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Browns' Cribbs runs way into record books

| Saturday, Dec. 26, 2009

CLEVELAND — Joshua Cribbs' game-worn jersey was snatched up by the Pro Football Hall of Fame this week to be put on display.

At least someone finally got their hands on Cleveland's tough-to-tackle No. 16.

Cribbs, with an inspiring rags-to-riches journey to the NFL, became the league's career leader in kickoff returns for touchdown when he ran back two of at least 100 yards in the Browns' 41-34 win at Kansas City last week. An undrafted free agent who played quarterback at Kent State and has lined up in the shotgun for Cleveland, Cribbs has taken eight kickoffs all the way back.

He's not stopping there.

"Every single time I touch the football I'm like, 'Hey, I'm going to go. Not just good field position, but this is going back to the house,"' he said. "My eyes light up, it's like a kid on Christmas Day every time I get the ball."

Cribbs has been a glorious gift to the Browns (3-11), who can thank him for almost single-handedly carrying them to wins over the Chiefs and Steelers. The dreadlocked 26-year-old with the easy smile, bubbly personality and play-me-wherever-you-need-me-attitude has been Cleveland's MVP all season.

"Nothing more can be said about him," Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas said. "Josh has already proven he's the best returner that's ever been and this year he's stepping in and playing wildcat, playing quarterback, running down on special teams. He's done everything a human can possibly do to help this team win."

Last Sunday, Cribbs had a 100-yard return in the first quarter to give Cleveland a 10-3 lead, shooting him past Mel Gray, Dante Hall, Ollie Matson, Gale Sayers and Travis Williams for the most TD kickoff runbacks in history. Then, after the Chiefs scored 21 straight points in the second period to go up 24-13, Cribbs outdid himself with a career-best 103-yarder, matching Miami's Ted Ginn Jr. as the only players with two 100-yarders in one game.

The twin returns were not identical.

"On his first one," Browns coach Eric Mangini said, "Josh created some holes for Josh."

Cribbs busted through the arms of several would-be Kansas City tacklers on his 100-yard return before he switched on the afterburners at midfield and outran a few defenders. On return No. 2, Cribbs caught the ball 3 yards deep in the left side of the end zone, zigged at the 20-yard line, zagged at the 30 and zoomed untouched to the other end of Arrowhead Stadium.

Of all the positions — wide receiver, running back, coverage-teams gunner and returner — Cribbs has played, maybe the one that should be listed next to his name on the stat sheet is this: game changer.

Few current players or those of yesteryear have been able to turn over a football field like Cribbs, who before last week couldn't claim the title of being the best kick returner ever.

"I don't think it's arguable anymore," said Mangini. "I think he's won that argument."

Cribbs may win a few more before he's done.

What separates Cribbs from other return specialists is his size. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Cribbs has a running back's build, and while he doesn't have blazing speed, he rarely — if ever —— gets caught from behind. Plus, there so much more than makes him one of the most special, special teamers.

"He's got excellent vision," said Mangini, who has considered using Cribbs at safety. "He's got rare toughness. He has great strength to break tackles. There's been quite a few times where he may make a cut, there's someone on his legs and he breaks the tackle. He often times doesn't look like he's moving that fast, it's deceptively fast the way that he moves, and that's probably because he is such a strong runner as well."

Cribbs can turn a tiny crack into a gaping crevasse.

Fullback Lawrence Vickers, one of the deep blockers on the Browns' kick-return unit, knows that if he does his job, Cribbs can turn any return into a score.

"If I can do everything possible to give him something, he can take care of the rest," Vickers said. "He only needs a little bit. A lot of times he does everything by himself."

With his back against the shadow of the goal line, Cribbs said he focuses on the opposing kicker's run-up to see if the football is coming his way. At the moment of impact, he knows whether it's a squib, pooch, directional or if it's coming to him. Cribbs has been surprised that some teams have continued to kick to him, knowing they risk a long return or touchdown.

"A lot of teams respect me," he said. "Others have a bit of an ego and they get burnt by it. But when they respect you, you've got to take it and move on."

A breakaway threat on the field, Cribbs is grounded off it. Teammates use words like "humble" and "committed" to describe the Washington, D.C. native.

In October, Cribbs rushed over from practice to walk onto the field with the son of one of his former college coaches, who had died. When representatives from the Hall of Fame visited the Browns this week to get Cribbs' jersey, he was out delivering holiday toys to needy youngsters.

"Josh is a special person," Vickers said. "We all want to see him do good. Everybody loves him."

Cribbs has played the entire season amid on-and-off contract talks with the Browns. He has three years left on his existing deal, which pays him $6.77 million over six years. But Cribbs believes he has earned a hefty raise, and is there anyone in pro football who disagrees?

After his record-breaking performance in Kansas City, Cribbs expected to be presented with the finished paperwork when he arrived Monday at the team's facility. He promised to bring a pen and all he would have to do is put his autograph on the bottom line.

But that didn't happen, and despite reports negotiations are on hold, the Browns, who hired Mike Holmgren as team president this week, insist they will take care of Cribbs.

"He deserves it, man," said Browns defensive lineman Corey Williams. "He's proven time after time after time what he can do. It ain't like he's talking about it. He's backing it up. He deserves every last penny."

Cribbs wants it done before season's end.

"And in the right manner, what's good for this football team without creating a distraction," he said. "I'm trying to get it done as quickly as possible."

The Browns might be wise to sign him before Sunday.

After kickoff, Cribbs' price could rise.

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