KENT, Ohio – Another year of uncertainty and new beginnings for the Cleveland Browns coincides with the most uncertain situation Joshua Cribbs has faced since he was a skinny undrafted rookie trying to make a position switch and make the NFL, period, in 2005.
The contract Cribbs campaigned for – and earned – over a period of two seasons and signed in early 2010 will expire after the 2012 season. The NFL’s all-time leader in kickoff return touchdowns knows that return specialists have a short shelf life – and that last year’s kickoff rule change probably drives down their value. Though he had career numbers as a receiver last year, he’s always been more spot player than starter and sees two more rookies coming into the Browns’ receivers room this year.
Cribbs, who turned 29 last month, has carved out a unique career that’s made him a team leader, a fan favorite and one of the few Browns in recent years around whom opponents have had to game plan. And, not surprisingly, Cribbs has a plan of his own when it comes to making a statement in his contract year
“I’m going to make the Pro Bowl this year for covering kicks and for returning kicks,” Cribbs said. “And if they want to decide to throw me the ball more, I’m going to make a bunch of catches, too.”
Cribbs made it very clear that it’s his goal to play his entire career in Cleveland – and that he has plenty of good years left.
“I can’t picture being anywhere else,” he said. “I can’t picture wanting to be anywhere else. I can’t really fathom it now. It’ll be something that matters to me and hopefully to the fans as well. I don’t want to leave. This year I’m going to do everything I can to stay, to show the front office why I’ve been so important to the Browns.”
Cribbs spoke to FOXSportsOhio.com last week while on campus at Kent State shooting a commercial for the university. He was a four-year starting quarterback at Kent State from 2001-04 before deciding to stay local and sign with the Browns after going undrafted in 2005.
He’s since gone from barely cracking the roster to setting the NFL record with 8 kickoff return touchdowns. He’s also returned 3 punts for scores, led the Browns in special teams tackles three times, caught 100 career passes, made cameos at quarterback and played for three head coaches, four special teams coaches and four offensive coordinators.
The ongoing transformation begs a couple questions. What does Josh Cribbs, Version 3 or 4 or 9, have left to show? And which version is this?
“It’s the updated version,” Cribbs said. “I feel like I’m at the top of my game, in my prime. It don’t get no better than this. I’m in a contract year and I really have to leave it all on the table — show them that I still have it and that I can keep it up for more years after this.”
Cribbs is due to make a little over $1.4 million in base salary this season, with incentive escalators for things like making his third Pro Bowl offering the chance to make almost another million.
His 41 catches for 518 yards and 4 touchdowns last year were all career highs, and Cribbs has always dropped both subtle and not-so-subtle hints that he can be a full-time receiver.
He knows that the Browns drafting Josh Gordon this month with a supplemental second-round pick and using and a fourth-rounder in April on the smallish but speedy Travis Benjamin can also be construed as a somewhat subtle hint that the team will move forward without him, eventually, if it needs to.
“It’s just business,” Cribbs said. “I’ve learned that it’s a crazy business, and teams do what they feel is best. Players have to do what they think is best for themselves.
“When I went through my contract stuff the first time (in 2009 and 2010) I talked to Jim Brown about it and he just told me, ‘If you play, they pay.’ That’s what I did, and I plan on doing that again.”
Mohamed Massaquoi (31 catches last year) and Jordan Norwood (23) also return to a receiver group that seems to have second-year man Greg Little as its No. 1 and a whole bunch of question marks .
Asked what was different about his game from two or three years ago, Cribbs said “I want to be a receiver more. My confidence level is going to be through the roof.”
Never a precise route runner – at least partly because he never played a down of receiver until the Browns watched him at a Las Vegas all-star game in January, 2005 — Cribbs thinks the West Coast Offense implemented last year by new coach Pat Shurmur , an offense that calls for receivers to find space in the defense and make yards after the catch, can continue to fit him well.
“It is a good fit, if the coaches decide they’re going to showcase me,” Cribbs said. “I have to actively try to pursue the football.
“I just want to play. I’ll (play running back). I’ll play defense. I’ll play every special team. I’m going to be anything the coaches need me to be.”
About all Cribbs can really count on at this point is being on the field for the first play of the season, whether he’s part of the kickoff coverage team or lined up as the kick returner. He got a career-low 39 chances to return kicks last year after the NFL moved the kickoff up five yards in a move designed to create more touchbacks and help player safety.
Cribbs doesn’t like the rule, and he doesn’t like the uncertainty of his situation. But he says he’s “blessed” to have another chance to go back to camp, to write another improbable chapter, to hopefully write his name on another contract with the Browns sometime in the next eight months.
“I feel like nobody’s going to stop me,” he said. “I feel like I’m in great shape and I’m going to have my best year yet. It’s my goal and my dream to be a Cleveland Brown my whole career and get in the playoffs and be the hungriest playoff team ever – which we will be. I hope it’s this year.
“We’ll see what happens, but I know how I want it go. It might be a wild dream, but I like to dream big.”