To uneducated sports fans, that is simply a number. The quantity of judges on “America’s Got Talent” or “The Voice.” The number of fingers cartoon characters have. The smallest squared prime and the only even number in this form. The four corners of the globe. Four basic states of matter. On a keyboard, the dollar sign is also the number 4 key. In Revelations, four horsemen arrive with specific functions. Four-letter words. Four beats per measure needed to write a song. The “Final Four.” Four seasons. Four legs on a chair. Four suits of playing cards.
But for Cleveland Browns’ fans, the Number 4 represents one thing: Phil Dawson’s jersey number.
Dawson kicked for Cleveland for 14 seasons. He came to the Browns in the first year of the “New Browns” season of 1999. The following years would be brutal with nominal success as an “expansion club.” But, number 4 was a constant. Dependability and probability were his friends.
His nickname? Mr. Reliable.
Dawson was not handed the kicking job with the Browns initially. He was one of many who were signed to compete for the position. And he won the job with consistency. Then, he scored the first points ever for the New Browns in Week 2 on a 41-yard field goal in a 26-9 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
People assume kickers are a disposable occupation. If they miss only a few kicks, toss them and merely get another. Pretty simple. But how many times has the kicker won the game on the final kick? Or won the game by nailing three, four or five kicks in a single game and account for most of the points? How many times has a kicker booted the kickoff to where the other team could not return the kick?
The league seems to be against kickers - or at the very least wishing to hog-tie them. At one point, the goal posts were on the goal line before being moved back to the end line which added ten yards to every kick made good. Look at where the point-after-try is located today. Kickoffs were moved back. Kicking tees on field goals are a thing of the past. Kickers even have their own footballs, called the “K ball”, during contests. These balls are harder and slicker than the footballs used during the course of the game. They’re shiny and new. Since 1999, every kicker, long snapper and punter has complained about the K-ball to anyone who would listen.
Kickers are people too.
While with Cleveland, Dawson attempted 363 field goals and connected on 305. That equates to an incredible 84% completion ratio. He was 24 of 34 kicks of 50-yards or longer with his longest 56-yards. Dawson competed as a Brown in 215 games. In 14 seasons, he only missed eight PATs for a 97.8% completion ratio. Plus, he had 1,205 kickoffs.
Dawson holds several Cleveland Browns records including most field goals in a single game (6), most consecutive field goals made (29), and then beat one of the Browns’ Holy Grail of records with the most career field goals. At the time, Lou “The Toe” Groza held that record of 234. On October 10, 2010, Dawson broke Groza’s record; which now has been extended to 305.
He attended college at Texas. Dawson is most known for his historic kick against Virginia, a game-winning 50-yard field goal into a 30-MPH headwind as time expired after Virginia had just made a 56-yarder. Dawson was a First Team All-American in his junior and senior campaigns as well as All-Big 12 both seasons.
After his senior season at Texas, despite the accolades and success, Dawson went undrafted and signed with the Oakland Raiders where Greg Davis was the incumbent kicker. Shortly thereafter, the Raiders waived him. As fate would have it, the New England Patriots claimed him and placed him on their practice squad where he remained all year. Despite not being on any club’s active roster, the time with the Patriots proved to be some of the most valuable seasoning he could have utilized. For one, it was a cold environment which proved incredibly useful once he became the Browns’ full-time kicker. Another valuable resource was that Adam Vinatieri, one of the greatest kickers in the league, became his mentor and helped Dawson any way he could.
While with Cleveland, there was created “The Phil Dawson Rule.” On November 18, 2007 in a road game against the Baltimore Ravens, Dawson lined up to kick a game-tying 51-yard field goal to send the game into overtime. His kick hit the left upright, then fell onto the goal post stanchion, and then bounced forward back onto the field. The stanchion is the curved metal portion that holds the cross bar which holds the uprights. It is located inside the goal posts.
At first, the kick was ruled no good. The Ravens raced into their locker room victorious. Meanwhile, the officials huddled and discussed the bouncing football’s journey. They determined that since the ball fell inside the goal posts, it did not matter where it ended up. The field goal was indeed good. At the time, the play was not reviewable. However, the play was reversed “after discussion” instead of “after further review.” Basically the same as picking up a flag after a Zebra huddle. “The Phil Dawson Rule” allowed kicks that hit the uprights or crossbar or any other parts to be reviewed.
Dawson will be forever remembered for his crucial kicks in the “Snow Bowl.”
He was franchised in 2011 and then after making the Pro Bowl in 2012, the Browns did not make an offer to keep him under head coach Pat Shurmur and Chief executive officer Joe Banner. Neither of these decision makers remained with Cleveland for very long.
Dawson then signed with the San Francisco 49ers on a one-year deal where he was reunited with former Browns’ Special Teams coach Brad Seely. Dawson finished the 2013 season with the second most points (140) and field goals (32) in 49ers’ team history.
