In March of 1999 the Cleveland Browns were hurriedly building their roster. The ‘New Browns' first draft was still a month away but the team was in the process of signing free agents and trying out prospective roster fodder for their 1999 campaign.
One such signing was a place kicker out of the University of Texas who had spent the 1998 season on the New England Patriots practice squad.
Phil Dawson was a 1997 All-American at Texas before bouncing around the first couple of years after college as many kickers do. The Browns offered him a contract, he beat out the forgettable Danny Kight and Chris Boniol, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Years after making the team and winning the place kicking job for the Browns, Dawson's career is still alive and he's still kicking in Cleveland.
Dawson has been on the sidelines for a lot of bad football. This season is no exception. But the 33 year-old has been a consistent and reliable NFL kicker and in this season, his 10th with the Browns, he's putting together the best season of his career.
Thus far on the year Dawson is a steady 17/17 on PATs. Nothing out of the ordinary there given he's converted over 97% of the PATs for his career. Where Dawson is tearing it up is on his field goals. He is 22/24 on the year for a blistering 92%. To put that in perspective, Mike Vanderjagt is the all-time field goal accuracy leader in NFL history with a percentage of just above 86%.
But not all field goals are created equal.
Dawson is a perfect 19/19 on FG attempts of less than 50 yards. On attempts of more than 50 yards he is 3/5 including three straight weeks of hitting a 50 yard-plus attempt. This past Monday night Dawson calmly walked onto the field with less than two minutes left and the Browns trailing the Bills by a score of 27-26. The winds were swirling and howling in Orchard Park, NY and Dawson was staring straight down the barrel of a 56 yard attempt with the game in the balance.
He hammered it through.
All three of Dawson's 50+ yard makes this season have come outdoors, two of them on grass fields. And while he may have had a wind behind him in Buffalo on Monday night, he still needed to make a perfect leg swing and solid contact to drive the football through the goalposts.
To what do we owe this sudden ‘length off the tee' that we've seen from Dawson over the last couple seasons? Well, the golf analogy may be right on. Typically you don't see guys getting stronger and more flexible as they get older. In fact, the opposite is true more often than not. But I agree with TCF message board legend JB who likened a kicker in the NFL to a golfer on the PGA Tour.
A lot of golfers make a splash early with their strength and length and then struggle for a few years while perfecting their craft. It's not a coincidence that the majority of world-class golfers peak in their 30's. JB likened a kicker to a golfer in that they spend hours and hours perfecting their leg swings and striking ball after ball to develop their rhythm and their muscle memory.
Dawson may very well fall into that category.
By all accounts the University of Texas All Century Team kicker is a student of his craft and a tireless worker. His BA in Political Science speaks to his intelligence as does his engaging style of conversation. Combining his intelligence with his dedication to his craft would indicate that Dawson has refined his approach and his leg swing to the point where every attempt comes off his foot optimally.
The numbers agree.
Of kickers with more than 100 FG attempts Dawson ranks 6th all-time in FG accuracy. This season he's moved past former Brown Matt Stover into that 6th spot. This season he's also tied for 2nd in regard to percentage of attempts made among kickers with 20 or more attempts and he continues to move up the Browns and NFL all-time scoring leader list with his 866 points.
It's not out of the question that Dawson could perform at a similar level for the next 4 or 5 seasons given the his age and the fact the 5'11", 200lb specialist keeps himself in good shape and has been relatively healthy throughout his career in Cleveland. Four or five more years at this level of production would put Dawson into rarified air in regard to career scoring and production.
Dawson would likely be higher on both the Browns and NFL scoring list had he not played for some offensively challenged teams during his 10 years here. He's 3rd on the team's all-time FG list behind just Lou Groza (234) and Don Cockroft (216) with 178 made, 3rd on the team's all-time scoring list ( ahead of the legendary Jim Brown and trailing Groza and Cockroft) and easily owns the highest single season FG percentage (93.1%) as well as the highest career FG percentage (83.6%). For comparison sake, The Browns all-time leading scorer and FG leader, Groza, connected on less than 60% of his career attempts (58.1%) but still scored 1,349 points on 234 field goals and an astounding 641 PATs (Dawson has 254 PATs).
Dawson also owns the Browns record for most FGs in a game (6) as well as most consecutive FGs made (27).
There's been a dearth of talent on both sides of the ball and plenty of reasons for Browns fans to complain about the performance of the club since the team re-emerged in 1999. There's been a lot that's simply been bad. But Phil Dawson is an exception. When the smallest, most tenured man on the roster trots onto the field and lines up to put points on the board, it's almost always good.