Sixth in a series that ranks the best Browns players at each position.
Some think they’re not “real” football players, but what they do is intrinsic to the game. Kickers and punters have developed into distinct specialties over the years, coinciding with expanded rosters and the emergence of soccer-style place-kicking. Though on the low end of the salary and respect scale, punters and kickers confront enormous pressure. Whether handling a high snap on a wet day in their own end zone or trotting out for a crucial field goal with a game, season, or career on the line, the men who put the foot into the football are more than window dressing: they affect outcomes, while adding to the variety of skills on display for fans of the sport.
As the Browns head toward a training camp competition for a new punter, it’s clear to see that, over the years, we’ve been blessed with some very special special teamers.
1. Lou Groza (1946-59, ’61-67) — The exploits of this Hall of Fame placekicker and left tackle are legion in the memories of Browns fans and in the team’s record books: most points, most seasons played, 13 championship games (including the game-winning FG to cap the Browns’ first NFL season), scored in 107 straight contests, made 138 straight extra points (still a club record). Along with Otto Graham and Jim Brown, this nine-time Pro Bowler ranks in the very top tier of legendary all-time Browns. Field goals were not nearly as common in Groza’s era, but the strong straight-on aim of “The Toe” helped put the Browns in scoring position whenever they crossed midfield. According to this article, “From 1946 through 1949, when there was not one single field goal made in the NFL from beyond 50 yards, Groza made four from that range.” Playing under different rules and conditions than today, Groza’s 58.1% career FG accuracy doesn’t seem impressive at first glance, but he excelled compared to his contemporaries, such as Bob Waterfield, Pat Summerall, and Gino Cappelletti. He made over 88% of his field goal attemps in 1953, a team record that lasted for 41 years. He remained a popular and personable figure until his death in 2000 at age 76, which just happens to be the number retired in his honor.
2. Horace Gillom (1947-56) — Played for Paul Brown at Massillon High School and is believed to be the first black punter (and one of the few) in NFL history. His 43.8-yard average is still best of any Brown. Led the league in ’51 and ’52, and has the two longest punts in team history: 80 and 75 yards. But Gillom was about more than just distance. Long before Ray Guy, he was known for focusing on what we now call “hang time,” allowing the coverage to get downfield to minimize returns. Though fewer statistics are available from the old days, Gillom’s low rate of touchbacks, 8.8%, remains impressive evidence that he wasn’t just a strong leg. Indeed, in that era of smaller rosters, he also served as a reserve end on both defense and offense, where he caught 29 passes.
3. Don Cockroft (1968-80) — For over a decade, he was the Browns’ kicking game. One of the very last combination punter/place kickers, he was also one of the last straight-on kickers. His 57-yard field goal in 1972 broke a 20-year-old team record by a full five yards. Leads franchise in career punts; second to Groza in points and field goals. Just a steady, reliable player and person who somehow never made a Pro Bowl or Super Bowl. I’ll always wonder if he would have made the kick that Sam Rutigliano didn’t let him try. Of all the ways to end a career… of course, missing it might have been even worse than what happened.
4. Matt Bahr (1981-89) — After Cockroft retired, the Browns went with a rookie named Dave Jacobs, who promptly missed eight of his first 12 field goal tries. The Browns brought in the diminutive Bahr, who had failed to stick with two other teams, and thus found themselves yet another long-lasting kicker. Released after the 1989 season, when he missed two field goals in overtime games the Browns lost. His playoff statistics: 46 points and 80% FG accuracy — rank second in Browns history. Of course, he’s probably prouder of the Super Bowl rings he won before and after his time in Cleveland.
5. Chris Gardocki (1999-2003) — If you had to pick an overall MVP from the reborn Browns’ first five seasons, sad to say, but you could make a decent case for Gardocki, a solid punter and holder. Ranks second to Gillom in gross punting average, with the same low touchback rate. Never had a punt blocked, never botched a snap that I can recall. Not quite sure why he didn’t handle kickoff duties too; his career average is a yard longer than Phil Dawson’s. No matter now; he belongs to the Steelers, the same team he flipped off in 2001.
6. Matt Stover (1991-95) — Holds team records for most FGs in a season (29 in 1995), most consecutive FGs (23), and FG accuracy (81.2%). Other noteworthy accomplishments preceding his long tenure as a dreaded Raven: four field goals of 50 or more yards, averaged better than one touchback per game over his first three seasons, two-for-two in having onsides kicks recovered. Here he is (in a Baltimore Sun photo) demonstrating his tackling technique on Ben Gay in 2001:
7. Phil Dawson (1999-present) — He seemed a little suspect in the beginning, but he started to win me over by beating Pittsburgh in 1999 on a last-ditch kick with the clock running (listen here). One of the last remnants of the 1999 Browns team, Dawson has proven his consistency and range. He’s four-of-five from 50 yards or longer. Second to Stover in FG percentage (81.6%) and consecutive FGs made (21). He’s not just some prissy kicker either. He’s recovered his own onsides kick, run for a touchdown and a critical first down (shown below; listen here) on fake FGs, and made nine tackles.
8. Gary Collins (1962-71) — I ranked him as the Browns’ third-best wide receiver, but, lest we forget, he was also the regular punter for his first six seasons. Led the league with a 46.69 average in 1965.
Sorry, not quite: Sam Baker (1960-61); Mark Moseley (1986); Steve Cox (1981-84), whose only two field goals as a Brown are also — at 60 and 58 yards — the team’s longest; Jeff Gossett (1983, 1985-87), Brian Hansen (1991-93), Tom Tupa (1993-95).