Cribbs: Returners like myself become obsolete under new rules

NEW ORLEANS -- Josh Cribbs, in six seasons with the Cleveland Browns, has established himself as more than just a return man.

But he's also aware that, had it not been for his special-teams ability, the converted college quarterback likely wouldn't have survived two coaching changes and certainly wouldn't have been in position for the three-year, $20 million deal he received last March.

So excuse Cribbs if he's bothered by the changes to the kickoff rules that were approved Tuesday at the league's annual meeting. And understand if he's even a little offended.

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"I totally disagree (with the rule change)," Cribbs said by telephone Tuesday. "I don't think they take special teams serious enough. You can say you're making it safer for players, but that's part of it, not taking special teams serious enough. That ticks me off, because we, the Cleveland Browns, win games on special teams."

The change, in fact, was more modest than originally proposed. The suggested placement of the ball at the 25-yard line, rather than the 20, on touchbacks was nixed, as was elimination of the two-man wedge.

But the line of scrimmage for the kickoff was moved from the 30 to the 35, and the pre-kick running start for the coverage team has been limited to 5 yards.

The moves by the NFL's competition committee were made to promote player safety.

"I was listening to (some) of the owners speak about how player safety trumps athletic, entertainment ability," Cribbs said in an interview with NFL Network. "But we have yet to see any proof or anything that says most of the injuries happen on kickoffs or kickoff returns, and this is why, so we need to move it up 5 yards and it will eliminate it. I just don't see the relevance in the 5-yard rule. All I see is the lack of opportunity that will occur because of that rule."

Cribbs later said he "appreciate(s) the concern. I really appreciate that. But the motives I question."

If it sounds like Cribbs is taking this a little personally, you might be on the right track.

Much as coaches tout the importance of special teams, those playing them often feel like the stepchild in the pecking order. They aren't paid or promoted like offensive or defensive players, and once they achieve prominence in other areas of the game, they normally are removed from the kick teams.

That's not to say there are good, solid reasons for that. But it does explain Cribbs' angst.

"They say they change it because of injuries, but I think that it's coaching," Cribbs said. "In a lot of cases, it's not being coached as well. And I think instead of rules changes, you could have enforced penalties and fines better, and fine the coaching staffs and organizations for coaching it a certain way.

"We're talking about people's careers here. They're making it so you can't play this great sport the way it supposed to be played. It's things like the kickoff return that makes this sport exciting, and now you're going to change the sport to nothing but touchbacks."

Cribbs' desire is to maintain a system where, as he puts it, "special teams can win games."

The way Cribbs sees it, there will be more of a premium on kickers who can put the ball through the back of the end zone and force touchbacks, a dynamic that prompted the move of the line from the 35 to 30 in 1993.

"This rule, I'm thinking they alrady kick it away from guys like myself and (Chicago's) Devin Hester," Cribbs told NFL Network. "But this rule trumps them all. ... They'll start to scout kickers just for touchbacks. Returners like myself will become obsolete. I've been on both specturms, so I'm talking as a guy who has played on kickoff coverage and return units."

And the trickle-down effect, in his mind, is that contracts like those he garnered, or Hester (four years, $30 million) received, will become things of the past.

"You're going to see teams franchising kickers for touchbacks," Cribbs said. "I really feel that (it'll be harder for returners), myself included, when I'd try to get a new contract. You need to be taken seriously on the field, and you won't get this type of athlete anymore. You make these rule changes, the kick returner becomes obsolete. You have no chance to succeed. And the special-teamer in coverage, then he becomes obsolete, too, and those are guys busting tail to stay in the league."

For so many players, special teams is a way to stay in the league and can be a gateway to bigger things.

Make kickoffs less frequent, and you cut down on the number of relevant plays those guys spend on the field, and it, in turn, becomes more difficult for lower-round guys to find their niche and stick on a roster. By Cribbs' reasoning, it's easier to get a kicker with a big leg than spend roster spots on the kind of kamikazes who cover kicks.

"My goal is always to put the offense in the best position," Cribbs said. "We have rules. If I'm 5 yards deep, I usually don't return it. That's (fine) with me, but the coaches do give me the leeway. Some other guys, if they're in the end zone, they're kneeling. For me, at 3-4 yards, it's, 'Do you?'; at 6-7, it's danger territory. At 8-9 yards, no way. There are lots of factors, but if kickers can put it through the end zone, then all that's gone.

"And I know they're trying to protect us. But we know what we signed up for. This is the NFL, not a rec league. This is the best of the best."

Without the kick return being such a big part of the game, it's hard to see where Cribbs would've been given the time to develop as he has.

And so it makes sense that this one hits home for him.

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