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Phil Dawson didn’t think he had a chance when he stood in the snow, placed his frozen hands at his hips and looked at the two yellow goal posts 49 yards ahead of him.
The kicker had to calculate where — or rather, how — he was supposed to launch a football into the gusts of the blizzard blanketing Cleveland Browns Stadium on Dec. 16, 2007, and through the 18-feet-6-inch width of the goal posts. Dawson’s holder and Browns punter Dave Zastudil cleared a few inches of snow from the grass where Dawson would kick. Then, Zastudil realized something.
Dawson and Zastudil had lined up too close to the line of scrimmage. They cleared the spot of snow after head coach Romeo Crennel called a timeout. Now, with the play clock winding down, Zastudil needed to move a yard or two back for the new spot and clear the snow again in time for Dawson to, somehow, make the kick.
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Dawson, however, was more worried about Zastudil’s bare hands, which he used to frantically sweep both kicking spots. With the snowy conditions and blistering cold, Zastudil had to position the ball perfectly for Dawson to nail the kick. None of that could happen if he didn’t catch the snap.
Browns fans, of course, remember what happened next.
The snap was made and Dawson launched the ball, which spun more like a batted pass from a quarterback than a traditional end-over-end kick. The kick started left of the goal posts, then spun back to the middle like a pitcher throwing a slider across home plate.
The kick’s distance was good by a few inches, and the crowd and Browns sideline erupted as the ball clanked off the top of the crossbar and through the uprights for three points.
“My focus was, ‘Why are we out here trying this?’” Dawson said. “I wasn't even thinking about anything. My mind was all over the place, but I had trained my body what it needed to do. Even though my mind was not in a great place, autopilot kicked in, and the ball went right down the middle.”
To this day, Dawson believes Crennel opted for the long field goal only because the yardage markers and lines on the field were covered in snow. Dawson doesn’t think Crennel knew how long the field goal was, and if he did, the field goal team wouldn’t have received the call.
Dawson knew the kick was over 40 yards when he saw the orange 40-yard cushion marker on the sideline, but he still couldn’t believe the field goal team was called for the play. Even an extra-point, which was kicked from the 2-yard line at the time, was a tough kick in a blizzard.
A 49-yarder? Impossible.
“I don't think Romeo had any idea how far the kick was, I promise you,” Dawson said. “I'm running out on the field after giving them a double take when I hear ‘field goal.’ I'm thinking this ball's going to land on the 5-yard line. I have no shot of making this.”
Dawson and Zastudil had to guess where the hash marks were so they could line up at their usual 7 or 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Their first guess felt wrong when they finished clearing the snow and saw how close the offensive line was to their original spot.
Their second guess — where they made the kick — didn’t feel right either, but the spot was never going to feel right. At least not for the height Dawson needed to blast the ball through the snow.
“I think if Buffalo put their hands up,” Dawson said, “it would’ve been blocked.”
A blocked field goal wouldn’t have had too much impact on the result of the game — the Browns shut out the Bills for the rest of the game, anyway — but it would’ve robbed Dawson of one of his all-time greatest kicks, and a kick that will always be played on video boards and TVs when Dawson is remembered for his 21-year NFL career.