Don’t look now, but one of the signature players for the Cleveland Browns over the last few years is about to enter a contract year in 2012. It sure says a lot about the Browns that Cribbs – a special teams phenom – has been a signature player for fans of this team over the years. No disrespect to Josh Cribbs, of course. He earned his stripes helping the team beat Pittsburgh with one of the most phenomenal individual days in most living Browns fans’ memories. He ran for 87 yards and returned punts and kicks like a man absolutely possessed. As has been the case for so long with Josh Cribbs in Cleveland, he summed it up pretty well too. On beating Pittsburgh that fateful day in 2009…
”It means everything,” Browns do-it-all wide receiver Josh Cribbs said. ”There are a lot of Steelers fans around the city so I hope people go to work and kick those Steelers fans.”
The striking reality is that that game was so long ago that Brady Quinn shared space in the box score. For the Browns it was a meaningless game other than a barely-there rivalry and the satisfaction of knocking the Steelers out of playoff contention.
Since that time, Josh Cribbs has suffered through an injury plagued season last year. This year, although mostly healthy and even as he has led the team in receiving touchdowns he has been largely frustrated trying to be a bigger part of the team. His frustrations – while understandable – have served as a distraction at least to some fans if not in the locker room. When he spoke of a talent gap he was pretty well rebuked a week later by Joe Thomas. That’s the same Joe Thomas that signed a 7-year deal in the pre-season worth as much as $84 million with $44 million guaranteed.
It wasn’t a nasty rebuke and it didn’t lead me to believe that there is some underlying problem between Joe Thomas and Josh Cribbs. Even Pat Shurmur has stated that he has no problems with Josh wanting to win and be a part of that process. Nobody’s really ever been able to doubt Josh Cribbs’ desire, either. It would be pretty difficult to question a guy who found his way back onto the field after dislocating most of the toes on one of his feet last season.
Sometimes desire isn’t enough, though. Josh Cribbs has an accomplished NFL career, but there is little doubt that the violence involved with returning kicks has taken a toll. Maybe it was just my eyes, but it seemed that (when he was holding onto the ball) Jordan Norwood had an extra hop in his step returning punts against the Steelers last Thursday. While I hated the sight for fear a year ago, I remember thinking, “Wow. Joe Haden looks fast returning kickoffs.”
Even beyond the anecdotal evidence. Cribbs has worked his tail off to try and become a receiver that this team needs so desperately to middling results. Cribbs has been upset with the number of targets he has received this season, but there is no doubt he has had plenty of opportunity to be on the field as a wideout. The Browns still struggle in the passing game and even as guys like Brian Robiskie have been pushed out the door, Cribbs hasn’t been able to fill the void as guys like Greg Little and Jordan Norwood start to sneak up in the box score.
I claimed in pre-season that I thought Cribbs had a chance to keep getting better as a receiver. I thought his ability to get open on broken plays would help immensely. He does have that ability as well as a bit of vertical ability, but it has made little difference in the overall scheme of things. Cribbs is currently 106th in receptions and 100th in yardage across the entire league. Look, I know it isn’t all his fault either. This is a team game and the Browns are 22nd in the league in passing yardage. All those things given, I don’t know anyone that wouldn’t consider taking a top-flight receiver in this year’s draft because of what Cribbs has shown us.
I don’t mean to sound so negative on Josh Cribbs, because I really do love all that he has done for the Browns. He has been an advocate to the fans and the fans to him, most notably in his successful attempt at getting a new contract. He has been one of the greatest returners in NFL history and did it in a Browns uniform. That is worth a lot to me. He gave us a win over the Steelers and suggested we kick the Steelers fans among us. That’s all the more reason why it is difficult to see a potential end in sight.
Guys who rely on explosiveness don’t tend to get that back in their late 20s though, ya know? Hopefully Josh has one more great year for himself and for the fans. Who knows? Maybe he can continue to contribute on special teams for one more contract cycle on his way to retirement. It’s just hard to imagine, when I see a guy who wants to contribute to a winner so much, that this won’t turn out to be a mismatch of expectations if and when the next round of contract talks start.
And that’s assuming he even makes it through Browns training camp next season. This business of the NFL is a tough one and it isn’t outside the realm of possibility for pretty much any player any year after his 25th birthday. I won’t be hoping to see it, but I kind of feel as if I need to prepare myself for it. This version of the NFL puts a temporary hold on nostalgia as the ends of players careers often get messy. Josh Cribbs isn’t Brett Favre or Emmitt Smith, but you get my point.
Here’s hoping it turns out well, Josh Cribbs remains a part of the Browns until retirement and remains a fixture in this community. That would be the best for him and the fans.