By Tony Grossi
Updated again at 9:51 p.m. with a statement from the Browns.
Phil Dawson, the last original player from the Browns’ 1999 expansion team who is just 78 points shy of Hall of Famer Lou Groza’s franchise scoring record, is joining the San Francisco 49ers.
Dawson broke the news on his Twitter page, announcing it just minutes after Browns owner Jimmy Haslam became the latest member of the team to fall short of explaining why they were letting him go. Later in the day, the 49ers confirmed Dawson signed a one-year deal.
Dawson said on a conference call there were many reasons he signed with the 49ers.
"It’s hard to pick just one and that’s why this is such an attractive place," he said. "Obviously, one of the storied organizations in the history of the NFL. A team that is on the verge of winning it all right now, with a great head coach, a great front office, special teams coach I’m familiar with, a great part of the world to live in. What is there not to like? When you start mixing that together, even for an idiot like me, it’s a pretty easy decision."
In a sitdown with Cleveland-area reporters at NFL meetings on Tuesday, Haslam wouldn’t say officially that Dawson’s career was over with the Browns – but he came close.
“I think where Phil is in his career,” Haslam began, “… and, candidly, not everything is set in stone, in terms of these free agents. I will say this, he’s a quality person and a great player and he’s been great for our community and for our team.”
Earlier in the day, it was reported that another Browns’ Pro Bowler and fan favorite – Josh Cribbs – was poised to sign with Arizona when he is able to pass the Cardinals’ physical in the near future.
When pressed on Cribbs, Haslam expanded on the team’s philosophy.
“We’re trying to build a team here,” Haslam said. “If you look at where teams are, in terms of about to win the Super Bowl, about to win their conference championship, we’re building, right? So I think you have to look at where people are in their career and decide who fits best and who doesn’t.
“Why do we like Paul (Kruger) and Desmond (Bryant) so much? Not only are they good players, how old are they? 26 and 27. We’re not going to be 13-3 next year. If we were going to be 13-3 and on the verge of going to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl, I think you look at your lineup one way. If you’re fighting to get above – have we won more than five games in the last five years? So if you’re that, then I think you have to look to build.”
Dawson broke Groza’s career field-goal record in 2010. After the season, the Browns – then under the management of Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert – failed to come to terms on a muilti-year contract, so they retained Dawson with the one-year franchise tag. They repeated that maneuver for the 2012 season.
Tagging Dawson a third year in a row was financially undoable, per terms of the league’s collective bargaining agreement, which led to Dawson becoming a free agent for the first time in his career. Fortunately for him, he earned a Pro Bowl berth for the first time in 14 years in 2012 when he made 29 of 31 field goal attempts and all 29 extra point attempts.
Dawson’s 116 points last season – at the age of 38 and in arguably the most treacherous venue for an NFL kicker – raised his career total to 1,271. Groza’s record is 1,349.
Haslam said the pursuit of the scoring record was no factor in the Browns’ thinking.
“I don’t think you can look at things like that,” he said. “I think you have to look at what’s best for the franchise over a period of time. I’d be shocked if Phil didn’t agree with that. He’s a professional.”
On Monday, Browns CEO Joe Banner refused to explain the team’s decision, but also painted a grim picture for Dawson’s return.
Asked if he understood Dawson’s popularity in Cleveland, Banner said, “I do and I don’t. It’s just relative. I’ve been in the league a long time and I understand players that have been on one team a long time, played as well as he has, have the affection that he deserves from the fans. I understand that.”
He declined to comment further how bringing Dawson back would not be good for the Browns.
On his Twitter account, Dawson wrote:
“Hey Cleveland. Thank you for a tremendous ride. Your love, support & 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 & thrilled to have the opportunity to continue my career with my new team, the SF 49ers!”
At about 9 p.m. Eastern time, the Browns issued 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."
The statement was attributed to no one in particular.
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