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Browns special teams: A repeat of last year's gaffes is out of the question

Aug 22, 2012 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi


The Morning Kickoff …

The perfect storm: If Chris Tabor didn’t have bad luck last year, he’d have no luck at all. The Browns’ special teams coach had a rookie season to forget.

First, he replaced Eric Mangini prize assistant coach Brad Seely, a legend among special teams cognescenti. Then there was the lockout and the lack of opportunity to learn the players on the outer edges of the Browns’ roster – the special teams core players. Then he lost punter Reggie Hodges in the first week of training camp with an Achilles injury.

Then he lost Josh Cribbs on coverage teams because Cribbs was needed at receiver. Then he lost money-in-the-bank long snapper Ryan Pontbriand. Or, rather, Pontbriand lost it -- his ability to deliver the ball to the holder under pressure.

The results were ugly:

* A 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a touchdown off a fake punt, which led to a 24-17 loss in Oakland.

* A botched snap by Pontbriand, which led to a 13-12 loss to the Rams.

* Another botched snap on a 55-yard field goal try, which led to a 23-20 loss in Cincinnati.

There were also unforgiveable breakdowns in protection that resulted in two blocked field goal tries in a tight game against Seattle. Fortunately, Phil Dawson bailed out everybody with field goals of 52 and 53 yards in an uninspiring 6-3 win.

“There were some bad things, but there were some good things that happened, also,” Tabor said to me.

When your unit is directly responsible for three losses in a 4-12 season, that’s a very bad year. As President Mike Holmgren summed up succinctly after the season, “If we could just snap the damn ball we’d have two more wins.”

“I agree with him,” Tabor said. “I think we got that fixed.”

Looking up: Christian Yount replaced Pontbriand after the two-time Pro Bowl snapper was waived in late November. The fact this is the first time this year that anyone has written or uttered the name Christian Yount is a good thing, because they generally only are noticed when they screw up.

Hodges is back and has been artistic in dropping punts inside the 10-yard line in two preseason games.

Dawson has been bombastic at the age of 37, blasting kickoffs to near the end line and 50-plus-yard field goals through the uprights; he had one of 62 yards at practice.

And the coverage units, loaded with fresh, young legs, have been re-energized by the return of Cribbs full time as the dynamic, sure tackler on the kicking teams.

“Everybody talks about what a great returner he is -- and he is -- but he’s also a great cover player,” Tabor said. “I think sometimes he doesn’t get the credit that he deserves with his great cover skills.”

Cribbs also had his first return for a touchdown in two years last season. Despite Pat Shurmur’s assertion that Cribbs, 29, is on “the back nine of his career,” Tabor dismisses the notion that Cribbs is over the hill as a lethal return specialist.

“I think that’s a silly issue to talk about,” Tabor said. “I think that’s silly. I know when I talk to other special teams coaches around the league, they go, ‘Is Cribbsie returning?’ He’s still a threat and well-respected in this league.”

Moving up: The Browns are a young team on offense and defense. They have a brutal schedule. They need their special teams to not only to be competent but also impactful. Not only can’t they lose games on special teams, they have to steal one or two wins with momentum plays on ‘teams.

“That’s the culture that you want to have,” Tabor said. “We’ve talked about it. We don’t want to make it a push. We want to be able to make an impact play or change field position. Pin somebody down and get a short field and hold them and score. That’s our goal: to impact games.

He added, “Obviously, in a positive way.”

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 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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