The Cleveland Browns have had their fair share of good kickers throughout their storied history. Lou “The Toe” Groza comes to mind. So does Don Cockroft. Phil Dawson is probably the best kicker the franchise has ever had and currently holds numerous team records to solidify that statement. Matt Bahr kicked for many years.
But recently, the Browns has struggled to find a competent replacement for Dawson, who flashed his revered Number 4 jersey for the final time in 2012.
Recently, there have been two kickers drafted to fill this void: Zane Gonzalez was taken in the seventh-round of the 2017 NFL draft and then Austin Seibert was selected in the fifth-round (2019). Neither lasted two seasons in Cleveland.
Seibert began the 2020 campaign but was subsequently cut. Luckily, GM Andrew Berry had stashed veteran kicker Cody Parkey on the practice squad; so when Seibert was waived, it was a natural transition and Parkey joined the 53-man roster on September 14 right before the Week 2 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Because of the pandemic, an NFL club can’t simply bring in several guys to audition for a vacant kicker position, sign one and then let him play the next game. Protocols required a three-day wait period to sign. This creates a huge problem later in the week. This is especially crucial as insurance against injury as well.
One week after Parkey was brought up to the active roster, the Browns stashed another kicker on the practice squad who has had success in the pro ranks: Matt McCrane.
McCrane grew up in Brownwood, Texas where high school football is a religion. He played soccer and football and at some point had to decide which to focus on. Club soccer is the elite levels, and practices were on Sundays. As a devout Methodist, the sessions usually got in the way of youth activities for himself and his sister Lizzie. So, as much as he loved the game of soccer, he dropped playing with the traveling club teams. In high school, he still played for his school’s soccer team, and also football in his freshman year. He made a 52-yard field goal in a game for Brownwood High School. McCrane ended up with quite a few college offers - mostly D-2 schools. Then a prominent full-ride offer came in from the Air Force Academy.
As he was preparing to make a commitment to become an Air Force cadet and play college football, Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder called and offered him a full-ride to a D-1 school in the prestigious Big 12 conference. Familiar teams to the McCrane household are Baylor, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, TCU, and of course – Texas. Being a homegrown Texas kid, him and his parents Steven and Lori knew what the Big 12 was all about, and Matt wanted to be a part of it.
Plus, head coach Snyder was a huge proponent of special teams (ST) play. His son Sean, was the ST coach and a former Consensus All-American punter. In 2017, McCrane’s senior year, Sean was named ST Coach-of-the-Year by ESPN.
McCrane was known as being super accurate while at K-State. As a freshman, he led the nation in field goal percentage at 94.7% and was Honorable Mention All-American by Sports Illustrated and Honorable Mention All-Big 12, which he earned the following season as well. As a junior, he set the school record for most consecutive field goals made. His senior year he made First Team All-Big 12. Career stats include 21-26 on field goals and 133 of 134 PAT attempts while scoring 304 total points.
When McCrane graduated, he was the second-highest ranked kicker in Big 12 history and #7 in NCAA All-Time rankings.
As a professional kicker, he has played with the Arizona Cardinals, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Guardians of the XFL where he was named the top kicker. New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, home of the NFL Football Giants and Jets, is known for its horrible weather and wind conditions just like in Cleveland and division rival Pittsburgh.
His overtime kick in 2018 for the 0-3-0 Oakland Raiders beat the Browns in what would become new head coach Jon Gruden’s first victory.
And yes, the competition level in the XFL was not the same caliber as the NFL. However, when a kicker lines up for a field goal, he isn’t kicking against an opponent. He is kicking against the stadium, the elements, the wind from behind or in the face or from a sideways angle, the air temperature, the sun’s direct sunlight plus the turf itself. Or in the case of kicking in the multi-sport stadium Oakland Coliseum, having to deal with placing a ball on the dirt infield.
Dawgs By Nature made a contact with Walter Mitchell who is the deputy editor of RevengeOfTheBirds.com, the Cardinals community page also on SB Nation. Mitchell was able to see McCrane’s progress firsthand when the young kicker was in his rookie camp with Arizona.
“When Matt was with the Cardinals Phil Dawson was in the last year of his career,” said Mitchell. “Matt was just pure. I had gone back and watched his Kansas State games and I had rarely seen such excellent fundamentals. He set records there in accuracy. The question was, would the Cardinals save the $3.5 million and go with the younger kicker? It’s tough to cut a Hall of Fame type veteran who has proven over-and-over his worth.“
McCrane is an expert on plus-kickoffs. Instead of kicking the ball deep into the end zone for a touchback, this is where the kicker is instructed to land the ball into the field of play near the goalline which forces the return man to field the ball and try to gain positive yardage. This strategy stops not only the opposing team from getting the ball on the 25-yard line, but has ability to halt them deeper and also potentially cause a fumble.
