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Phil Dawson doesn't have to worry about weather kicking in Arizona

Phil Dawson has made 404 field goals, 10th on the NFL's all-time list. Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Like his offensive and defensive teammates, Phil Dawson starts preparing for every game on Mondays and Tuesdays. Like them, he studies. Like them, he game-plans.

But, unlike them, he's not readying himself to face another human being. His opponent, however, is the same week to week. It’s Mother Nature. And he prepares for her like his teammates prepare for the man lining up across from them.

"I have the conditions of the day," Dawson said. "I've always viewed it as my job to know what the wind's going to do, what the temperature's going to be, what's the layout of the stadium, how's the footing.

"Those are my opponents on game days. Through the years I've picked up a few tips on how to read the weather and anticipate what it's like, but I just see it as part of my job."

Dawson won't have to rely on his home-grown meteorological skills this year as much as he did in his first 18 NFL seasons. Signing with the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent in March means at least half of Dawson's games this season will be indoors. There's one condition to prepare for inside University of Phoenix Stadium each week: ideal. There will be no wind, no rain, no snow and no freezing temperatures. Add in three indoor road games and Dawson won't have to account for the weather in 11 of Arizona's 16 games this season. He won't have to kick outdoors until Oct. 8, when the Cardinals travel to Philadelphia in Week 5.

But kicking inside University of Phoenix Stadium presents its own unique challenges to Dawson.

The biggest is depth perception on the stadiums' southeast side, where the field is rolled in. On game days, only seven sections of 12 rows each are set up behind the end zone. Behind the seats is a large open area that's used for hospitality, but it's anything but hospitable to kickers. Dawson said the openness behind the uprights has the same effect on him as it would on a basketball player shooting in a cavernous arena.

"Kicks look longer," Dawson said. "So that's a little bit of an adjustment."

But it's been tough for Dawson to make the proper adjustments since he hasn't kicked into the southeast uprights with the field completely rolled in. During training camp, the Cardinals leave about 30 yards between the field and the seats on the northwest side of the stadium so a turf field will fit, which gives them extra room to work with players. Kicking in practice has been "good work," Dawson said, but he's ready for Saturday's preseason game to get here so the field is in a game setting.

"I need it to get where it needs to be so I can learn my targets," Dawson said. "That'll be my pregame on Saturday."

Every one of his kicks has a target, whether it's a letter on the scoreboard or someone in the stands. Dawson, who kicked using skinny uprights last week when the team practiced outside for three days, said, if it came down to it, he doesn't need to practice with goal posts.

Dawson has kicked in University of Phoenix Stadium on six different occasions, making eight of 10 field-goal attempts and all 10 of his extra-point attempts. He called the turf "amazing" and said the flat surface was "ideal" compared to outdoor fields, which tend to have crowns. His only issue with the turf was a couple of years ago when he experienced a slick field causing him to use longer cleats on his plant foot.

But Dawson wouldn’t say kicking in his new home stadium will be easier than kicking in Cleveland for 14 years and San Francisco for the past four.

"I don't think easier is the word, but I think it gives you a little bit more margin of error," he said. "If I slightly mishit a ball, there's a chance it’s still going to go in whereas when you're in some of those tough conditions, there's a tiny little window you got to put the ball in to get it through.

"I'm going to approach it the same way I would if I was in tough conditions and snow and wind and all that. I think just aiming down the middle is something I can get used to doing."

Being able to prepare for the harsh outdoor conditions just as well as he's prepped for 75-and-sunny has helped keep Dawson in the NFL since 1999 and made him one of the best kickers in history. In some ways, kicking in Arizona is his reward.

He's 10th on the NFL's all-time field-goal made list with 404. He's 15th on the all-time field-goal attempted list with 478. He's 11th on the all-time field-goal percentage list, having made 84.5 percent of his attempts.

That longevity can be attributed what Dawson calls "the Momma plan."

"If you eat right and go to bed when you should, good things seem to happen," he said with a sly smile.

But in many ways Dawson's longevity can be traced back to his preparation, which is similar to that of a quarterback's.

Instead of pouring over game film, Dawson begins his weeks studying the forecast and wind patterns. He'll refer to the notebook he keeps with detailed notes -- wind patterns, turf conditions, quirky things about the stadium -- to help him prepare for that week's game. If his notes suggest the wind blows left-to-right atop the stadium but right-to-left on the field, he'll find an area at his team's practice facility where the wind blows right-to-left and kick from that exact spot.

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, he'll begin implementing and replicating the situations he's expecting that weekend.

"I study weather forecasts," Dawson said. "If there's going to be rain, how does that affect the field? That might affect the kind of plant shoe I wear, so I'm just always trying to put it all together so I'm not just rolling out there on Sunday going, 'What do I do now?'"

There are times, Dawson admits, when he's faced with a situation that he can't control or couldn't replicate in practice. That's when he relies on almost two decades of kicking in the NFL. After every game, especially road trips when he has time on the flight home, Dawson jots down every relevant note he can think of from that day's game while it's still fresh in his mind. He doesn't leave out the bad or ugly because, the 42-year-old knows any and every experience will help.

Dawson's work throughout the week leads up pregame. It's then that he'll put the final touches on his game plan for the day. That, depending on the weather, could mean everything he worked on since Monday was thrown out the window. He takes the field as soon as he can and he'll kick balls from every distance and angle possible, which gives him a full understanding of the day's conditions.

It's during his pregame warm-ups that he determines his range. The number he give his coaches tends to be conservative. And, he pointed out, it'll rarely be the same two weeks in a row -- except, possibly, when he kicks indoors. A nice day could result in a 58-yard range. A cold, blowing day could bring that down to 46 yards.

After years of warming up hours before kickoff to determine how the wind is blowing, how the temperature affects the balls, how his footing will hold up on the field, Dawson won't have to worry about that often.

It's fitting he's in Arizona, where people move to so they don't have to worry about the elements. But just because he's kicking in ideal conditions, Dawson, who's still driven by winning a Super Bowl, won't take the easy road in Arizona.

"I’m looking forward to being on a team that has a chance to win," he said. "I'm too far down the road to change my mentality about a particular kick. I can't take anything for granted, so I'm just going to grind and be prepared for each and every kick.

"I can't give in and think it's going to be easy. If I don't commit and execute, bad things can happen in a hurry."