As soon as possible – even sooner, if that's possible – the Browns need to do two things involving Joshua Cribbs.
First, tear up his present contract, which is horrible, and give him a new one that pays him what he's worth, or at least more of what he's worth.
He's the best player on the team and certainly the most exciting one as well. He's the best returner in the NFL and the best in team history. Every time he touches the ball, no matter where it's at on the field, he's a threat to score a touchdown.
The 26-year-old former Kent State quarterback scored once in Sunday's 27-14 loss to Pittsburgh on a 98-yard kickoff return, and there were several other instances when he was just one Steeler away – one move or twist -- from doing it again.
For Browns fans who are watching their team score points at a snail's pace, he is the one player who provides hope.
How much is that worth? A lot.
Cribbs is contractually obligated to the Browns through 2012, so he's trapped. Sure, the Browns can do nothing, and he has no alternative but to stay here if he wants to remain in the NFL.
But as the Browns try to get this struggling franchise turned around and lay a foundation for the future, it behooves them to reach out to their best player and be fair and equitable, if for no other reason than to show prospective free agents down the road that the club treats its players well. The Browns have to overcome the effects of the $1,701 water bottle incident.
Aside from all that, however, the Browns need to make a position change with Cribbs. Leave him at returner on both kickoffs and punts, of course, and put him regularly on kickoff and punt coverage, where he is also extremely effective.
Leave him, too, as the man taking the snap when the Browns use the wildcat. With his ability to both pass and run, he is the perfect player for that formation, which, if used properly, can really keep a defense on its heels as a change of pace. It caused the Steelers problems on Sunday.
While the change we're talking about is also on offense, it involves the removal of Cribbs as a wide receiver in the base alignment and the insertion of him as a running back. It's a switch so obvious – and so potentially beneficial to the Browns and also to Cribbs in so many ways – that it screams to be done.
To start with, Cribbs has struggled at receiver. It is the only task he's not completely mastered since he signed as an undrafted rookie with the Browns in 2005. Everything else he has touched he has turned to gold.
He does not look comfortable at all there. Even though he is a great all-around athlete who adapts well, he does not appear, for whatever reason, to have the fluidity of a receiver. It seems as if he's forcing it in running his routes and catching the ball.
Cribbs could continue to do it and be adequate at it, especially in this struggling offense, but his skills could be better used elsewhere.
And anyway, the Browns used two second-round draft picks this year to get wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie. Massaquoi has had two good performances in the last three games, and Robiskie finally got started on Sunday by making his first catch of the season, a 23-yarder. Put those two out there all the time together and let them develop so the Browns can get some return on their investment.
But leave Cribbs out of that mix, unless there's a need for a fifth receiver. And he should do it only as a running back lining up in that spot.
When you watch Cribbs carry the ball, he seems as natural as can be. He knows how to hit the holes and use his blockers. There was a play in Pittsburgh when he slipped through just a small crack while playing off a block and turned it into a good gain.
Remember, while at Kent, he ran the ball as much as threw it, and more effectively, so this is hardly anything new to him.
He was just a skinny little guy when he came to the Browns, but he has bulked up considerably since then. He now packs 215 pounds of muscle on his 6-foot-1 frame. He can break tackles – and has.
The extra weight, though, has not slowed him down. He is as fast – and as quick – as he was.
In that way, then, he is the perfect blend of Jamal Lewis and Jerome Harrison, the two backs the Browns use now. The 5-11, 245-pound Lewis has the power, of course, which is sorely needed in a rugged division such as the AFC North, but he has slowed down. He's not the slowpoke so many make him out to be, but when a back turns 30, as Lewis did in training camp, his body begins to break down.
At 5-9 and 205, Harrison has good speed and quickness but no power. He is more of a scatback who can get through a hole quickly and then avoid tacklers and/or outrun them.
Give Cribbs some carries out of a base offense and see if he can do a little of what Lewis and Harrison can do. He's already proven, in little bits and pieces, that he can make things happen as a pro running back. Now the Browns need to try to build on that.
It certainly can't hurt. As for doing anything productive in terms of wins and losses, this season was lost long ago. The Browns will have to stand back and watch the Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens battle it out for the division crown.
So, then, this is a season for experimentation, to let first-year head coach Eric Mangini see what he has and how it can – and should – be used. He needs to find out who can play, and who can't. He needs to find out the names of the base of the team he will build around.
Mangini knows Cribbs is obviously a keeper, but it's clear it's not as a wide receiver. With his talents, though, he needs to be part of the offense, and not just with the wildcat. He can give more – much more – than that, and the Browns certainly need all of it.
Being a running back allows him to have the chance to be the most productive.
Maybe such a thing would not work. Maybe Cribbs is just a wildcat warrior and a special teamer, and nothing more.
And if that's the case, then so be it. With everything he does, Cribbs is already clearly the MVP of the team. The Browns could live with that.
But the guess here is that they could live better with him also doing some work at running back.
At least it's worth a shot.
Just like Joshua Cribbs is worth more than he's being paid.
In a season like this, it's incumbent upon the Browns to do both things – ASAP -- with this extraordinary player.