McCrane is married to his college sweetheart Megan, who just happens to be a Texas girl. This past off-season, the Browns signed him to a reserves/futures deal for the NFL minimum as they allowed veteran Cody Parkey to test the free agent waters. Berry recently re-signed Parkey to the club, but with only for a one-year commitment worth $1.21 million. NFL teams use futures contracts to claim the rights to players they think will be able to make some noise in the upcoming season.
Which is good for McCrane. NFL teams traditionally don’t hire young kickers. They want someone who has game experience including the pressure situations that can come up.
“The Cardinals saw that this kid could be legit and had versatility. He can make every type of kick,” Mitchell added. “The Raiders signed him and in his first game he was awarded a game ball, then was cut. He kicked the game winner for the Steelers and then was cut again. He’s been close. He just needs someone to believe in him. But once someone does, they are going to be pleasantly pleased.”
Despite McCrane’s limited experience kicking in actual games, he actually owns four game balls. Raiders’ Coach Gruden gave him one as did Mike Tomlin of the Steelers. He also has a K-State ball and one from the Browns which McCrane talks about in this interview.
And with McCrane’s strong leg, this may give the Cleveland offense an option to get points in the 50+ yard range out of stalled drives instead of having to go for it on fourth down or punt to a short field.
DBN caught up with Matt this off-season to see if has any kicking superstitions, how he almost got his chance at being the starting kicker for the Browns last season, and if he would ditch a Super Bowl ring for a Golden Boot Award.
DBN: You grew up an offensive soccer player. How did you get into kicking in the sport of American football?
McCrane: It started in high school. I played slot receiver and some quarterback before kicking a football. My sophomore year our starting kicker had gotten hurt and we were in the playoffs. The coaching staff asked who can kick? I said I play soccer at forward and midfield and have a strong leg and I’ll give it a shot. I had a 52-yard field goal in a playoff game. That was kinda the start of the kicking career. I started going to kicking camps and realizing this was something I was able to do at the next level.
DBN: At one point you gave up soccer and focused on being a kicker in football. What made you come to that decision?
McCrane: I was traveling all around the State of Texas for club soccer and Olympic development. I would travel from Dallas to Lubbock to Austin for practices. It got strenuous those couple of seasons leading up to high school and I just made a decision after talking with my parents if this is something we want to continue. We’re missing a lot of church time and family time. We would leave before church on Sunday mornings and get home late. My freshman year I decided to hang up club soccer and pursue a different route. I still played for the high school soccer team, but not traveling teams or Olympic anymore.
DBN: You went to Kansas State but had a full ride offer to the Air Force Academy. Why did you ultimately choose K-State?
McCrane: My family has a military connection. I went to my Congressman and got the recommendation and all the requirements they needed to kick a football for the Air Force Academy. The rest of my offers were Division 2 schools or as a walk-on to some Division-1 schools, so I was close to heading to the academy. Coach Bill Snyder of Kansas State called and said they watched my tape and wanted me to come play in the Big 12 and were interested in me.
DBN: Did your official visit to K-State seal the deal?
McCrane: They actually won the Big 12 Championship Game on my visit and it felt like home. So, once again I talked it over with my family about playing in the Big 12 or go the military route. And the decision was made to compete against schools like my childhood school Texas who my dad went to. I was ecstatic to play against them every year and compete at a high level.
DBN: You converted on 86.4% of field goals at K-State and played four-years, was a two time First Team All Big-12, yet went undrafted. Why do pro teams not place a value on kickers?
McCrane: That’s tough to say. You see some guys get drafted that do well and some get drafted and don’t. In the NFL you have some coaches that know kicking and punting and others that don’t. And so they look for outside advice. That can be the downfall of some because they’re not looking at form and technique - things that me and other kickers look at and evaluate. Special teams coaches have a lot more to deal with than just coaching kickers and punters. So when you get to the professional level, they expect you to do your job. Like in Cleveland, Coach Priefer knows kicking and punting and is educated in those things already.
DBN: Did you develop any pre-game or in-game rituals, or superstitions that you continue today?
McCrane: I have my routine. I have my hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute routine that I do when I get to the field. But nothing crazy superstitious. My goal is just to kick it through the uprights - so I don’t have a special way I tie my shoes.
DBN: The Arizona Cardinals signed you as a rookie. On their roster was former Browns’ legend Phil Dawson. What was your first training camp like and did Dawson help you, or treat you like the kid who was there to take his job?
McCrane: I thought he was going to help me and he did especially in the early stages of training camp. I was cut from the Cardinals and then re-signed to the practice squad roster. He helped me. He knows - he’s been competing against young kickers for 20 years. He critiqued my form and we watched film together. I learned a lot from him because he is one of the best. I kinda picked his brain while I was there.
