By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
The tradition continues: One thing the Browns have always been good at in their expansion era is special teams.
Some of their best players, in fact, have been specialists – kicker Phil Dawson, returner Josh Cribbs, punter Chris Gardocki. One of Butch Davis’ best and lasting draft picks was a long snapper, Ryan Pontbriand. He made two Pro Bowls before, sadly, acquiring the yips.
Some of the team’s most memorable occasions were authored by specialists.
Dawson scored the new franchise’s first rushing touchdown on a fake field goal. He beat Pittsburgh in that first season on a kick with the clock ticking down to all zeroes. His controversial field goal in Baltimore off the support bar changed a league rule and his two field goals in a snow globe against Buffalo were legendary. And, of course, there were 11 kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns by Cribbs – a player for any Browns era.
One of Eric Mangini’s epic upset wins in 2010, over defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans, was steeped in two trick plays on special teams – a backward pass on a punt return and the run of his life by Reggie Hodges on a fake punt.
Following this tradition, Rob Chudzinski notched his first Browns coaching win through the aid of two trick plays on special teams.
Attack in all phases: Chudzinski promised he would be aggressive on offense and defense, but he never really voiced it on special teams. Sunday in Minnesota a fake punt led to a field goal and a fake field goal led to a touchdown in the Browns’ 31-27 upset over the Vikings.
“The situations just happened to come up in the game where we felt we could use those plays and they worked in this case,” Chudzinski said. “Sometimes they won’t work. But that’s how we’re going to play.”
In the second quarter, Chudzinski called a direct snap to upback Josh Aubrey out of the punt formation on fourth-and-1 from the Browns’ 38. Aubrey ran up the middle of the field for 34 yards. A field goal four plays later gave the Browns a 17-14 lead.
On the next Browns’ possession, a drive stalled at the Vikings’ 11. As his teammates lined up for a field goal, tight end Jordan Cameron, who was not part of the unit, surreptitiously stepped on the field from the Browns’ sideline as the Vikings dug in, heads down.
Cundiff saw that Cameron was uncovered and called for the “sleeper play,” which had been practiced for two weeks. Holder Spencer Lanning raised up after receiving Christian Yount’s snap and sailed a wobbler to Cameron on the right sideline.
“It’s the worst (feeling),” Cameron said. “Then he throws it and the ball’s in the air for like 30 seconds, and you’re waiting, waiting, and then you catch it and I almost got tackled at the 1, which would have been embarrassing.”
Lanning would have a uniquely memorable game. He punted five times for a robust net average of 46.4 yards. He tossed the touchdown to Cameron. And because Cundiff tightened up in the second quarter with a quad muscle strain, Lanning came in at the end to convert the extra point after the Browns’ final touchdown.
It was not an insignificant point, as it gave the Browns a 31-27 lead and forced the Vikings to go the distance in the final 50 seconds as opposed to settling for a game-tying field goal try.
Lanning, thus, became the first NFL player since Sam Baker with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1968 to have a punt, an extra point and a touchdown pass in the same game.
“Maybe he was a Punt-Pass-Kick champ when he was a kid or something,” Chudzinski said with a laugh.
In fact, Lanning, who punted and kicked at South Carolina, and also kicked two field goals, including the game-winner, in the fourth preseason game, never participated in a Punt, Pass & Kick competition as a kid.
“The most training I’ve had probably throwing the ball is with my dad out in the yard,” Lanning said. “I never played PeeWee football, anything like that. Coaches just drew up a play and we went out and executed it.”
Take a picture: So on the final scoring play of Chudzinski’s first win, the Browns had Lanning subbing for Cundiff as the kicker and Brian Hoyer subbing for Lanning as the holder.
“I put a picture up in our team meeting with the guys, and the picture was that last extra point,” Chudzinski said. “I’ll tell you, I was ecstatic when we scored the touchdown and it took me about a second or two to realize, ‘OK, now we have to kick this extra point. And this is an important extra point,’ knowing that Brian Hoyer was out there holding, and Spencer was obviously kicking it. But I put the caption underneath it (in the meeting) to show the team, we talked about the theme of the week was, ’Do a little bit more.’ That’s really what it ended up being at the end of the game, for those guys especially.”
So it was that another classic, fun win in the Browns’ expansion era was assisted by specialists.
We’ll know the Browns have reached a new era when they don’t have to lean on kickers and punters and holders for big wins.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.comFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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