By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Veteran kicker Billy Cundiff filled the big shoes of Phil Dawson in 2009, and he’ll try to do it again beginning with the Browns’ regular-season opener Sunday against the visiting Miami Dolphins.
The Browns reached an agreement Tuesday on a contract with Cundiff, 33, the team announced. The financial terms of the deal were not immediately disclosed, but the length of the contract is one year, a league source confirmed, speaking on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce such information.
To make room for Cundiff on the roster, the Browns placed guard Jason Pinkston on injured reserve and designated him to return. Pinkston suffered a high right ankle sprain Aug. 15 in a preseason game against the Detroit Lions and will miss at least half the season. He’ll be eligible to return to the active roster after Week 8, meaning the earliest he could play is Nov. 3 against the Baltimore Ravens.
Pinkston, a fifth-round draft pick in 2011, started the first 22 games of his career at left guard before a blood clot discovered in his lung forced him to miss the final 10 games last season. This summer, Pinkston was competing with Shawn Lauvao for the starting job at right guard, but Lauvao suffered a high left ankle sprain and underwent arthroscopic surgery Aug. 9. Veteran backup tackle Oniel Cousins is slated to start at right guard Sunday.
The Browns held a tryout with Cundiff and Giorgio Tavecchio on Tuesday at their headquarters, and Cundiff prevailed. Veteran Dan Carpenter was originally scheduled to participate in the audition, but he instead chose to sign with the Buffalo Bills after their kicker, Dustin Hopkins, suffered a groin injury Monday during practice.
Hours before the Browns worked out Cundiff and Tavecchio, CEO Joe Banner met with the Beacon Journal for a wide-ranging interview about the state of the team as it enters the 2013 season.
Banner was asked whether the organization has second-guessed letting Dawson walk in free agency in March. Dawson, 38, made 29-of-31 field goals last season and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl before signing a one-year, $2.25 million deal with the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. The consistency he displayed in the clutch, even in the harsh Cleveland weather, since 1999 made him a favorite of Browns fans.
“I think what Phil did for the organization for years justifies the affection that people have,” Banner said. “I think as we moved forward, we felt the right thing to do was kind of move on. No negative at all for Phil, just kind of where we’re at and what we’re trying to do, and I think we’ll end up with a kicker that when you combine his value both as a kickoff guy and as a field-goal kicker — and you have to look at both — will be an asset to the team now as we go forward here.”
The Browns went through training camp and the preseason with veteran Shayne Graham and undrafted rookie Brandon Bogotay serving as kickers, but the organization wasn’t satisfied with either. Last week, the team terminated the contract of Graham, 35, and waived/injured Bogotay, 24, with a groin injury. Bogotay officially moved to the Browns’ injured reserve Sunday after passing through waivers unclaimed.
Browns hoping for strong kickoffs
The Browns hope Cundiff, who earned first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in 2010, can be the valuable asset on kickoffs and field goals that Banner described.
Since entering the NFL as an undrafted rookie from Drake University in 2002, Cundiff has appeared in 106 career regular-season games with five teams — the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, Browns, Ravens and Washington Redskins.
He has converted 139-of-184 field-goal attempts (75.5 percent), with a long of 56 yards, and 217-of-218 extra points. From 50 yards or longer, Cundiff has made only 5-of-21 field goals (23.8 percent). By comparison, Dawson has made 24-of-34 field goals of 50 yards or more (70.6 percent).
In the playoffs, Cundiff has made 12-of-14 field goals (85.7 percent) and all 14 extra points. As a member of the Ravens in Jan. 2012, he missed a 32-yard attempt wide left in the waning moments of Baltimore’s 23-20 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
Of Cundiff’s 393 kickoffs in the regular season, 113 have gone for touchbacks. His kickoffs have yielded an average return of 22.6 yards.
Cundiff appeared in five games with the Browns during the 2009 season when Dawson was sidelined with a strained calf. He made all six field-goal attempts, including an 18-yard try with 22 seconds left that lifted the Browns over the Buffalo Bills 6-3 at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Preaseason with Jets
Cundiff spent the preseason with the New York Jets and made all three of his field-goal attempts and all four of his extra-point tries. Still, the Jets cut him last week and signed Carpenter, 27. Three days later, the Jets cut Carpenter, who made the Pro Bowl in 2009, in favor of Nick Folk.
The Italian-born Tavecchio, 23, spent the preseason with the Green Bay Packers before being cut last week. He converted 1-of-2 field goals in exhibition games, making a 38-yard attempt and missing from 49 yards.
Despite an outcry from a faction of the fan base, Banner does not seem concerned about the Browns bringing in a new kicker five days before they open the season.
“You’ll see kickers get hurt during the season, and you’ll bring in a kicker on Tuesday who’ll kick on Sunday, and it’ll be no problem,” Banner said. “No one will even worry about it. So there’s a long history of kickers coming in two, four, five [days before a game].
“I mean [Monday], Buffalo’s kicker pulled his groin, and that’s going to happen in the middle of Week 6, just as a random example. That Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday, somebody’s kicker is going to pull a groin or tweak a hamstring, and they’re going bring in a kicker on a Friday, he’s going to kick on Sunday, and it’s going to be absolutely no problem. That part of it happens all the time.”
Time will tell whether the new regime’s succession plan for Dawson pans out.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. 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.