Last year we thought we’d introduce ourselves to Mike Holmgren by offering a report of each position group. The reports contained a ‘Roster Upgrade Advisory System’ not unlike that of Homeland Security. This year, even though the big show has been around for a year and has Tom Heckert in house, we thought we’d give the reports another shot. Previous reports: OL, DB
If there is a group that has been the rock of this franchise for the last several years, its been the Special Teams unit. Seemingly year after year, they have gotten All-Pro performances for their Kicker, Long-Snapper, Punter, Return Man, and gunners. This may be one of those situations where we never really appreciated how good we had it until it was gone.
Coaching. Eric Mangini’s firing also led Special Teams guru Brad Seely – the team’s best position coach by a mile – to leave for the greener pastures of San Francisco. The Browns tried everything they could to keep him, but Seely felt it was time to go. Who could blame him really. The thing is his schemes seemed to always work and his unit was always better than his opponents.
In a poll done by well-respected NFL writer Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, the Browns Special Teams ranked third in the NFL behind just the Patriots and Titans. And this was in a year that return man Josh Cribbs was banged up and had his worst season of his career. Meanwhile, seven of those top 10 teams made the playoffs.
Major changes are afoot with the Special Teams. First and foremost, Chris Tabor was hired to replace Seely. He comes over from Chicago where he was the assistant Special Teams coach for the past three years. His units, like Seely’s, were amongst the best in the league. The hope is that the quality of coaching will not dip in the area with Tabor now on board.
The Kicking Game. This arguably the most underplayed story of this offseason for the Browns; the all but certain departure of Kicker Phil Dawson. The last remaining original “new” Cleveland Brown, Dawson has been through it all here. From the Chris Palmer/Dwight Clark debacle to the Butch Davis era of “me” to the Romeo Crennel/Phil Savage years to the Mangini/Kokinis/Holmgren situation, Dawson has been the one constant (along with absentee ownership).
Yet with being perhaps the best bad weather kicker in the game, drilling 83% of his field goals, and becoming the Browns all-time leader, Mike Holmgren seems as though he is just going to let Dawson walk into free agency. At the end of the year, Dawson seemed to know something with his quotes before his last game against Pittsburgh.
“I’m just appreciative to be able to play for the Cleveland Browns,” he said. “I’m not emotional but I am sentimental. I’ll soak it all in.”
Meanwhile, Seely always loved to heap praise on him.
“Talking about Phil Dawson, number one you have to talk about the person,” said Seely. “He’s a solid guy. I think that is one of the reasons he has become one of the better kickers in the history of the NFL. He really works at his craft. It’s always enjoyable for me as a coach to see a good guy who works hard have success at what he does.”
With all of this said, why would the Browns possibly let go of him? Randy Lerner has deep pockets and spending money on players has never been an issue. Sounds like Holmgren and Tom Heckert have a different plan in mind. Makes little to no sense to me. Dawson is an extremely valuable commodity. We will all see it when we have a kicker who flubs easy ones next season.
Punter Reggie Hodges was brought in mid-season 2009 to replace the injured Dave Zastudil and has been terrific ever since. Hodges not only had a Pro Bowl caliber season punting the football, but his 68 yard run against New Orleans was one of the big highlights of the year. He was rewarded with a contract extension during the season. Long Snapper Ryan Pontrbriand – the best draft pick of the Butch Davis regime – once again had a solid season. If you go the whole season without mentioning the Long Snapper, you know he has done a great job. That is exactly what happened with Pontbriand in 2010.
The Return Game. Josh Cribbs is still a stud folks. Nobody should worry that he got his big contract and regressed. The bottom line is that Cribbs was hurt early in the season and never fully recovered. In fact, he wasn’t even close to 100% and continued to try and gut it out. You could see the lack of burst on his punt returns in particular this past season. 2010 was the first time in his six year career he didn’t return either a punt or a kick for a TD. Its easy to use injuries as an excuse, but this time it is the truth. He will be back healthy in 2011 and we will see that burst again.
The Coverage Units. This is a real soft spot for me. As you know, I dubbed the heart of the group – Ray Ventrone, Jason Trusnik, Nick Sorensen, and Blake Costanzo – “The Core Four.” I’d venture to say that at least two of these four were in on almost every return tackle when they were all healthy. Ventrone and Trusnik were both “Mangini Guys” and most likely will not be back next year. Costanzo was too, but he is highly regarded as one of the best special teamers in the league. The same goes for Special Teams Captain Sorensen. Titus Brown did his best to become “the Fifth Beatle” and played well with this group.
Two others who were underrated in terms of special teams play were rookies Joe Haden and TJ Ward. Both were on the coverage units and enhanced their solid rookie seasons by earning their stripes for Seely.
Overview. Anytime their is a coaching change at the top, there is going to be a little concern going into a new season. Chris Tabor has huge shoes to fill taking over for Seely and whomever the new kicker is (assuming Dawson walks) is going to be taking over for the franchise’s all-time leader in field goals. That’s not going to be an easy task.
Cribbs should be able to bounce back after his injury-marred 2010 season and hopefully the Browns find a way to keep “The Core Four” together.
I put this group as “guarded” because of the uncertainty of Dawson’s departure as well as the new coaching regime. We’ve had it so good for so long that I’m afraid this group is going to take a step back in 2011.