Since Joshua Cribbs emerged as a special teams standout and fan favorite as a rookie in 2005, general managers, coaches, media and fans have theorized about the best every-down position for him.
It turns out the initial diagnosis may have been correct, after all. Coach Eric Mangini can’t say enough about Cribbs’ progression as a receiver.
“He’s developing as a wide receiver, which I really like and I felt strongly would happen,” Mangini said. “I feel very good about that, I feel like he can make some plays out there.”
Cribbs was signed as an undrafted rookie out of Kent State, where he was a running/throwing quarterback. His 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame seemed best-suited for receiver, so that’s where former coach Romeo Crennel had him practice when he wasn’t returning or covering kicks.
But “receiver” before his name was little more than an honorary title. He caught one pass as a rookie, 10 in 2006, three in 2007 and two in 2008.
The quest to make the best use of his talents continued when Mangini took over in 2009, and Cribbs saw extended time as a Wildcat quarterback. But he never stopped working at receiver and caught a career-high 20 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown.
The growth carried over to this year, with five catches for 30 yards and a touchdown in two preseason games. He ran a sideline comeback for a fourth-down completion from Jake Delhomme on Saturday against the Rams, then made a nice catch over his left shoulder in the left corner of the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown from Seneca Wallace.
“Just taking advantage of my opportunities, catching the ball when it’s thrown to me and running good routes,” Cribbs said. “When you do what you’re told and do what you’re supposed to do, you can be successful.”
“Those playmakers, they just have a way, a sense, a feel of how to get open,” Delhomme said. “It’s hard to explain, they just get it. That’s something that you can’t coach, and that’s probably a good thing. They’re special.”
Cribbs started in place of the injured Mohamed Massaquoi against St. Louis. He will be an integral part of the receiver rotation with Brian Robiskie and Chansi Stuckey, while also working in the Wildcat formation.
“Josh’s role will be an evolving role,” Mangini said.
Cribbs came late to the receiver position, so there was plenty to learn on the NFL level. His athleticism was never an issue, but he struggled with consistency catching and the finer points of route running. The touchdown from Wallace showed serious strides in both departments.
Wallace threw the ball well before Cribbs made his break, trusting he’d wind up in the right spot. Cribbs streaked up the sideline, only turning for the ball at the final moment – and snaring it.
“It was just straight basics,” he said. “The ball was thrown, the cornerback didn’t know the position of the ball and that’s what we used to our advantage. I just slowed up on him and let his momentum push me into the ball.”
Cribbs said he’s worked on “showing late hands” so the cornerback doesn’t know the pass is coming. Keeping his eyes from getting huge as the ball sails through the air is another important component of fooling the defender.
Watching film of himself running routes and vowing to not make the same mistakes was a large part of Cribbs’ summer vacation.
“He’s not just understanding, ‘OK, I’ve got to be at this depth,’” Mangini said of route running. “It’s, ‘I have to take this release, I have to be at this depth. Based on the coverage, I have to give them this type of fake to get open.’ A lot of the details of the position, he has gotten better with.”
On a pass offense that ranked 32nd in the league last year, big plays from Cribbs are a must to make a jump in the standings. The longest catch of his career was 35 yards against Detroit last year, so there’s room to grow.
“He has caught quite a few deep balls in practice,” Mangini said. “The thing about Josh that we can’t look past is any time he gets the ball, regardless of what distance he gets it at, he is a vertical threat because it’s Josh with the ball in his hands in space. It just goes from a catch to a kick return.”
Cribbs credits an increase in confidence and experience for his surer hands. The motivation will always come from the critics who said he’ll never be a legitimate NFL receiver.
“I’ll use that throughout the year,” he said. “I thrive on proving people wrong.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.