DBN: From there you made the game-winning kick for Raiders’ head coach Jon Gruden’s first win with Oakland hitting three field goals and making all four PATs, was cut three weeks later, then was 3-3 in PATs with the Cardinals again, then cut the following day, then signed with the Steelers and made every field goal and extra point yet was cut again. What goes through your mind when these teams use your talents one moment and then send you along your way the next?
McCrane: What I have learned is I need to be a professional – even when I’m not. What I mean by that is that when I am with a team I get all the benefits like the nutritionist, the strength staff, the coaching, the facilities – I get all of that. And when I get cut and leave and am between teams, I need to keep that same routine to be ready. You don’t know when your phone is going to get called. The Steelers’ GM called me on a Wednesday and I played that Sunday. It’s tough being signed and then being cut. I met their requirement of what they needed, and for two of those teams I made every kick. There are so many factors that come into that, that I don’t have control over. Whether it’s a money issue, another player, or the number of players on a roster. As long as I make my kicks and do my job, the rest will happen.
DBN: While with the Raiders they played a game in London’s legendary Wembley Stadium in Week 6. You scored the Raiders only points with a 43-yard field goal. What was it like as a soccer player when you first went out on the pitch, and then after you had nailed that field goal?
McCrane: The previous week the Champions League had a game in which Messi had just played on that field. For me growing up as a soccer player and watching those guys, and seeing games at Wembley, that was very cool and a surreal experience. The turf was different as well as they grow it differently for soccer. They grow it to give so that it won’t tear up their ankles. And it’s a flat field without any crown - a different pitch. It was a childhood dream. The crowd did their singing all game long like in a soccer match.
DBN: Tell me about your phone call from the XFL.
McCrane: I talk with my family a lot to make decisions and what is best. I’ll admit, the XFL - I was very hesitant in doing. The feeling is once you leave the NFL it’s hard to get back into that circle. Especially if you are not perfect in your job. The New York team had drafted me. But I did my job and made my kicks and thankfully that led me to the next opportunity. Trip MacCracken, the director of Player Personnel of the Guardians called me.
Editor’s note: MacCracken was the Salary Cap Manager plus the team’s chief contract negotiator with the Browns from their restart in 1999 until 2009
DBN: With the New York Guardians you were a perfect 10 for 10 on field goals including three 50+ yarders. Did that success just clarify to yourself that: yes you do indeed belong in the NFL?
McCrane: Absolutely. I often thought is this what I want to keep doing? When I went four years of college in a tough conference and hitting over 86%, I knew I had what it took to be an NFL kicker. As you know there are only 32 spots and you get limited opportunities. When I was perfect in the XFL, it was back to the grindstone for me. The NFL was my goal and my dream and let’s get to it. That’s when the Browns reached out.
DBN: You were then added to the Browns practice squad. Even though you knew you weren’t going to suit up on any given week, what was that experience like despite the pandemic restrictions?
McCrane: For me, it was completely different. In relationship with the starter for example. Cody knew he was the starting kicker and he had his role week-to-week. That is huge for a kicker to have along with the confidence and already knowing you are “that guy.” That is hard having a kicker behind you and having competition week-after-week. With Charley (Hughlett), Jamie (Gillan), Cody and me, I don’t think it could have been any better. Cody and I were helping each other with ball leans, and which way to have Jamie hold the ball. The dynamic we had was pretty cool.
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?
McCrane: I think it can. Depends on your mental strength and what you are capable of handling. For me, I don’t focus on that. I’ve got to be ready to do my job. I don’t think of those things that I can’t control.
DBN: Cleveland is known for being one of the worst places to kick because of unpredictable weather. You hear on TV the horror stories about the wind coming off the lake which adds to the difficulty. How much of a factor does that actually play - and is that really a thing?
McCrane: Absolutely it’s a thing. If you look at the completion percentage of kicks made in Cleveland, or MetLife in New York or in Buffalo as an example versus an indoor stadium or Tampa where the weather conditions are usually nice, I am sure the percentages tell you what you need to know. It was obvious with Phil Dawson putting the flag in the corner and his different methods in measuring wind speed. That flag is there for indication and Phil is just a phone call away. Cody had learned from certain ball leans with certain wind conditions and laces - things that can affect the direction of the ball and where it travels. You have to typically not aim the ball outside the goal posts. So if we can change the ball lean instead and have the holder do that, it will change that trajectory we can account for that. Kicking at Kansas State in the Midwest winds were similar. A Southern kicker who has been in good climates, that is tough to suddenly have to learn. You have to do your job no matter where you are or they will get somebody that can.
DBN: Last season, Cody Parkey was placed on the COVID-19 list leading up to the Eagles game and you kicked with the first team and did not miss a single kick all week. When did you find out that Parkey would be activated for the Eagles game, and were you thinking that this was going to become your breakout game?
