BEREA — It’s hard to keep a good football player down. And Joshua Cribbs is a good football player.
So it should be no surprise that after his first season without a kick return for a touchdown in 2010, he broke the drought with an 84-yard punt return Christmas Eve 2011 in Baltimore.
Or that he ranked fourth in the AFC in kickoff return average, despite new rules designed to prevent returns.
Or that despite the organization’s intent to have him focus on special teams, he lined up as the No. 3 receiver Monday in practice. After all, he co-led Cleveland receivers in 2011 with four touchdowns and ranked second with 41 catches for 518 yards.
“Right now my adversity is that because I play too much offense my special teams is decreased,” Cribbs said. “That’s what I’m fighting this year. That whole scene.
“So I’m going to play at a high level at both of them.”
Cribbs complained after a loss last year in which the special teams was terrible that he was needed on kick coverage, so the coaches obliged. They don’t want to wear him thin by giving him too much time on offense, plus they feel they upgraded the position by drafting Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin.
But with Mohamed Massaquoi and Benjamin sidelined, Cribbs was back running plays with the first-team offense.
“We’ll find a way to factor him in there somewhere, most likely,” new offensive coordinator Brad Childress said. “It depends on how much special teams he’s playing.
“Josh has a little pedigree in professional football. We don’t feel like we need to wear him out with a bunch of snaps right now.”
Cribbs understands he’s a proven commodity. So he didn’t freak out when he was taking snaps with the third- and fourth-team wideouts earlier in camp.
“It’s a long season. Guys come and go and guys get hurt, so I don’t fret over what’s the lineup right now,” he said. “I’ve been a durable receiver, a durable guy, so I’m going to be here.
“I’m going to take advantage of all the opportunities I get. And I’m going to get catches. Just ’cause of injuries last year, I was the second-leading receiver. So it’s nothing to me.”
If the receivers in front of him on the depth chart — Greg Little, Massaquoi, Gordon and Benjamin — stay healthy, Cribbs’ role on offense figures to be a fraction of what it’s been the past three seasons, when he totaled 24 starts.
“I just want to win,” he said. “So if guys are capable in front of me and they get the job done, I’m all for it.
“As long as we’re winning, I’m going to sit there and score 100 touchdowns on returns and make 100 tackles. The only time you’ll hear me is when we’re not winning and I know I could give us a chance to win. That’s the only time you’ll hear my voice.”
With the Browns’ recent history, Cribbs will be speaking up soon. They haven’t won more than five games since 2007.
But he’s optimistic entering his eighth season.
“We can win,” he said. “We have a good quarterback at the helm, we have capable receivers, we have a good defense.
“There’s really no reason we can’t put a winning football team on the field this year. No reason.”
Cribbs covered kicks Friday in the preseason opener, but didn’t return them and played little at receiver. Coach Pat Shurmur was trying to get a look at some of the younger guys, and will count on Cribbs as his returner when the season arrives Sept. 9.
Cribbs didn’t have a kickoff return for a touchdown last season, but averaged 25.0 yards, more than 4 more than in 2010. Moving the kickoff up 5 yards to the 35-yard line did reduce his opportunities to a career-low 39, but he has plans to combat that.
“I just have to make it a weapon,” he said. “I’ll have to run faster, run harder, coach our guys up a little better and get the job done. There’s always a way. Guys did it last year. I’ve got to find a way to do it this year.”
Cribbs will continue to bring the ball out of the end zone, even if it’s 8 or 9 yards deep. He said the Browns were only stopped inside the 20 seven times last season, five fewer than the league average, and he noticed some things on film that will help.
“So I’m going to bring it out every chance I get,” he said.
The backdrop for Cribbs’ season is that he’s in the last year of his contract. The Browns reworked his deal after the 2009 season and he will make $1.438 million this year.
Cribbs was outspoken about wanting a new deal back then, but is taking a different, quieter approach. He remains adamant about wanting to finish his career in Cleveland.
“I’m not concerned. Run about six touchdown returns, about 8-10 receiving, that’ll change all that,” he said. “I’ve been around long enough to know that if you play hard, you’ll get the money you deserve. So that’s my plan: play good.”
Cribbs is 29 and Shurmur referred to him as on the “back nine” of his career.
“I never heard that, so I don’t really listen to it,” Cribbs said.
He said he thinks a lot about how long he wants to keep playing.
“Till the wheels fall off, till I can’t do it no more, till they look at me and say, ‘Naah,’” he said. “Until you do not see a fight in me on gameday.”