Josh Cribbs has figured out a way to combat the NFL’s rule changes on kickoffs. He’ll return everything.
Unless it’s an emergency, Cribbs isn’t dropping to a knee in anyone’s end zone.
Cleveland’s dynamic return specialist, who has been openly critical of the NFL’s decision to move the kickoff line from the 30-yard line to the 35, was asked Wednesday if the Browns will have a rule in place on how deep players are allowed to catch the ball in the end zone and still bring it out.
"It will be different for each returner," Cribbs said. "But for me, nine yards. Anything above nine yards, I’ll probably keep it in."
He was joking.
Cribbs, though, is dead serious about what the league has done to his craft. And, the league’s career leader with eight kickoff returns for touchdowns, has been irate since owners, citing the need to protect players from violent collisions, announced the change during the lockout in March.
"I don’t see (injury) stats behind it, and that’s what the issue was" Cribbs said. "There’s no stats to back it up. Their intentions are good, but the stats aren’t there to back up the reasoning."
The change will likely increase touchbacks dramatically while reducing returns.
Cribbs, a two-time Pro Bowler, first vented his anger toward the league over the rule switch on Twitter:
"U not making the game safer u messing a great sport, trynna hide behind safety just to add 2 games…smh."
Cribbs has no choice but to accept the adjustment, which could lead to more touchbacks this season. But that doesn’t mean he’s in favor of it, either. After watching exhibition games on TV last week, Cribbs again used his social network to state his case.
"I see an immediate amendment on the kickoff rule either b4 the end of the year or beginning of next year bc without that part of the return game it might as well be a scrimmage," he tweeted.
Has anyone from the league told him to stop?
"No. Not at all," he said Wednesday after practice. "Every player is entitled to their opinion with respect to the NFL, and as long as there is respect there, I feel like there will be no type of disciplinary action. I’m entitled to my opinion, that’s the way I feel and players are entitled to their opinion."
Cribbs – and the Browns – may have already been penalized enough.
With his unique ability to take back any kickoff or punt (he has two career touchdowns and a 10.6 yard average), Cribbs gives Cleveland a weapon few teams can match. Last season, opposing teams did all they could to kick the ball away from the dreadlocked former Kent State quarterback, who for the first time in his six-year pro career failed to take a kickoff back the distance.
This year, busting one will be even tougher.
Moved five yards further up field, kickers will have an easier time reaching the end zone, where returners will be forced to make a decision: take the touchback and automatically get the ball at the 20, head up field and risk getting tackled inside the 20 or break a long return.
Cribbs, who was not used on returns in Cleveland’s preseason opener against Green Bay, believes some players will thrive under the change.
"Good returners will take advantage of it. There will be good schemes, and there will still be opportunities," he said. "There will be a lot of inside the 20-yard-line tackles this year. A lot of returners will get tired of taking a knee in the end zone and will try to bring it out. Guys are getting down there faster. Kickers hare hanging the ball up there. That’s what you can look for – touchbacks and inside-the-20 tackles."
Cribbs remains disappointed the league didn’t consult with any players, past or present, before making a rule change that could significantly alter strategy.
"I wish they could have waited for a new CBA or an agreement was in place," he said, "and consulted with players on the matter. But just creating that rule the way they did, I disagreed with it."
Cribbs expects to have the green light to return any kick – within reason. If he feels he can make a big return, he’s going to try.
"I’m not a big fair-catch guy," he said. "I just want to get positive yards. I’m going to be smart and help our team. They (coaches) are aware each time is a possibility. I’m going to decide if I’m going to keep it or not. Nobody is going to come back and say, ‘Oh, oh, wait.’ I’ll make the decision."
There’s nothing he can do now about the change but turn it into a positive. And with the ball in his hands, that’s always a possibility.
"I want somebody to come chase my record," he said. "I want to be able to chase it as well. At the same time, it’s just an obstacle to get over, and I’m looking forward to getting over it."
Notes: Starting guard Eric Steinbach left the morning practice when his back tightened up. Also, RB Peyton Hillis and S T.J. Ward were bothered by hamstring problems. Coach Pat Shurmur downplayed all three injuries, but Steinbach did not take part in the afternoon walkthrough. Ward and Hillis were on the field. … Shurmur said Cleveland’s starters will play "close to one half" against Detroit on Friday. He wants both lines to get at least 20 plays. … RB Montario Hardesty ran with purpose and seems to be progressing. Still no word if he’ll face the Lions.