PHOENIX: Pro Bowl kicker Phil Dawson, who became the face of the expansion-era Browns because of his talent, consistent performances in adverse weather and 14-year tenure with the franchise, is leaving Cleveland.
Special-teams ace Josh Cribbs, another fan favorite, is also on his way out of town via free agency, though his quest to secure a new home has been delayed.
Dawson will reunite with former Browns special teams coordinator Brad Seely after signing a one-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers, the team announced Tuesday. The move is not surprising, but that didn’t prevent some Browns fans from using social media to express their frustration with the new regime for not re-signing the longest-tenured member of the team.
Dawson broke the news on Twitter before the 49ers announced it.
“Hey, Cleveland. Thank you for a tremendous ride,” Dawson wrote. “Your love, support and encouragement have blessed me deeply.
“Playing for you has been one of the great joys of my life, and I wish you all the best.
“I am humbled and thrilled to have the opportunity to continue my career with my new team, the SF 49ers!”
Neither Dawson nor his Cleveland-based agent, Neil Cornrich, returned emails from the Beacon Journal seeking comment. It’s unclear whether the Browns made an effort to keep him. Dawson told 49ers reporters on a conference call he wanted to join the organization partly because it’s “on the verge of winning it all right now.”
The Browns released the following statement: “We want to thank Phil for all of his years of service to the Cleveland Browns. He accomplished a great deal in his time here on the field, as a team leader and in the community. We know how much Phil meant to our organization and our fans, and he will always hold a special place in our franchise’s history and with the city of Cleveland. We want to wish Phil and his family the best of success in San Francisco.”
Dawson, 38, signed with the Browns in 1999 and was the only remaining member of their expansion team. Not only had he established himself as one of the most popular athletes on the Cleveland sports scene, but he’s also coming off one of his best seasons.
In 2012, Dawson made 29-of-31 field goals, one of which was blocked. He made all 13 attempts of 40 yards or longer, including seven of 50 yards or more. Dawson was selected to the Pro Bowl and named second-team All Pro for the first time in his career.
Before the Twitter announcement, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam sidestepped a question about Dawson not returning during an interview Tuesday at the NFL owners meeting.
Said Haslam: “I think where Phil is in his career … I will say this: He’s a quality person and a great player, and he’s been great for our community and our team.”
Dawson has a career field-goal percentage of 84, ninth best in NFL history. He finishes his career in Cleveland as the franchise’s all-time leader in field goals made (305). He ranks second in franchise history with 1,271 points, trailing Hall of Fame tackle and kicker Lou Groza (1,349 points). Dawson also played in 215 games, the third most in Browns history.
As for Cribbs, his plan to sign with the Arizona Cardinals has been delayed because of a knee surgery he had this offseason to repair a torn meniscus, his agent JR Rickert said.
Cribbs, a special-teams ace who spent the past eight seasons with the Browns, visited the Cardinals and took a physical Monday. He was expected to strike a deal, but the status of his knee prevented it from happening.
“He did not fail his physical,” Rickert wrote Tuesday in an email. “The team just wanted more time to let his knee heal from after-season surgery.”
Rickert expects the Cardinals to give Cribbs another physical once his knee has healed more.
The Browns signed Cribbs, a former Kent State University quarterback, as an undrafted free agent in 2005. He became a special-teams force as both a return man and a coverage dynamo.
Cribbs, 29, ranked sixth among punt returners (12 average) and tied for fourth among kick returners (27.4 average) this past season. He was named an alternate to the Pro Bowl and played in his third career all-star game in January.
Still, Haslam indicated Tuesday that Cribbs’ age was a deciding factor in the Browns’ choice not to re-sign him.
“We’re building, right?” Haslam said. “So I think you have to look at where people are in their career and who fits best and who doesn’t. Why did we like [recent free-agent acquisitions] Paul [Kruger] and Desmond [Bryant] so much? Not only are they good players, how old are they? Twenty-six, 27, right?”
Last week, Cribbs bid farewell to Browns fans by posting photographs, captions and the following comment on Instagram: “It’s been a blessing to be in Cleveland, wishing the best to the city and the team. If I could stay, I would.”
Cribbs and Leon Washington, who recently signed with the New England Patriots, are tied for the most kickoff returns for touchdowns — eight — in NFL history. Cribbs was named the kick returner on the NFL’s all-decade team for the 2000s.
Cribbs has compiled 12,169 career kick and punt return yards. He’s just the sixth player in NFL history to eclipse the 12,000-yard plateau. He has 10,015 career kickoff return yards, the most any player has tallied with the same team in NFL history and fifth-highest total overall.