Josh Cribbs was never supposed to make it in the NFL as a special teamer, nor was he supposed to last in the NFL, period.
Before Cribbs became one of the top kick returners in NFL history and one of the most beloved players in recent Browns memory, he was a quarterback right down the street at Kent State.
The Golden Flashes fell in love with the shiftiness and speed of Cribbs, a Washington D.C. native, and went all out in recruiting him. He also received offers from Maryland and Syracuse, but those big schools wanted to redshirt Cribbs and have him switch to a non-quarterback position. Cribbs wanted to stay at quarterback and hopefully make the NFL.
Even after his fruitful career at Kent State from 2001-2004, Cribbs was a longshot to make the league. He remains second in Golden Flashes history in passing yards, passing touchdowns and first in rushing touchdowns, but NFL teams only called the undrafted free agent to extend camp invites.
He accepted the challenge from the first team that called: the Cleveland Browns.
“I was up for the challenge,” Cribbs said. “Just to get that call from a team right down the street was everything. The Browns had already laid out a path that no other team laid out for me.”
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The Browns, however, didn’t want Cribbs as a quarterback. They already had Trent Dilfer, a 33-year-old veteran and Charlie Frye, a rookie third-round draft pick. The Browns wanted Cribbs to become a wide receiver and learn how to catch punts and return kicks, something Cribbs never did at Kent State or high school.
“Never done that before,” Cribbs said, “so I'm like, ‘How do you catch punts back here? Just catch the ball and run?’”
Cribbs made it look that easy. In his first year with the Browns, he set a franchise record with 1,094 return yards in 2005 and scored his first career touchdown on a return against the Detroit Lions in Week 7.
Then, something rare happened. The Browns offered Cribbs a six-year contract with a $2 million signing bonus. He was originally making $232,000 his rookie season.
Undrafted free agents almost never receive lengthy contract extensions after just one year of NFL experience. It doesn’t matter if they see the field or not. NFL teams typically allot the money elsewhere.
But the Browns saw Cribbs’ value, and they wanted to seize it as long as they could.
“Heck, yeah. Let’s get this done,” he said. “Man, I hear $2 million. I was in. In my mind, that's making it.”
Cribbs made the deal worth it, too. He scored seven touchdowns on kick returns and three touchdowns on punt returns in the next six seasons and had the second most return yardage ever in 2007 with 2,214 total yards.
The best part? Cribbs shined most in the heated rivalries against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Three of his 10 touchdowns during that span were against the AFC North foe, and most Browns fans haven’t forgotten about Cribbs’ rushing touchdown out of the wildcat formation that helped the Browns snap a 12-game losing streak to the Steelers in 2009.
No one thought that career would’ve been made, however, when Cribbs was a quarterback at Kent State. He didn’t have to travel far to carve out his improbable path to stardom in Cleveland.