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What Happened to Browns Special Teams?

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

Since I can remember, the Browns had a history of great special teams. In my lifetime, it started with Gerald McNeil, a shifty 5'7, 145-lb kick returner, who was nicknamed “Ice Cube” due to him being difficult to tackle. He played four seasons with the Browns, returning a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in 1986 and being named to the Pro Bowl in 1987. He was a big part of setting up Bernie Kosar and company with great field position.

McNeil was expendable after the Browns drafted University of Texas product Eric Metcalf. The speedy Metcalf was a running back who excelled in space but really made name as a kick returner. In six seasons with the team, Metcalf returned five punts for touchdowns (which still stands as the team record), including two each in 1993 and 1994, as well as two kickoff returns for touchdowns. Metcalf made the Pro Bowl as a returner in 1993, 1994 and 1997 and was a first team All-Pro in 1993 and 1997. He also led the NFL in kick returns yards in 1990, which included a 98-yard return. His 12 return touchdowns are the third most in NFL history.

The man was pure electricity when he was on the field, with one of his most memorable moments coming in 1993, when he returned a punt 91 yards for a touchdown, then IN THE SAME GAME, returned another punt 79-yards to the house in the fourth quarter, sealing a 28-23 victory over the hated Pittsburg Steelers.

The Browns left Cleveland in 1994, and in 1999, they returned as an expansion franchise, but the special teams excellence continued, as players like Dennis Northcutt returned two punts for touchdowns in 2002 and another in 2005. Travis Benjamin entered the league in 2012, and in four seasons with the team, returned three punts for TD's, including the teams last punt return in 2015 vs the Tennessee Titans. After the return in 1999, the special teams standard bearers were Josh Cribbs and Phil Dawson.

Cribbs, a Kent State product who played QB in college, was signed by the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2005 and is tied for the NFL record for kick return touchdowns with eight, which included two for 100-plus yards in a single game. Cribbs was basically the face of the Browns from 2005-2012 and has the teams last kickoff return in 2009. He was a Pro Bowler in 2005, 2008 and 2012 and was the NFL Special Teams Player of the Year in 2009.

Then there was Phil Dawson, who was a pro bowler in 2012, and the Browns punter from 1999 to 2013. He passed Lou Groza in 2010 for most field goals made for the Browns Iin 2010 and is generally regarded as the best kicker the franchise has had since the team returned in 1999. He holds the Browns record for the most consecutive FG's made with 29 and also the most in a game with six. The team has struggled to find a consistent kicker since he left.

What has happened since then? In 2011, the NFL moved the kickoff up from the 30 to the 35 yard line to prevent some of the full speed collisions that were occurring on kickoffs, and because of the rule change, the kickoff return game has suffered, but the kicking, punting, and punt return game has suffered as well for the Browns. It could be argued special teams have killed the Browns heavily over the last few seasons with muffed punt snaps, missed kicks and a lack of a true return game. It seems like head coach Kevin Stefanski showed his lack of confidence in the kicking game last season by going for it on fourth down in spots where having a good placekicker would call for an easy field goal.

The Browns have tried several players at kick returner and punt returner since Cribbs left, and no one has stuck, even guys like Benjamin, who seemed tailor made for the spot and had some success. The same can be said at punter and kicker, as the Browns thought they may have had the right combo in Chase McLaughlin and Jaime Gillian but neither were brought back for the 2022 season. Gillan was let go in season, and after a hot start, McLaughlin fell off and was not retained.

The kicker position has been a rotating door since Dawson left, and we’ve seen how important kickers have become in the NFL. The punter spot, which from 1999-2017 seemed like he was on the field as much as the offense most seasons, has also been a rotating door. Overall, the Browns have finished 25th or worse in special teams rankings in four of the last five years, but help appears to be on the way.

The Browns drafted Cade York out of LSU in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL draft to assume the kicking duties this year. The job appears to be his to lose, as the Browns did not bring in another kicker to compete with him. He comes in highly touted and may be the answer to the Browns kicking woes.

At punter, the Browns signed Corey Bojorquez to take over. In Green Bay last year, he averaged 46.5 yards a punt, with a net of 40 and dropped an 82-yard punt on the Bears during the 2022 campaign. The Browns also made a move at kick returner/punt returner by signing Pro Bowl return specialist Jakeem Grant away from the Bears. Last season, he returned a punt 97-yards for a touchdown vs the Packers. The Browns appeared to have solved their return problem until Grant tore his achilles and was placed on injured reserve.

Photo: Associated Press

It appears the Browns have found their kicker and punter, but who is going to step up and take the return game by the throat with the injury to Grant? Demetric Felton has taken over the job for now, but this isn’t a position he had played before last season. Will they try out others at the spot such as Donavan Peoples Jones or maybe even Jerome Ford? How about possibly Anthony Schwartz and his blazing speed?

The special teams have been a bane of the Browns existence for several years, but hopefully with the signings at kicker and punter, and their appearing to be some possible returners to spell Grant until he returns next year, the Browns seem to have taken the special teams a little more seriously than in previous years. Let’s hope so, as they could be on the cusp of something big with finally finding their quarterback in Deshaun Watson, and several other positions having All-Pro caliber players. It would be a shame if the only thing holding the team back from reaching its full potential was the Browns not finding the answers at the special teams units.

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