BEREA: When Browns kicker Phil Dawson arrived at his locker Thursday morning, he was greeted by Hawaiian-themed decorations, including a cartoon of two pink flamingos on a beach, inflatable parrots, blue, pink, red and yellow leis, miniature tiki torches and masks, a paper hula girl and a colorful sign that read, “ALOHA.”
“Welcome to the islands,” linebacker Kaluka Maiava quipped as reporters hustled to the scene Thursday after practice.
Who was responsible for the party-like atmosphere?
“I’m not quite sure,” Dawson said with a smile. “I’m going to get to the bottom of it, and I still have a few days before I’m out of here for retaliation. So there might be a little snow to play with outside I can use.”
Even with looming changes hanging over their heads like ominous clouds, the Browns (5-10) didn’t miss a chance to celebrate Dawson’s first Pro Bowl selection and his trip to the NFL’s all-star game Jan. 27 in Honolulu. The season finale on the road Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8) could be Dawson’s last game with the Browns.
It’ll also likely be a farewell for coach Pat Shurmur and his assistants, General Manager Tom Heckert and his scouts and several other players who, like Dawson, are scheduled to become free agents in March. With the new regime of owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner in place, the Browns are probably on the verge of experiencing a major makeover.
Still, the players are trying to stay optimistic. And Dawson being named to the Pro Bowl on Wednesday night gave them an outlet to have some fun during what will be the final week they’ll all have together at the team’s headquarters.
“Change is never easy,” said Dawson, the only remaining player from the Browns’ expansion season in 1999. “I don’t know anyone that enjoys it. But with all the unknown right now, I think if I have any advice for my teammates, it’s deal with the known. What we do know is we get to play the Steelers this week. What we do know is we get one last chance to go out with this group, with these coaches, everyone together and try to win a football game.”
The Browns kept Dawson, 37, the past two years by placing their franchise tag on him. However, the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement make it unrealistic to franchise him a third time because he would go from making an annual salary of $3.81 million to one of about $14.642 million. The Browns, though, can still try to re-sign him.
“I know moving forward, whatever term I sign, I’m going to be able to outlive it,” Dawson said. “I’m not going to be one of these guys who holds on and holds on and holds on. So as long as I feel like I can play at a high level, I’m going to. With my family in Texas and me here or wherever, I’m not going to be away from them to play poorly.”
Like Dawson, special-teams ace Josh Cribbs hopes to finish strong in case he plays his last game with the Browns this weekend. Cribbs, whose contract expires in March, also wants to make amends for lashing out in response to criticism from some fans Sunday night with a profanity-laced tweet following the Browns’ 34-12 loss to the Denver Broncos.
“I want my career to end here in Cleveland,” said Cribbs, who joined the Browns in 2005 as an undrafted free agent from Kent State University and is now the second-longest tenured member of the team behind Dawson. “I have a lot in the tank. I hate that we rebuild every year. You got to teach guys how to play special teams because in college, you don’t take special teams to the heart. Guys don’t pay a lot of attention to it. They don’t know how important it is. Every year is a constant rebuilding process, every year. Coupled with that and the turnover and the regime constantly [changing], you know I’m not on the field by myself.
“It’s not a good recipe for successful football. But at the same time, I want to play football no matter where it’s at. I want to end my career here, but it is the business and nature of football, and I plan to stay here. This week I am concentrating straight on football. I guess after this interview it will be the last time I mention anything about my comment [on Twitter]. If we beat Pittsburgh, it will be like, ‘Josh said, what?’ I am concentrating on doing that for the fans. One way I can redeem myself is to play good against the Steelers.”
Dawson and Cribbs, who is a first alternate for the Pro Bowl as a special-teamer and a kick returner, highlight the list of the Browns’ potential free agents because of their popularity and production throughout the years. Tight end Benjamin Watson, cornerback Sheldon Brown, wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, linebackers Scott Fujita and Maiava, defensive end Juqua Parker, special-teamer Ray Ventrone, tight end/fullback Alex Smith, punter Reggie Hodges and running back Brandon Jackson are also unsigned beyond this season.
If Haslam and Banner hire a new coach and personnel head as expected, those people will install their systems and inject their philosophies. They’ll also seek players they believe fit into their master plan.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen after the season, and I try not to worry about it because it’s out of my control,” said left offensive tackle Joe Thomas, the third overall draft pick in 2007 who was recently named to his sixth Pro Bowl in as many seasons. “Certainly I like the direction we’re headed, but it’s not my decision. So whatever happens, we’ll have to roll with it, and figure it out when the time comes.”
Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, a first alternate for the Pro Bowl who has been with the Browns since 2006, said he hoped to avoid more revamping. Still, he knows the way professional sports work.
“With a new owner comes new changes and new obstacles, new challenges,” Jackson said. “I hope it’s for the better. I hope so. Mr. Haslam, he seems like a passionate guy. He enjoys what he’s doing, and he wouldn’t have bought this team if he didn’t think about being successful doing it.”
Jackson is determined to maintain a positive attitude. After all, he’s the one who suggested Dawson’s locker should be decorated. As a result, spirits were high in the locker room on Thursday, even though the occupants are bracing for yet another overhaul.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.