Josh Cribbs: A Half-Century Man?

Steve King looks at Josh Cribbs' progress as a Cleveland Brown, pondering whether or not Cribbs can accomplish something that no Cleveland Brown has done in 50 years...

Even without it, he's still the most versatile player on the Browns, serving as a wide receiver, returner and special teams cover man. But so far, there has been no sign of Joshua Cribbs making the much-anticipated move to the defensive backfield as well. The Browns on Saturday morning will end their series of spring practices when their three-day, full-squad minicamp winds up.

So if Cribbs is going to play defense this season, then the work will have to begin in training camp, which should open on or around Aug. 1.

"We've reall y only worked him on offense to this point," Browns head coach Eric Mangini said Friday morning. "I wanted to do that to get
him the most familiarity with the (offensive) system. "Like all the guys at this point, there are good things and there are things that aren't as good. Some of it is just familiarity – new system, new routes, new expectations in terms of depths and reads, sights and hots (hot reads), and tons of information.

"We will keep moving down this path, see how it goes, and at some point, hopefully it builds flexibility into where we will work on defense as well."

Cribbs was a running quarterback at Kent State who made the Browns in 2005 as a rookie free agent wideout/special teamer. He has turned into arguably the best returner in team history, and their top cover man on special teams.

But he's had an extremely limited role on offense in four seasons with just 16 receptions for 153 yards and a touchdown, and only 40 rushing attempts for 235 yards (a 5.8 yards-per-carry average) and a score. Previous head coach Romeo Crennel seemed hesitant to give Cribbs a bigger role in the offense, feeling he was overburdening him. But Cribbs always said he was anxious – and ready – to do more.

In the offseason, talk of Cribbs going to defense, probably safety, became real as Mangini took over following Crennel's firing. It made sense for Cribbs to make the move since he might be the best athlete on the team, and anyone who has made the transition he's made thus far, from Mid-American Conference quarterback to NFL utility man, ought to have no problem learning to cover pass receivers and coming up in run support.

Cribbs last year said half-joking that he'd even play nose tackle if the club asked him to do it. But at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he's three inches shorter and 135 pounds lighter than Browns Pro Bowl nose tackle Shaun Rogers.

Cribbs has good ball skills and a nose for the ball – they are two different things -- and possesses excellent quickness and pretty good speed. Plus from having played so much offense, he could have a good idea of what's going to be coming at him on a particular play. And even  though he's not nose-tackle size, he's big and strong enough to play in the back end of the defense. He has really bulked up since coming to the Browns by being heavily involved in their strength and conditioning program.

If Cribbs would also play defense, then he would be the first true two-way player in Browns history since 1950, their first year in the NFL after coming from the All-America Football Conference, when Weldon Humble shared left guard duties with Abe Gibron and also split time at middle linebacker with Alex Agase.

Since then, Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike McCormack started out as a middle guard briefly in 1954 before going to right tackle, and Cleveland native Chuck Noll, who came to the team in 1953, alternated between right guard and left linebacker, eventually staying at guard.

However, neither player spent appreciable time at both positions in any one season, so they weren't truly two-way players.

In the Browns' early years from 1946-49, most of their legion of stars, including Hall of Famers Otto Graham, Marion Motley and Bill Willis, were real two-way players. In fact, there were many two-way players in pro football in that era.

But doing it now, in this age of specialization where players rarely change roles, let alone sides of the ball, would be unique and would really spice up Browns training camp. If anyone on the Browns can do it, then it would be Cribbs. Whether he ends up getting that chance – at least this year – remains to be seen, though.

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