Joshua Cribbs is steaming mad.
He made a career, and millions of dollars, when he successfully converted from Kent State quarterback to elite kickoff returner with the Browns. After the NFL changed the kickoff rules Tuesday at the owners meetings in New Orleans, he’s afraid the next Cribbs will never get the same chance.
“Returners like myself will become obsolete,” he said Tuesday on NFL Network. “Teams won’t have no need for a Josh Cribbs, a Devin Hester (Chicago Pro Bowler) to play in the football league.”
The teams voted 26-6 — the Browns were one of the six — to move up the kickoff 5 yards from the 30-yard line to the 35.
The competition committee recommended the switch to improve player safety. The NFL expects the 5 yards to increase touchbacks from 16 percent of kickoffs in 2010 to as high as 33 percent.
For Cribbs, that means far fewer opportunities to use the skills that earned him trips to the Pro Bowl in 2007 and 2009 and accounted for his NFL-record eight kickoff returns for touchdowns. The Browns restructured the final three years of his contract in March 2010 — close to $7.5 million guaranteed plus incentives — for his special teams prowess.
“It’ll be a tremendous amount of touchbacks,” he said on ESPN. “They’re already kicking away from Devin Hester, myself, other guys and this will just make it over the top, like no kickoff returns.
“I guess I just have to get my punt game up until they change that. I just can’t fathom that other alternatives were not taken. What it does do is take a lot of the excitement out of the game, decreases the opportunity for guys like myself coming out of college to have an opportunity to play football because scouts won’t recruit guys like that anymore because they won’t need them.”
The original proposal from the competition committee called for touchbacks to go from the 20-yard line to the 25. But that would’ve been a deterrent for kicking teams, who may have chosen higher, shorter kicks that resulted in returns and the high-speed collisions the league wants to reduce.
The league also instituted a rule that the coverage team can get only a 5-yard running start behind the ball, so it should take players longer to get a full head of steam. The decision was also made to keep the two-man blocking wedge. The league outlawed three- and four-man wedges in 2009.
“There’s no question we were getting an inordinate amount of injuries on kickoffs,” Giants president and CEO John Mara said.
“We are always going to have player safety trump the competitive aspects of the game, period,” said Rick McKay, Falcons executive and chairman of the competition committee.
Cribbs’ objections are twofold. He doesn’t want to see his impact diminished, and he doesn’t want to see the game change in what he considers a fundamental way.
“I made my whole career off kickoff returns and breaking records,” he said. “I’m just so upset that this is the way they’re trying to make it safer. Now, I applaud their efforts to try to make the game safer, but at the same time it’s contradicting because you can’t pinpoint what would make the game safe or not.
“This is the sport we signed up for. It’s a gladiator sport and 5 yards won’t make it safer. I don’t agree with it at all.”
Cribbs believes the league’s increased focus on safety over the last year, including a midseason crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits, is an attempt to smooth the way for an 18-game schedule that the players oppose.
“NFL rule changes are BS... U not making the game safer u messing a great sport, trynna hide behind safety just to add 2 games...smh (shaking my head),” Cribbs tweeted.
Cribbs’ kickoff return production declined last season as teams used popup and squib kicks to reduce his effectiveness. The Browns benefited with above-average field position, but the explosive, game-changing plays were stopped.
Cribbs, who was hampered late in the year by a foot injury, averaged a career-worst 20.4 yards with a long of 37. It was the first time in his six seasons he didn’t have a return touchdown.
He is also the punt returner and averaged 8.4 yards in 2010 with a long of 17.
“We will adapt. We will create some type of way to get around it and create big plays,” he said. “But this is definitely taking the ball out of the great returners’ hands.”
Cribbs was a standout on special teams coverage units before seeing an increased role on offense as a receiver and Wildcat quarterback in 2009 and 2010. If the role of a kickoff returner is marginalized, he may return to the coverage teams to maximize his value.
“Like they say in basketball, free throws win games,” he said. “In football it’s special teams and it’s kickoffs and kickoff returns.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.