Josh Cribbs: Why New Kickoff Rules Won't Render Cribbs Irrelevant

Samantha Bunten@@samanthabuntenAnalyst IJuly 6, 2011

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 02:  Linebacker Keyaron Fox #57 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tackles wide receiver Joshua Cribbs #16 of the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on January 2, 2011 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

There was nothing good about the new kickoff rule instituted this offseason in the NFL for the Browns or their fans, being that one of their best players, Josh Cribbs, is primarily a kick returner. 

By Cribbs' own admission, the kickoff rule will negatively impact what he can contribute. But it's important to note that he conceded only that it would negatively impact what he can do on special teams, rather than what he can do for the team in general. Smart man. 

Surely some of that is self-preservation, but there's also plenty of truth in the idea that Cribbs can and will still be a major contributor to this team. It will just have to be at a different position.

Cribbs was dubbed one of the Top 100 NFL players this year in a peer vote. You don't earn that designation by doing just one thing well. There are no harsher critics than your own competition, and there is also no one who knows you better.

If these guys see Cribbs as one of the 100 best among them, then clearly Cribbs' competition considers him one of the best players  in the league, not just one of the best at his position. 

It's tough for a kick returner to transition into a full-time role on offense or defense. Over and over again, we've seen players try to make that switch and it just didn't translate.

Even Chicago's Devin Hester, one of the most well-rounded football talents out there who began as a kick returner, has struggled a bit with the transition to wide receiver. 

For the doubters out there, just consider this: Cribbs has defied the odds before. Big time.

Cribbs, a QB at Kent State in college, went undrafted in 2005. When the Browns signed him initially, it almost seemed like a case of a team merely giving the local college guy a chance. 

That of course, would turn out to be a gigantic underestimation of Cribbs' skills. He quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the league's best kick returners. And it wasn't just pure skill that got him there.

Cribbs is widely known as one of the most humble, dedicated, and hard-working guys in the game. He wanted to succeed and he was willing to put the work in, and succeed he did.

So it stands to reason that if Cribbs can overcome limitations projected onto him once, he can probably do it again. 

So we can sit around crying about the kickoff rule, or we can just accept that we don't make the rules and find another position on the field for Cribbs where he can shine just as much. 

The problem is, for all Cribbs' talent and versatility, the Browns have yet to figure out how best to use him. This is a guy with the speed, athleticism, and determination to play a host of different positions, but which one will be best?

In many ways, that makes it as much a test of the Browns coaching staff as it is a test of Cribbs himself. 

Thus, the goal is to figure out where to put Cribbs in order to make sure he remains relevant and a big contributor to the team.

So far wide receiver and wildcat quarterback are the only ones the Browns have really tried him at for any significant number of plays. He's done a nice job as a wildcat quarterback, but that obviously isn't the answer, because it's such a limited and little-used role. 

Wide receiver, however, is obviously still on the table, as are running back and (surprise!) safety. So let's take a look at each of those three options in an attempt to determine which one will give the Browns the maximum return on Cribbs' skill set. 

1. Wide Receiver

This is, of course, the obvious choice. It's the position which most kick returners go to when the make the move away from special teams exclusively, and it's also the one where we've already seen Cribbs on a number of occasions. 

If we were grading Cribbs' performance at WR thus far, it would probably be "incomplete but with great promise."

Cribbs did well in his initial attempts but was then injured, so we never really got to see him involved in a significant number of plays at the position over the course of the season. 

Still, what we did see was good, and I think we can safely guess that Cribbs' probably won't dislocate four toes again. Obviously, injury will still be a concern, but that's true at any position. 

The best arguments for Cribbs as a receiver are that he can catch reasonably well, and is excellent at reading the field and evading tacklers. And of course, he definitely has the speed. 

2. Running Back

There are good arguments for using Cribbs as a running back as well. Again, he evades tacklers well.

He also has a good initial burst of speed, evident in his explosive takeoffs once he has the ball on kick and punt returns, which is important for a running back blasting out of the backfield. 

The problem with using Cribbs as a running back is less about any lack of skill for the position and more about whether he can take the beating.

Cribbs is a strong, durable guy, but he isn't exactly built like the freight train that is Peyton Hillis. Too many carries resulting in Cribbs' being battered by defenders trying to bring him down may land him on the IR. 

It leaves many of us feeling as though we'd love to see Cribbs as a third-down back, but not as a full-time RB. We love this guy. We don't want to see him turned into a pancake. 

3. Safety 

Here's the dark horse in the contest for what position Cribbs might play. This isn't one that has been suggested or supported nearly as often as the other two.

The question is, is that because he doesn't belong there or just because it hasn't occurred to many folks? Probably a bit of both. 

In terms of technique and raw skill set, Cribbs probably has the chops to succeed as a safety. But is he built for it? Can we turn a player whose experience is nearly all on offense into a starting defender? Do we even want to? 

One thing is certain: The Browns could really use some help at safety. After T.J. Ward, there just isn't much on the depth chart. If Abe Elam returns and if rookie Eric Hagg steps up, Cribbs wouldn't be needed here and the Browns probably wouldn't even test it.

But if not, there could be an opening for Cribbs to step in and take over the second safety spot alongside Ward.

So then, which of these three spots is truly best for Cribbs, and will it keep him relevant to the Browns' success?

The odds are on Cribbs at wide receiver. It's the position with the highest payoff and the lowest amount of risk for the Browns.

We've seen him do well there before. It's a position where the Browns could use his help. And of the three positions, it's probably the one that's the most obvious match for Cribbs' skill set. 

There's also reason to believe that Cribbs would be a good running back, but that's a choice that isn't without risk, and that risk probably outweighs the possible payoff. I still like the idea of using Cribbs as a third-down back, but it should end there. 

The possible transition to safety is probably the least likely of the three to happen. The Browns' current brass isn't exactly the massive risk-taking type. This may be too far outside the box. And that may be with good reason.

As much as we praise innovation in sports, there's also something to be said for sticking with what you know works. This is the position where Cribbs' has the greatest chance of being a total flop. I'm not sure we want to set up one of our best players with such a great chance of failure.

So maybe the Browns already got it right last year when they started testing Cribbs out in the WR role. But the pressure is on now in a way that it wasn't in 2010.

Now it isn't a matter of wanting to see if Cribbs can do more than just return kicks, it's a matter of absolutely having to find something for Cribbs to do other than return kicks because that alone is no longer an option. 

Fortunately, there's one thing we can probably say with confidence: wherever he lands, Cribbs will make certain that he's a top contributor at that spot.

No matter where Cribbs winds up, we'll probably never hear him described as irrelevant because in any game, on any part of the team and at any position, Cribbs will never let that happen. 


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