And during that season, on September 26 against the St. Louis Rams, Dawson attempted a 71-yard “Fair Catch Kick” that went wide left but was only one of a select few of these types of kicks ever attempted in NFL history. So, Dawson has that on his resume.
Dawson played four seasons with San Francisco, two with the Arizona Cardinals and then signed a one-day contract with Cleveland so that he could retire as a Cleveland Brown.
Today, Dawson is the Special Teams Coordinator for Lipscomb Academy in Nashville, Tennessee. He and his wife Shannon have been married since 1999 and have three children: Dru (age 19), Beau (17) and Sophiann (14). Dawson is a devoted Christian.
Dawgs By Nature caught up with Number 4 to find out why he has an involvement with the Secret Service, what it was like being on the first roster of the “New Browns”, and if Lou “The Toe” Groza is mad at him for breaking his longtime record.
DBN: You were a kicker on your high school squad. Did you also play soccer in high school, and how did you realize you could kick?
Dawson: Kicking chose me. I never wanted to kick. I played linebacker primarily, but obviously, somebody had to kick. I knew I could kick a ball from playing soccer as a kid. All my buddies encouraged me to go try. I made a 47-yard field goal in ninth grade and the rest was history.
DBN: In addition to being named Two Time All-American and All-Big 12 your final two seasons at the University of Texas, what you were most famous for in college was the game-winning 50-yard field goal into a gusty 30-MPH headwind. How did you decide to approach the kick when you went onto the field pre-kick?
Dawson: The Virginia kick is the one I am most remembered for during my time at the University of Texas. That win was the school’s 700th all-time win. I tried to approach that kick like any other: stick to my routine and most importantly - kick that ball the same as all others.
DBN: You were in the 1998 draft class that featured Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, Hines Ward, Charles Woodson and Matt Hasselbeck. Yet, despite all the success you had in college, you went undrafted along with another successful kicker Mike Vanderjagt. Why don’t NFL clubs put more emphasis on drafting kickers?
Dawson: Kickers don’t get drafted much, and if they do, it is generally late. Yet when a football season breaks out, everyone is trying to find a capable kicker. If kickers were so easy to find, why is there such turnover every year? There are only 32 of these spots in the world. It is my opinion, that unlike every other position, where there are coaches and scouts who understand the mechanics and techniques of that position and as a result can evaluate young players coming out of college; very few clubs have anyone inside their organization who knows anything about the mechanics and techniques of a kicker. Organizations are NOT going to use a high draft pick on a player that they can NOT forecast success for.
DBN: In your rookie season you ended up on the practice squad of the New England Patriots under head coach Pete Carroll where veteran Adam Vinatieri was the starter. What was your first training camp like and did Vinatieri help you or treat you like the kid who was there to take his job?
Dawson: My practice squad season in New England was not a lot of fun, but was tremendously important to my growth as a kicker. Being a kid from Texas, I had never kicked in super cold weather before. I obviously got a dose of that. Adam was incredible that season. He was super-professional, and looked for ways to teach me. I have always been appreciative since and have certainly used his advice in my career. Kicking in the cold weather paid dividends given I spent the next 14 years in Cleveland.
DBN: The New Cleveland Browns began in 1999 and signed you as a free agent. How did this happen, how did you find out you were moving to Cleveland, and who was your competition in training camp?
Dawson: We were all new in Cleveland in 1999. There were new people everywhere. I had to beat out several guys to win the job: Danny Knight, Chris Boniol and Jose Cortez. It was not an easy training camp, but I had to compete literally everyday to survive.
DBN: You scored the very first points for the New Browns in Week 2 against the Tennessee Titans with a 41-yard field goal halfway through the second quarter. What was the atmosphere like, and how did you feel about being the beginning part of the new team?
Dawson: I will always remember that first field goal - Week 2 in Tennessee in 1999. To see that first field goal go thru was a beautiful sight. My family was all there to witness it and I knew then, that I could perform at the NFL level.
DBN: That first season back as a franchise was in 1999. What was the buzz like in Cleveland getting their Browns back?
Dawson: Cleveland was wounded from losing their team. You could feel the pain all around. Once the season began, it was almost like going thru the stages of grief. Beating Pittsburgh was a high point that season and really helped the City start to feel good again.
DBN: Where did you live, and what places did you frequent to eat or go out after games?
Dawson: I was a Westlake guy. I loved going to Crocker Park. My places to eat were Cabin Club, Hyde Park and Blue Pointe.
DBN: Did you develop any pre-game or in-game rituals or superstitions?
Dawson: I was a huge routine guy. I followed the same routine for 21 years in the NFL. From what I ate, to when I went to bed, to what time I got to the stadium, to what I did on the sideline during the game.
DBN: Does it really “ice” the kicker when the opposing coach takes a time-out right before a game-winning kick, or is this just a television myth?
