Steady kicker Dawson prepares for possible Browns finale

BEREA, Ohio -- Like a wayward field-goal attempt sailing wide of the uprights, Phil Dawson's steady career is about to veer.

Cleveland's only expansion-era kicker, Dawson has survived constant change and upheaval since signing with the Browns as a free agent in 1999. But the end is near, and he's preparing for what likely will be his final game in brown and orange.

On Sunday, Dawson's days with the Browns will come full circle when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers, their bitter rivals who welcomed them back to the NFL with a 43-0 drubbing nearly 12 years ago.

Head down, eyes focused ahead, Dawson is lining up for his last kicks in Cleveland.

"I have a job to do," he said Wednesday, doing all he could to downplay his apparent finale. "I signed my name on the dotted line and, until that's no longer the case, I'm going to continue doing my job. The challenge this week is to embrace the rivalry, what that entails, and block out whatever distractions there may be -- and in this case, possibly being my last game."

Dawson's ready to move on.

The 35-year-old, who earlier this season passed Hall of Famer Lou Groza as Cleveland's all-time leader in field goals, will become a free agent once this season's over. However, before that, he'll play in his 183rd game for the Browns, who have posted just two winning seasons since '99.

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Dawson expects Sunday to be nostalgic.

"I'm not emotional, but I am sentimental," he said. "So I'll soak it all in."

It might take Dawson leaving for the Browns -- and their fans -- to realize what they've had and what they'll miss.

Despite playing in Cleveland, where the footing on the field can be as unpredictable as the gusts coming off Lake Erie, Dawson is the ninth-most accurate kicker in NFL history. He has made 83.1 percent (251 of 302) of his tries, and he has been at his best when the conditions have been their worst.

Three years ago, Dawson overcame blizzard-like conditions and made two field goals to beat the Buffalo Bills. On one of those makes, Dawson aimed for a corner pylon to compensate for whipping, 50-mph winds. One year later, he knocked a career-long 56-yarder through in Buffalo with 46 seconds left to win a Monday night game, a kick he picked out of so many big ones as his finest moment as a pro.

Beyond his 14 winning kicks, Dawson's greatest achievement might be that he has survived Cleveland's continual chaos.

The Browns have had four coaches -- it will be five if Eric Mangini is fired -- and hundreds of players since Dawson joined them after being waived by the New England Patriots in 1998. He has not only performed well, but he has done it at an elite level.

Amid the tumult, Dawson has endured.

"Hopefully, it just says that I've done my job well," he said. "I set out a long time ago to work hard and execute when my number was called. There's been a lot of good players come and go out of this place, I'm certainly not the only one, but it means a great deal to have played in this league as long as I have and especially in one place. To be able to develop the bond with the fans and the organization and teammates and friends and see my kids grow up here, it's all been good."

Dawson hasn't dismissed coming back to the Browns, but at this point, that seems unlikely. He recently sold his home in Westlake, Ohio, and his wife and three kids already have moved to Texas, his home state. He insists he didn't uproot from Cleveland as an attempt to pressure the Browns into re-signing him, and with a potential lockout looming, it's hard to predict anything.

Right now, Dawson's game plan is uncertain.

"I've got to figure out what the landscape's going to look like, labor dispute and all," he said. "Once you get through that, then there's a lot of other things you've got to consider. I'll sit down and get with my wife, and we'll figure out what's best for our family."

His football family would love him to stay.

"We don't want to see Phil leave," rookie quarterback Colt McCoy said. "We don't want to see this as his last game. We've got a lot of great things going here, and he knows what's changed and what's happening. I know he wants to be a part of it, and I hope he can be."

Dawson has made 22 of 27 kicks this season, and he believes he has a lot left in his right leg. Retirement hasn't entered his mind.

"They're going to have to kick me out the door," he said. "I still feel like I'm getting better. People keep asking, 'Are you slowing down?' I'm like, 'No.' I'd tell you if I really sensed it."

Dawson's first winning kick came on Nov. 14, 1999, when his 39-yarder as time expired in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium gave Cleveland a 16-15 victory. It's one of just four Browns wins in the past 26 games against the Steelers.

Dawson was asked to script the perfect ending for Sunday.

"With a Browns win," he said.

On his kick?

"Whatever it takes," he said. "I just want to win. I want to walk off the field for the last game of the 2010 season with a win."

And on to his next kick.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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