Unsung heroes come in many packages.
They are the plug-uglies of the sports world. They are the underpaid athletes whose contributions fly well under the radar.
They contribute to victories in many and varied ways and seldom receive – let alone seek – recognition for their accomplishments. Without them, winning becomes a risky proposition.
The high-profile guys like the so-called skill players on offense and playmakers on defense receive most of the recognition and a majority of the accolades.
But when assessing the latest Browns victory, one name sticks out as just as much an important contributor as Derek Anderson, Jamal Lewis, Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow Jr., Joe Jurevicius and the line for the offense and Andra Davis, Leigh Bodden, Eric Wright, Chaun Thompson, the entire line and Kamerion Wimbley for the defense.
One Brown has labored so far beneath the spotlight, fans almost forget he’s a part of the team. He plays so infrequently, his uniform is just as pristine after the game as it is in warm-ups.
And yet, without his expertise Sunday, there’s no telling how the Browns’ game against the Buffalo Bills in the snow globe known as Cleveland Browns Stadium would have turned out.
Just one slip, one miscue, one misstep in the swirling and capricious Lake Erie winds and the results could have been costly with the fortunes of the game turning in Buffalo’s direction.
And because that slip, that miscue, that misstep never eventuated, Lewis had his spectacularly brilliant day, playing in blizzard-like conditions as though he was raised in Anchorage or Buffalo, not Atlanta, Ga.
And the defense played just well enough to stifle a Buffalo offense that had trouble with the difficult, almost impossible, playing conditions.
It also allowed Anderson and his friends on offense to play with a bravado the Bills seemed to lack even though no touchdowns were scored.
And where would Phil Dawson be without this unsung hero. Certainly not celebrating two long and most extraordinary field goals, giving the Browns a lead the weatherman protected.
(Dawson’s 49-yard field goal evoked memories of a 49-yarder Pat Summerall of the New York Giants kicked through a blizzard at Yankee Stadium in 1958 against the Browns in the final game of the regular season, forcing a playoff game, which the Giants won the following week in New York. They went on to face the Baltimore Colts in the NFL Championship Game in what has been called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”)
That’s right, in this latest step toward the playoffs – it is now permissible to use that word – the performance of one man Sunday paved the way for the performance of the team.
He was in the game for just nine plays out of the Browns’ 70 snaps. Nine times he was called on to execute his specialty. And nine times, he delivered. Perfectly.
In a game like this and with the weather conditions as much a part of the game as the teams themselves, it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to minimize, if not completely avoid, mistakes.
Not once did Dave Zastudil have to jump for the snap when he dropped back to punt seven times. Or move five yards to his right or to his left. And not once did Zastudil, the holder, get a bad snap on Dawson’s two field goals, the second of which continued the placekicker’s love affair with the neck of goalpost just behind the crossbar.
If that doesn’t give you enough clues, you’re either not a Browns fan or you haven’t been paying attention.
Ryan Pontbriand, the guy with the funny surname, the guy whose lone goal during any season is to avoid bad snaps, contributed as much to the Browns’ victory over the Bills as did his teammates who logged considerably more time.
He’s also the guy who, when Butch Davis drafted him out of Baylor in the fifth round of the 2003 draft, evoked a litany of jokes. Draft a long snapper in the fifth round? Has Butch gone mad? Count yours truly among those who believed he had. Guess ol’ Paul Hilton knew what he was doing.
The playing conditions Sunday begged for some slipup. The footballs were wet and slippery. And yet, Pontbriand line-drived every snap back to Zastudil as if they were bone dry.
No mistakes for this specialist. He would have none of that and no doubt commiserated (well for maybe a second or two) with his counterpart with Buffalo, Ryan Neill, whose early second-quarter snap sailed over the head of punter Brian Moorman and headed for the Bills’ end zone before Moorman wisely David Beckhamed it into the stands for a safety.
At least Neill, a backup defensive end, is listed on the depth chart at his position. Pontbriand, a center by trade, is not so fortunate. He’s just the anonymous and taken-for-granted long snapper.
It isn’t often a long snapper can be singled out in this fashion. In fact, it might never again happen in his career. But Sunday, the Texan with a degree in mechanical engineering was mechanically perfect.
Too bad there isn’t a place on the Pro Bowl ballot for long snappers because Pontbriand would be a deserving choice to spend some time in Hawai’i in February. That’s how good he’s been this season.
This week, Pontbriand returns to his anonymous stature. Unless, that is, a blizzard hits Cincinnati.