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Ailing Cribbs endures season of struggles with Browns

BEREA, Ohio -- Joshua Cribbs used his right hand to show what's wrong with his right foot.

Bending his fingers back, the Cleveland Browns' Pro Bowl return specialist explained that his toes were jammed back into the soft tissue of his foot earlier this season, an injury that has forced him to wear linemen's cleats for protection.

"It's excruciating pain," Cribbs said. "I can't even describe it."

Summarizing his season is just as hard.

The NFL's career leader in kickoff returns for touchdown hasn't broken one this season for the Browns (5-9), who have been ravaged by injuries. But even before he was hurt Nov. 14 while being tackled on a 37-yard reception, Cribbs wasn't the usual Cribbs.

With opposing teams scheming to keep the ball out of his hands on kickoffs and punts, Cribbs hasn't been able to do what he does best -- give Cleveland's offense quick points or a short field. He has averaged a career-low 20.4 yards on 33 kickoff returns this season.

"It has been humbling," said Cribbs, who had his contract reworked last winter by the Browns after some contentious negotiations. "But mostly it's been disappointing for me not to give some great fans what they deserve in my play, from an individual and team standpoint.

"I want to do so many great things to help my team and produce and wasn't able to. So I take that as a personal loss. But at this point, it's football and I want to play."

There's no denying Cribbs' heart. An undrafted free agent, he has fought for and earned everything he has. But without him at his best, the Browns' special teams have suffered.

Cribbs missed only one game after dislocating four toes, sitting Nov. 21 at Jacksonville. He has been on the field every other Sunday, but it's obvious that he hasn't been himself.

Not even close.

Cribbs can't push off as usual or accelerate. He's not hitting any holes or creases quickly enough to pop a big return. He's not breaking tackles. And the injury has inhibited the Browns from using him at quarterback in the Wildcat formation or at wide receiver.

Cribbs has two catches for 11 yards and one rush for minus-11 since being hurt.

"There are things I can't do," said Cribbs, his hooded sweatshirt covering his head. "The coaches are working with me, trying to allow me to do what I can. But it's football. I could easily sit down and be like, 'Coach, I'm going to try to take care of myself for next year.' I love football too much. Even my teammates ask me, 'If you ain't good, why don't you sit down?'

"This is what it's all about -- pushing through injuries, going to work when you don't have to and battling. This is Cleveland. How do I look with a foot injury and I can't go to work and make the money I'm supposed to make, and people got to work with worse circumstances than me? So I just gotta push through the injuries and do as much as I can for my team."

Cleveland's coaches know Cribbs' limitations. They understand he's hurting and that only a full offseason of rest will make him well. But until the season wraps Jan. 2 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cribbs intends to give his best.

As long as he can walk, Cribbs will run out and play.

"I don't want to get taken out," he said. "They are going to have to pull me off the field. Somebody is going to have to say, 'Look you can't play, your leg is broken.'"

Last season, Cribbs accounted for 2,510 all-purpose yards. With two games to play this season, he's at 1,109 yards. But despite the substantial drop-off, Browns coach Eric Mangini appreciates Cribbs' toughness and determination.

"I would obviously love for him to have the same level of production that he had last year, and he would love that too," Mangini said. "It's not like he ever sits back and says, 'I haven't done as much as I have hoped and better luck next year.' Josh is trying to be as helpful and productive and explosive as he can."

Cribbs is understandably frustrated. He's powerless to speed up his recovery. There's nothing to do but make the most of a bad situation.

If the Browns have designs on beating the Baltimore Ravens this week or the Steelers next Sunday, Cribbs might need to find a lane, get through it as fast as possible and not stop until he scores.

Does he have one in him?

"Oh yeah," he said. "That's what I'm trying to get done, what I'm trying to accomplish. I need to score for my football team. I need to score to keep things rolling for myself. But most importantly, for our football team, to let them know that we still have a powerful and dangerous kickoff return unit. We've yet to show that, but we're still working at it."

For Cribbs, it's been a painful process.

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