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Pay the Man? This time around, Josh Cribbs is fighting a losing battle

Dec 14, 2012 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi


The Morning Kickoff …

For Auld Lang Syne:As the torch appears being passed to Travis Benjamin, these are melancholy days for Josh Cribbs.

He saw the future last Sunday.

On a specially designed play on the punt return team, Cribbs shifted out of his usual returner position and lunged to the line of scrimmage. At the same time, Benjamin, who had sneaked on the field as a “gunner,” retreated to Cribbs’ spot at punt returner.

The point of the play was for Cribbs to rush the Kansas City punter and block the kick. What happened next was shocking. Benjamin received the punt at the Browns’ 7, broke a tackle, cut to the left and accelerated to the end zone, leaving vapor trails in his wake. The 93-yard touchdown return was a jaw-dropper – the longest on a punt in Browns’ history.

Cribbs holds 14 franchise records – the most of any active Browns player. In the blink of an eye, Benjamin nabbed his first.

On Wednesday, Benjamin was named AFC special teams player of the week. After noting the honor at the top of his daily press briefing, coach Pat Shurmur announced that Cribbs was voted to serve as the weekly fourth captain for the Washington game.

I pointed out the irony of those two honors, but Shurmur wouldn’t take the bait. I asked if Shurmur would incorporate more of Benjamin in the return game.

“I think they both can be very effective,” the coach answered. “Of course, Josh is not the fastest guy in the world and never really has been. But he’s found a way to run back kicks (for TDs), quite a few in his career. And of course Travis is extremely fast. They add different elements to the return game.

“You saw in the game we had two guys back at one point. We did something a little fun I’ll say, when we rushed Cribbs and then dropped Benjamin back. Then there’s times we use one or the other. I think it’s a good problem to have.”

It’s a problem, all right. For Cribbs.

The writing on the wall: Cribbs is in the last year of a big contract he extracted at the height of his popularity in March of 2010, when his fans locally and in the studios of ESPN and NFL Network successfully waged a campaign that was dubbed “Pay the Man.”

It was the first test in player relations for new President Mike Holmgren. Cribbs set some sort of unofficial record by winning a new deal with three years remaining on his existing contract. Now, at 29, Cribbs is confronting a more formidable foe. New CEO Joe Banner has the sentimentality of an IRS agent.

I asked Cribbs if he has heard anything from Banner in regards to a new deal.

“No. Not at all. So you know what that means,” he answered.

What does that mean?

“I’ve got to get prepared for this game right here and I have three games to show what I can do, that I can still be an asset to this team and can be an asset to any football team.”

Cribbs grew up in the Washington, D.C., area rooting for the Redskins. That contributed to his selection as a game captain. More importantly, it most probably will be his last home game in a Browns uniform.

“Oh, yeah, I’ve put a lot of thought into it,” he said. “So I’m gonna give a little something extra special and try to put on a show.”

The sport is changing: Commissioner Roger Goodell is intent on eliminating kickoffs in the name of player safety. That radical move greatly reduces the value of a player such as Cribbs, who made the Browns’ roster in 2005 covering and returning kickoffs.

He became the greatest player at both in franchise history and the greatest special teams player in the NFL in his time. The roles showcased Cribbs’ selflessness, toughness and competitiveness. Despite his limited role on offense, over a five-year span Cribbs often was the one Browns player opponents feared.

“I know there’s a growing market for my type of athlete,” Cribbs said. “I see them all over. I think I can add value to any team. I know there’s a lot of guys that would utilize me if our team chooses not to. That’s something I don’t have to worry about until the end of the year.”

I wondered if Cribbs would have received a new contract if there had been no ownership change and the numbers-crunching Banner had not arrived wielding a briefcase full of Excel spreadsheets

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m pretty sure maybe if I had more opportunities, but I know how the league is, younger guys coming in. Maybe I make too much ($1.438 million this year). That’s why I wanted to get on offense, to be a threat, to be able to earn a paycheck and not make too much just doing this.

“If I make a certain amount, I wanted to play, as I did last year – the second- leading receiver, tied for tops in TDs. It’s not like I was dropping the ball. I just realize this is the business aspect of the NFL. New players are coming in, making less money and doing as well as I am.

At one point in his “Pay the Man” campaign, Cribbs cleaned out his locker to demonstrate his willingness to move on without a new contract.

Now, he says glumly, “I want to end my career here. I have raised my family here. Going somewhere else would be foreign territory for me. I don’t see myself having any other fans.”

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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