This week, Football Outsiders has been featuring the 30 best teams of the past 30 years according to their DVOA ratings. Their first two lists featured offense and defense, which unfortunately did not see the Cleveland Browns earn top billing in either category. Special teams, on the other hand, was a different story.
The Browns were featured in three of the 30 years as having the best special teams rating. Can you guess which years?
Cleveland first appears on the list at No. 19 for their 2007 season, which was Josh Cribbs’ highlight year as a kick returner, punt returner, and gunner. Although he’s not mentioned, Phil Dawson connected on 26-of-30 field goals that year.
19. 2007 Cleveland Browns: +8.1 percent
Josh Cribbs was the Steve Tasker of the 21st century, and this was his greatest season. The former Kent State quarterback averaged 30.7 yards on kickoff returns, with two touchdowns. We measured the value at 29.9 estimated points worth of field position compared to average, and that's the best kick return season in the past 30 years. Cribbs also averaged 13.5 yards per punt return with another touchdown, and for good measure, he added on 18 special-teams tackles as a gunner, tied for fifth overall.
The Browns’ next appearance on the list was on the Top 5 for their 2009 season, which again saw a fantastic year from Cribbs, and some solid kicking and punting production despite injuries derailing the seasons of Phil Dawson and Dave Zastudil:
5. 2009 Cleveland Browns: +9.7 percent
This was another All-Pro year for Josh Cribbs, as Cleveland led the league in kick return value and ranked second in punt return value, scoring four total return touchdowns. The difference between this unit and the 2007 one that ranked 19th overall? Cleveland's specialists were better in 2009. Phil Dawson and Billy Cundiff combined to hit 23 of 25 field goals, and punter Dave Zastudil was outstanding, averaging 44.7 gross yards per punt (39.1 net). Unfortunately, Zastudil went on injured reserve with a torn patellar tendon at midseason, and replacement Reggie Hodges was subpar, averaging just 39.8 gross yards per punt (36.4 net).
Last, but not least, the Browns were featured in 1994 at No. 3 overall. That comes a little before my time in following the Browns, but I’m still familiar with the likes of Matt Stover, Tom Tupa, and Eric Metcalf:
3. 1994 Cleveland Browns: +10.1 percent
The total absence of the Patriots from our top 30 makes this the only Bill Belichick team on the list, and special teams were a big part of lifting Cleveland to an 11-5 record in Belichick's second year as head coach. The Browns gained at least 10 points of value in four of the five phases of special teams. Matt Stover connected on 93 percent of field goal tries in a season when the NFL average was just 79 percent. The Browns also ranked fifth in net yards per kickoff (43.1), and Randy Baldwin led the league with 26.9 yards per kick return. Meanwhile, Tom Tupa's gross punting average of 40.1 yards ranked 24th in the league, but that isn't as important as his ability to pin opponents deep. On 26 occasions, Tupa punted from the opposing side of the 50-yard line; nine of those pinned opponents inside their own 10, and only five resulted in touchbacks.
Even in the one area in which they didn't have at least 10 points of value, the Browns had a player make the Pro Bowl: punt returner Eric Metcalf. He had two touchdowns, but the Browns ranked only seventh overall in part because of five fumbles on punt returns.
Do you remember each of those highlight special teams seasons for the Browns? Holding 10% of the spots on the rankings over the past 30 years is pretty darn good...although we would’ve preferred to have seen the offense or defense at least once.