The coming training camp will be the 26th that I’ve covered or been involved first-hand with the Browns, including the past 15 seasons. I’ve seen a lot of players come and go and I’ve seen a lot of ‘flash in the pans’, as well.
Being an ‘old timer’, I was asked to give the top five training camp performances that I’ve observed in my time covering the Browns, either as an intern with the Browns or as a writer for Browns News/Illustrated (1981-82; 1989-95), Clevelandbrowns.com (1999-2001), Fox Sports Ohio (2010-15) and Orange & Brown Report (2002-current).
1. Eddie Johnson (1981)—I will start with a special one and I will admit a sentimental one. To complete my Master’s degree in Sports Administration I was a public relations/operations intern for the Browns for training camp in 1981. The Browns were starting an in-house publication that summer called Browns News/Illustrated and I was asked to interview some lower profile rookies to send stories back to their hometowns. Back then, teams had unlimited amounts of players in camp and the Browns asked me to pick a few players that I thought had a chance to make the team and write a story about them (It didn’t matter that I had no previous journalism training other than writing for my college newspaper as sports editor).
The first player I decided to talk to was a seventh-round draft pick from Louisville by the name of Eddie Johnson. The ‘Georgia Assassin’ as he was nicknamed in college was an undersized linebacker with the heart of a lion. Johnson beat all odds with a spectacular training camp of relentless hustle and determination to make the team. Johnson went on to play 10 years for the Browns and was one of the best players on the Browns defense in the Browns quest for the AFC Championship in the late 80’s. Johnson outlasted three No. 1 linebackers selected in the first round by the Browns in Chip Banks, Mike Junkin and Clifford Charlton.
Johnson became a fan favorite in his career and unfortunately died way too young in 2003 at just 43 years of age due to cancer, but he always remembered me as the first NFL writer to write a story about him. After his retirement, Johnson stayed in the area and was a friend. He came out to give an instructional talk to my son’s high school football team.
2. Ben Gay (2001)—The Browns signed Gay, who was once heralded as the greatest running back in Texas high school football history who went to Baylor before falling into a litany of legal trouble that found him finishing his college career at Garden City Community College. Butch Davis was quoted as saying that he listed Gay as an “80-1” long shot to make the team. However, Gay broke loose in a scrimmage against the Bills for a 56-yard gain and he became a fan favorite who ended up making the team. 2001 was Gay’s only season with the Browns and his best game was an 18 carry, 56-yard game against the Ravens that also produced a touchdown.
3. Josh Cribbs (2005)—Cribbs came on the scene as an undrafted rookie free agent from nearby Kent State and proceeded to put together an incredible training camp and beat the odds to make the team.
After playing quarterback at Kent State, Cribbs was converted to wide receiver, but he really made his impact on special teams. Cribbs handled most of the kick return duties as a rookie and had 1,094 yards on 45 returns, including a 90-yard touchdown return.
Cribbs last played with the Browns in 2012 and is the franchise leader in return yards with 10,015. He also is the franchise leader in punt return yardage, as well with 2,154 yards. Not only was he a tremendous returner, Cribbs was one of the top coverage men on punts and kickoffs.
4. Michael Jackson (1991)—Jackson was a sixth-round draft pick of the Browns in 1981 who impressed throughout training camp with his play-making ability. Jackson’s size and speed was impressive and the rookie from Southern Mississippi worked his way in to the starting lineup by the end of his rookie year, supplanting veteran Reggie Langhorne. Jackson’s career with the Browns lasted only until the 1995 season, largely due to his inconsistent play. One of his most memorable catches was a touchdown thrown by Bernie Kosar in Kosar’s last game with the Browns when he drew up a play ‘in the dirt’ and was cut by Bill Belichick a day later for ‘diminished skills’.
5. Dave Jacobs (1981)—Only the most ardent Browns fans would remember the kicker who displaced long-time kicker Don Cockroft. Jacobs had a tremendous training camp and the Browns front office decided to release the 13-year veteran Cockroft in favor of the rookie kicker from Syracuse. However, Jacobs couldn’t handle the pressure in the regular season and was released after making only four of his first 12 field goal attempts and the Browns acquired Matt Bahr to replace him.