McCrane: I found out Sunday morning, and what was unique is that with COVID travel, they travel the practice squad each week so I traveled to all games. I just prepared the same way I had always prepared. So, I could be ready Sunday to go. Coach Priefer shared with the media that they were pretty confident in me. Cody came back and did well for us. Hopefully I proved to them that I was good to go when they needed me.
DBN: For that week of practice, you were rewarded with a scout team game ball. Did you even know there was such a thing, and can we come over and play catch with that ball in the back yard?
McCrane: I did know it was a thing. There were so many guys who put in a lot more effort on the scout team than me kicking balls through the uprights. I am thankful for it though.
DBN: With the Browns re-signing Cody Parkey recently it appears that it will be the two of you fighting it out for the starting position once the season rolls along. Having gone through a kicker competition in the past with various clubs, what type of advantage does that give you this time around?
McCrane: I asked Phil about when a team has a bunch of guys come in and do kicking workouts hoping to be signed. He told me to just to focus on me. I don’t have control on whether they make or miss a kick. As long as I do my job the Browns and Andrew Berry will make their call.
DBN: The Browns are known for having one of the best Special Teams coaching staffs in the NFL with Mike Priefer and Doug Colman. Coach Priefer came out last year and said that he had all the confidence in the world in you. How are these two men different from other ST coaches you have had in the past?
McCrane: I’ve been pretty fortunate every place I have been to have really good special teams coaches starting with Coach Snyder at K-State. Coach Rodgers in Arizona. To know Coach Priefer came out and said that about me meant a lot.
DBN: When the ST coach wants you to eliminate touchbacks, and wants you to kick say a plus-5 on kickoffs, what adjustments are needed such as where you strike the ball, the angle and maybe the power modification on the kick?
McCrane: There is quite a bit that goes into it. The wind has a lot to do with it. Sometimes that might not be possible. But if we want to kick it short I have to hang it up there and not do that 3.7 seconds to the goal line. That’s how we lose on special teams. Coach Priefer is not going to put us kickers in a situation that’s tough or think we can’t do. For us, we’re trying to hang the ball for four seconds even if into the end zone. Anywhere from 4.0 to a 4.2 or 4.3 is a pretty good ball to allow our coverage team to cover.
DBN: You are well-known for having a very strong leg. Is there a different approach/steps/angles you have to make in attempting a kick of over 50-yards versus kicks under 30-yards?
McCrane: Some other guys maybe, but not for me. I’ve always been trained to not change my kick or swing depending on the length or wind. I just need to hit my same true ball. I am always trying to hit that ball 100% of the ball as hard as I can and get my follow-thru smooth.
DBN: Two scenarios: kicking off in the World Cup final, or kicking off in the Super Bowl. Which one would you choose?
McCrane: Kicking off in the Super Bowl no doubt. I think when I switched from soccer to football and watching the Super Bowl videos, that is where I want to be. That is what I want for Cleveland and the only way I do that to help is to kick the ball between those two yellow things.
DBN: You have never missed an extra point in any professional game and only one in 134 attempts in college. What is your secret?
McCrane: To me, it’s another kick that can’t be taken for granted. When they backed us up with the PAT in the NFL, of course you’re going to see a percentage decrease because we’re human and we miss. The more the distance goes back the more the missed percentage goes up. The one I missed in college was off a kickoff return for a touchdown against TCU and I was a freshman who wasn’t on the sidelines getting prepared. And once I learned that you have to be ready to go, I took that lesson and remembered it.
DBN: Growing up, who were some of your favorite NFL players regardless of position?
McCrane: Of course being in Texas we were Dallas Cowboys fans, but I didn’t watch the NFL that much and never watched any kickers or had a favorite player. Now in soccer I was a big Manchester United fan. It was Wayne Rooney, Renaldo, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand.
DBN: In training camp, what will you have to do to win the starting kicker position with the Browns?
McCrane: I have to make my kicks. I have no control over what Cody does and what the GM thinks or Coach Priefer and those guys high up. I just make my case and do my job and let them make that decision.
DBN: What has been your fondest moment of being a Cleveland Brown?
McCrane: I like the city. I like it a lot. It kinda reminds me of the Midwest where people haven’t had anything given to them. We’re not in sunny Florida. Cleveland people are tough and they’re built that way. These fans have had it rough over the past years and to bring what we did last year as a winning playoff team - to see life again to the city was special. My wife and I live near the practice facility in Berea, but we spend a lot of time traveling the state. We have been all over visiting historic structures and state parks. We just enjoy the State of Ohio. I came from central Texas – same thing: hard-nosed, blue collar, hard-working people. Those are things that relate to me that I align with. I think Cleveland is a good spot for me. I just gotta make my kicks and do my job and the rest will take care of itself.