Dawson: I have always laughed at “icing the kicker”. Kickers are on the sideline the entire game. What is 30 more seconds going to do?
DBN: In your 14 seasons with the Browns you had an incredible 84% field goal percentage. What do you attribute that success to?
Dawson: I worked relentlessly 365 days a year for my 14 years in Cleveland to be the best I could be. There were no small things and no days off.
DBN: In fantasy football, every “owner” waits until the last two rounds to select their kicker, yet many games are decided by numerous field goals. Why don’t kickers get any love?
Dawson: Sounds like a mistake by people to me.
DBN: Lou Groza was the kicking standard for the Browns and forever had the most field goals with 234. In Week 5 of the 2010 season you tied his record in a loss against the Atlanta Falcons. The following week, the Browns drove the field and you booted a 39-yarder against the Pittsburgh Steelers to break his record. Every Halloween, does Groza’s spirit seek you out and haunt you?
Dawson: Mr. Groza is the Cleveland Browns. It was a thrill to meet him. It was a privilege to chase his records. It was incredible to break them.
DBN: What was the most memorable kick you made while with the Browns?
Dawson: I loved them all. So much work went into so few opportunities, I enjoyed every one that was good.
DBN: You made the Pro Bowl in 2012 after you went 29 of 31 kicks for a 93.5 kicking percentage. How did you find out you had made the All-Star squad, and who was the first person you told?
Dawson: I knew the Pro Bowl team would be announced that day. Coach Pat Shurmur called me to let me know. I literally had to pull off the side of the road to gather myself. I immediately called the one person on the planet that knew how hard the road had been for me - my wife Shannon. We celebrated as a family that night.
DBN: You played with a ton of talent in your career. With the Browns, who were the locker room entertainers?
Dawson: (Offensive guard) Barry Stokes was hands down the funniest guy to make his way through Cleveland during my time there.
DBN: Is there a different approach/steps/angles you have to make in attempting a kick of over 50-yards versus kicks under 30-yards?
Dawson: I treated every kick the same. Kicked every ball the same. Given the weather and field conditions, there are all kind of calculations that go into where to aim on that particular kick.
DBN: What is the “Phil Dawson Rule” and where can we buy a T-shirt with this printed on it?
Dawson: The “Phil Dawson Rule” was born after the game in Baltimore where the ball bounced all over the place. The rule now allows the refs the opportunity to review a FG that bounces around like that. I have no idea on where to get a t shirt!
DBN: You made the Pro Bowl in 2012 yet signed with the San Francisco 49ers for the 2013 season. What were the circumstances of why you didn’t resign with Cleveland?
Dawson: I begged to stay in Cleveland. (Chief executive officer) Joe Banner was not interested and I did not receive an offer to sign and remain with the only team I had ever known.
DBN: After the Browns, you had several more excellent seasons with San Fran and later Arizona. How satisfying was it to kick for another six seasons, and did your family move with you each time?
Dawson: I was thrilled to have the opportunity to play six more seasons after my time in Cleveland. To play 21 years in the NFL is more than anybody could have expected. My family moved back to Texas for those six seasons which made it difficult to enjoy for me.
DBN: You currently are the Special Teams coach of a high school team. How did you get this gig, and is this something you hope will escalate you into the college ranks one day?
Dawson: I love football. I knew in my post-playing days that i would be involved somehow in the game. I am coaching with my old teammate, Trent Dilfer at Lipscomb Academy in Nashville. I have the privilege of coaching my son Beau, a junior tight end. We will see where this goes from here, but I really enjoy working with high school aged boys and the opportunities that being a high school coach present.
DBN: Your talented wife Shannon produced an album in 2013 called “Redemption.” Is the single “He Chose Me” about her way of saying she snagged a Pro Bowl kicker as her husband?
Dawson: My wife would not write a song about her kicker husband, trust me!!
DBN: In the new stadium, you installed a small flag in a gap in the Southwest corner of the end zone to give an indication of what the wind was doing. How was this idea conceived, when did you install it, did it help, and is it still there?
Dawson: Early in my time in Cleveland, I noticed that days when the wind was out of the Southwest, it was a brutal day to kick. I needed some sort of gauge of how hard the wind was entering the Southwest tunnel of the stadium. I asked Chris Powell, our grounds crew leader, if he could get some sort of flag up. The next home game, there it was. I believe it is still there to this day, but with the stadium renovations, I don’t think that Southwest tunnel is as big as it used to be.
DBN: How did a former Secret Service sniper help you with determining wind conditions?
Dawson: Ken Rundle, former Secret Service sniper taught me that the angle a flag is blowing, if you divide by four, that is the approximate wind speed. I took his word for it.
DBN: What were your fondest moments of being a Cleveland Brown?
Dawson: I have nothing but fond memories of my time in Cleveland. I hope the people there found me to be one of them. I look forward to giving back to the city/organization in some way in the future. I am a proud Cleveland Brown.