Phil Dawson’s parting message was full of gratitude and graciousness.
“I appreciate all the love and the fan support,” he said. “I leave Cleveland with nothing but positive feelings and love for the place, a lot of great experiences there, great relationships there.”
Dawson initiated and held a conference call with Cleveland-area media Thursday, two days after signing a one-year deal to be the San Francisco 49ers’ kicker. Despite being given multiple opportunities, Dawson didn’t take any shots at the Browns regime that neglected to sign him after 14 years and a franchise-record 305 field goals.
“I have so much respect for the Browns organization, the fans, the city,” he said. “I’ll be rooting for them.”
Dawson, 38, signed just a one-year deal with the 49ers reportedly worth $2.25 million with a $1 million signing bonus. He made $3.81 million under the franchise tag in 2012, so the salary is certainly reasonable.
Browns CEO Joe Banner has refused to say if he tried to re-sign Dawson, who’s coming off his first Pro Bowl season. Dawson wouldn’t say if the Browns made an offer, but said he was open to coming back.
“I had an open mind about the whole process,” he said from San Francisco. “But once things started happening and the focus started narrowing on the 49ers, I got really excited. When you have an opportunity to be a San Francisco 49er, that’s not something you just kind of ignore.”
Did the Browns make an effort to keep him?
“That’s probably a better question for somebody else,” he said. “I appreciate the interest in that, but my focus is 100 percent on moving forward and that’s just how I’m going to roll with this.”
Dawson left town 78 points behind Hall of Famer Lou Groza on the Browns’ all-time scoring list (1,349-1,271) and likely would’ve assumed first place with another season.
“Mr. Groza is Mr. Cleveland Brown, so it only seems right that he’s going to be the all-time leading scorer there,” Dawson said.
“And I have no regrets. And someday when I’m done playing I’ll be able to reflect and remember and reminisce and kind of evaluate everything. I’m not at that yet.
“Mr. Groza deserves all the recognition that he’s received through the years, Hall of Famer, facilities at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. He deserves all of that and it’s all as it should be.”
Dawson was the last player remaining from the expansion season of 1999, ranks third in franchise history with 215 games played (Groza is first with 232) and had become a fan favorite with his reliability and strong performances on weak teams. His departure stung many fans who expressed their anger that he wasn’t retained.
“I wish Cleveland the best,” he said. “They were some of the greatest years of my life. It’s been an absolute privilege to wear that orange helmet and represent the fans each and every week. So there is nothing but positive feelings in my mind. I look forward to seeing how the organization grows and develops and experiences success. That’s how I truly feel.
“I’m so excited with what’s going to happen with me and my family moving forward. So it seems like a win-win: I’ve got great feelings toward Cleveland, I’ve got optimism and hope and energy toward my next step here.”
San Francisco seems like a perfect fit. Dawson mastered the tricky conditions along the lakefront, and the wind has been known to swirl in the Bay Area. The 49ers are also coming off a Super Bowl loss and seem stacked for another championship run.
“What is there not to like about this place?” he said. “One of the storied franchises in NFL history. Great front office, it’s first-class. Dynamic head coach who guys love to play for. Special teams coach (Brad Seely) that I have a working relationship with. Great group of players, talented group of players, a team that’s right on the verge of winning it all. Great part of the country to live in.”
The Browns made the playoffs once in Dawson’s 14 years in Cleveland and had two winning seasons. So the lure of a championship contender was strong.
“Well, obviously I think any competitor wants to win,” he said. “Being on a team full of great players and a history of winning, that’s obviously an attractive thing to be a part of. That’s what every player in the NFL wants, and I’m certainly no different.”
Dawson plans to play beyond 2013 and said he doesn’t mind the one-year deal. He’s used to it after the Browns used the franchise tag the last two years.
He chose to focus on the future rather than reflecting on specific memories as a Brown.
“There’s so many good ones,” he said. “There’s going to be a time when I have time to actually reflect and remember and reminisce.”
Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi are left to fill a giant void. Dawson was 29-for-31 on field goals last season, including 7-for-7 from 50 yards. His 84 percent career conversion rate is the highest in NFL history for a kicker with 300 makes.
Any advice for the unlucky soul who will replace him?
“Just go to work,” Dawson said. “I’m confident the Browns will make a good decision. Everybody forgets that in 1999 I was the unproven, no-name, young kid that no one really expected a lot out of and was given the opportunity to grow into the job.
“I anticipate it’s probably going to be a tough situation for a young guy to step into. But I think the Browns will do a good job of not only selecting whoever it’s going to be, but working with him and being patient with him. I’m going to be pulling for him. He’s going to be one of the 32 guys that do what I do, and I wish him and the Browns nothing but the best.
“I would just encourage everyone to be patient and embrace the new guy and support him the way they have done me.”