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The Browns need to prioritize finding the right field-goal kicker

 Kicker Chase McLaughlin during a game between the Browns and the Vikings on October 3, 2021. The Browns won 14-7. [David Dermer / Cleveland Browns]
Kicker Chase McLaughlin during a game between the Browns and the Vikings on October 3, 2021. The Browns won 14-7.

In the NFL, good, reliable kickers are not a dime a dozen. But when a team has one, it can make all the difference in the world.

That was the case in each of this past weekend’s four playoff games. In three of the games, last-minute field goals won the game. In the other, a last-minute field goal by Kansas City sent the game between the Chiefs and the Bills into overtime, with K.C. ultimately prevailing. In that game it was a 49-yard field goal. In the Cincinnati Bengals’ win against Tennessee, it was a 52-yard field goal.

A study in opposites

The Browns, who did not make the playoffs this season, have what Terry Pluto says is kicker Chase McLaughlin, the worst field goal kicker currently in the NFL (at 15-out-of-21 for the season).

“If I told you someone was good 70% of the time, how would that sound? That’s the worst in the NFL,” Pluto said. He says the good kickers are “90% or better.”

Pluto points to the last good kicker the Browns had, Phil Dawson, who had a run with the team from 1999-2012. But he says in some front offices, there’s a mindset that kickers are essentially interchangeable and that’s essentially what happened when new management came in. Pluto says they looked at Dawson’s high salary, which was appropriate “as a Pro Bowl all-star kicker,” and they let him go. Dawson played for five more seasons in the league.

A revolving door for kickers

In the nine years since Dawson left, field goal kickers have been short-lived. They’ve gone through nine in nine years, and Pluto predicts the team will be looking for a 10th next year.

He’s stayed in touch with Dawson, who is currently a high school football coach in Austin, Texas. He says Dawson is frustrated by the constant turnover of kickers and told him. "They think you can find a kicker on every corner," Dawson told Pluto. "They can’t even get 32 of them (There are 32 NFL teams.) to stick around for more than a year or two.”

What if McLaughlin’s percentage was higher?

Pluto believes the Browns could have made the playoffs if McLaughlin’s field goal percentage was 90% instead of 71%. That could have made the difference in winning two more games this season.

But Pluto says there were essentially two different seasons for McLaughlin. “He made 10 out of his first 11 field goals … and the one that he missed … wasn’t his fault.”

But then, as Dawson told Terry, “Here comes November” with the cold and the wind, not to mention the mounting pressure to win.

Advice for the front office: youth vs. experience?

Pluto says the Browns have made what seemed like two good draft picks in recent years. There was Austin Seibert (2019-20), who made the team but was only with the Browns for a brief amount of time. Then there was Zane Gonzalez (2017-18) who Pluto says one of the best college kickers ever. Gonzalez’s problem was he played in Arizona with light desert air and good weather, according to Pluto, and did not kick well in Cleveland. He has since been with other teams.

Pluto’s advice: “Just try to find a guy who’s been a good kicker for quite some while, and some team decided they were going to get rid of him because they didn’t want to pay him.”

In the end, according to Pluto, the Browns needs to put more of a priority on finding the right kicker.

“Even if you have a quarterback who’s struggling, three points is three points,” he said.

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