job of standing the test of time from the team’s beginning in 1946 until the present day, then kicker is the hands-down – or, as it were – feet-down choice.

Let’s examine both choices:

Running back – Cleveland’s Hall of Fame home: The Browns have four runners enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Jim Brown, Marion Motley, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly. In that aspect, Cleveland running backs may be the strongest position area in pro football history. After all, name a position area – running back or elsewhere -- on another team that is as good.

Add to that the fact Brown is not only the best running back of all-time – but also probably the best player overall – and it makes Cleveland’s backs an even stronger group. When Brown played from 1957-65, he obliterated every rushing record in NFL history. The numbers he put up were so off-the-charts they seemed as if they had been compiled in some video game.

Before Brown was Motley, who was with that first team 67 years ago and played in Cleveland through 1953. Mitchell played in the backfield with Brown for four seasons (1958-61). Kelly was with the Browns for the final two seasons of Brown’s career (1964 and 1965) and played through 1973, giving him 10 years with the team.

So save for the three-year period from 1954-56, Cleveland had at least one Hall of Famer in the backfield each season from 1946-73 – roughly the first quarter-century of the team’s existence. So these runners weren’t just good, but they were also around for a long, long time.

Kickers – where Cleveland gives all others the boot: The Browns have just one Hall of Fame kicker in Lou Groza, but an asterisk belong next to his name since he was also the team’s starting left tackle from 1948-59. He was extremely proud of his work on the line. In fact, “The Toe” answered the question, “What role did you play?” with, “I was a left tackle who also kicked.”

To many, Groza is “The Father of Modern Kicking” just as his head coach, Paul Brown, is known as “The Father of Modern Football.” Groza made kicking important and worthy of respect. Much of the kicking in today’s game traces back to Groza in some manner.

He gave credibility to the position. He worked hard at it and turned into a science and a craft. He showed the impact a great kicker could have on a team when he booted the game-winning field goal as the Browns won the NFL championship in their first year in the league in 1950 by defeating the Los Angeles Rams 30-28. To be sure, it’s not a coincidence that the top kicking honor in college football is named the Lou Groza Award.

Groza, an Ohio-bred kid who grew up in Martins Ferry along the Ohio River and attended Ohio State to play for Brown, actually had two stints in Cleveland. He played from 1946-59 and retired in 1960 because of a bad back. He returned in 1961 and played through ’67 before retiring for good. In all, Groza played 21 seasons with the Browns, including 17 in the NFL.

Immediately after Groza retired, Don Cockroft stepped in and played 13 seasons, until 1980. Roughly halfway through the 1981 season, Matt Bahr – who had arrived in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers –
took over and stayed through 1989. His overall career in Cleveland lasted 8½ seasons. Matt Stover – a Plan B free agent from the New York Giants – kicked for the final five seasons (1991-95) of the existence of the original Browns’ franchise.

When the Browns came back in 1999 as an expansion franchise, an unknown by the name of Phil Dawson – who had been on the practice squad of the New England Patriots the previous season –stepped in and played for 14 years. He left for the 49ers via free agency several months ago after Cleveland made no attempt to re-sign him.

All followed in Groza’s footsteps and became great kickers in their own right. Dawson, in fact, now owns most of the team’s kicking records that formerly belonged to Groza.

Just for the record, Sam Baker – who would go on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles – kicked in Cleveland in 1960 during Groza’s “retirement” season. Dave Jacobs played the first half of the 1981 season before Bahr came along. And in 1990, between Bahr’s departure and Stover’s arrival, Jerry Kauric did the kicking.

The 2013 season will mark the Browns’ 65th year and, for all but about 2½ years of their existence, they have had an iconic kicker. That’s incredible, just as the team’s parade of Hall of Fame runners is incredible. It’s hard to fully grasp the fact that Cleveland has kept the flame burning at kicker for that long – basically, since the year after World War II ended.

Indeed, those kinds of things just don’t happen. But they happened in Cleveland with the Browns. Suffice it to say that Cleveland has enjoyed two “best” positions through the years – different but special in their own way.