BEREA, Ohio — New players are the prime topic at the Cleveland Browns training camp, but one old face was part of the discussion with coach Pat Shurmur following the first practice in pads.
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That old face is Josh Cribbs, a fan favorite who got very little work with the wide receivers.
Shurmur left little doubt that would not be unusual.
“His role is not changing,” Shurmur said. “He’s a special teams player who plays receiver.”
Cribbs reported at 210 pounds, about 15 pounds lighter than he reported a year ago. During the lockout his weight ballooned up to 240, but he was down to 225 for camp.
And the weight loss was in part at the urging of his coach.
“I try to inspire them to do a lot of things,” Shurmur said. “But I think it will help him. As you become a player on the back nine of your career, I think it really helps you not to carry extra weight — that’s just my opinion — if you’re a skill player.
“I expressed that to him.”
Let the record show that a definition of the back nine might differ from coach to player. Cribbs promised this offseason he was in his prime.
But he was one of a few skill players urged to lose weight in the offseason, a group that includes Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi.
Clearly under Shurmur Cribbs’ role will revert to the way it was under Romeo Crennel — he will be a returner/special teams player who will play situationally on offense, as opposed to a receiver who also returns.
Eric Mangini tried to make Cribbs into a receiver, and it had limited success and even led Mangini to look befuddled when asked at about the midway point of 2009 whether it was time to admit it was a mistake to force Cribbs ino the receiver’s spot.
Shurmur used him there last season, but it almost seemed to be out of necessity. The Browns weren’t loaded at the position, and Massquoi struggled with injuries.
Cribbs still finished with 41 catches for 518 yards and four touchdowns, all career highs.
But in the offseason the Browns drafted Travis Benjamin and Josh Gordon and talked up Massquoi. Little will start, and assuming all make it to the season healthy that leaves four receivers ahead of Cribbs. All are pure receivers, not a returner trying to learn a new spot in the NFL.
Which puts Cribbs back to special teams, as a returner.
Which is where the mercurial Cribbs said he wanted to be last season. Frustrated at one point with losing and with his limited role in the offense, Cribbs went public and said he wanted to be back on special teams more.
A couple weeks ago he promised this would be his best season, and said he wants to play receiver more.
Clearly, though, Cribbs does not see himself on the back nine of his career, not at age 29. He recently told FOXSportsOhio.com: “I’m going to make the Pro Bowl this year for covering kicks and for returning kicks. And if they want to decide to throw me the ball more, I’m going to make a bunch of catches, too.”
Note the key word ‘if.’ Cribbs understood then and understood more when camp started that a lot of time at receiver might not be in the cards for him.
But Cribbs still has great value as a situational player on offense. Mangini actually beat Pittsburgh on a frigid Thursday night in Cleveland because of Cribbs’ contributions playing running back and quarterback. Crennel also used Cribbs in different roles.
Shurmur and new offensive coordinator Brad Childress could find ways to use Cribbs on offense as well, though putting him back on special teams also makes sense. Nobody covers kicks as well as Cribbs, and he also has an NFL record eight kickoff return touchdowns and has added three punt returns for a touchdown.
As for the back nine, it seems Cribbs really sees himself more at the turn than the back nine.
“I feel like I’m at the top of my game, in my prime,” Cribbs said. “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.”