One of the most dynamic and explosive returners in NFL history has called it a career.
Josh Cribbs filed formal retirement papers with the league on Wednesday.
“I had to wrap my head around the fact that I wasn’t able to get on with another team and maintain my skill level to be the Josh Cribbs that everyone knows,” Cribbs told 92.3 The Fan in an extensive interview. “I kinda knew internally that I wasn’t going to play any more, but to know it and say it, that’s 2 different things.”
A 3-time Pro Bowl selection, Cribbs is tied for the NFL career record with 8 kickoff returns for touchdowns. He is also the only player in NFL history to return a pair of kickoffs over 100 yards for a touchdown in a single game, which came during a 41-34 win at Kansas City in 2009.
Cribbs’ 13,488 career return yards is tied for third all-time in league history and he was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 2000s, but is that good enough to get him into the Hall of Fame?
“I think there is a great argument for my career as a whole,” Cribbs said. “And possibly a new category as well, because they really don’t let special teamers in there. When you look at a special teamer, and if there was a criteria for it, not just as a returner but a cover guy leading my team in tackles and leading the NFL in tackles, being that force on special teams that the league hadn’t seen and do both of those things [I qualify].”
Cribbs remains forever appreciative of the opportunity the Browns gave him back in 2005 when they signed him as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Kent State, and he holds out hope that maybe some day he’ll get an opportunity to be presented a gold jacket and have his bust in Canton, Ohio.
He also understands how difficult of an ask that would be.
“The criteria needs to change,” Cribbs said. “I think the argument is there but they only like to promote the core guys and special teams has been highly overlooked, even though it wins football games and is instrumental. It’s been highly overlooked from both a coverage as well as returner standpoint.”
As a player, Cribbs defied the odds and he went on to rewrite the franchise record books, but when asked to look back on his career in Cleveland, he found it difficult to name a single defining moment for him.
“I don’t have one, because they were all so important,” Cribbs said. “The game in Pittsburgh when I had that 100-yard touchdown run, or my first touchdown when I had the knee brace on and my knee all taped up running for a touchdown against the Lions and jumping into the Dawg pound but missing and hitting the wall the first time I tried and re-jumping into it.
“To score a touchdown and then turn around in a 360-degree turn, seeing all the fans cheering for me and the cameras going off, I wanted to have that emotion and capture it over and over. I yearned for that which led to me breaking records and trying to score every time I touched the football.”
Cribbs is the Browns’ franchise record-holder for 11 categories: career punt return yards, punt return yards in a game, punt return yardage in a season, career kickoff return yards, kickoff returns yards in a single season, kickoff returns in a single season, kickoff return yards in a game, career kickoff returns for touchdowns, kickoff returns for touchdowns in a game, kickoff return average in a game and total kick and punt return yardage.
As he calls it a career, Cribbs took time to appreciate what he was able to accomplish as a player but also where it all began 12 years ago following the 2005 NFL Draft that saw his name go uncalled for 7 rounds.
“Back in 2005, I was just worried about making the team and then after making the football team I was just worried about staying on the team,” Cribbs said. “That mindset that I had, to compete at a high level, led me to break records to strive for more and more after each record and each touchdown to do it again and to play even harder.
“I definitely didn’t see this end point, being able to play 10 years in the NFL and have all those accolades, I am so grateful.”
To this day Cribbs remains one of the most beloved players in the modern era since the franchise returned. He embraced playing in Cleveland for the Browns where he left it all on the field with no regrets, except he wished they won more.
“Cleveland is a blue-collar city, blue-collar town full of hard workers and I felt like I embodied that,” Cribbs said. “I felt that I embodied the nature of what it meant to be a Cleveland Browns fan and I brought that to the field. They gave me energy for games. It was a great relationship [with fans] that I urge other players to adopt.”
That relationship with the fans is why he hated leaving after the 2012 season. He signed with Oakland but didn’t make the team in 2013. The Jets picked him up in October 2013. He played 6 games for the Colts in 2014.
“I was homesick,” Cribbs said. “When I was in Oakland and with the Jets, every day I felt a deep longing to come back to Cleveland.”
Although he grew up in Washington D.C. where he won 3 state titles at Dunbar High School, Cribbs adopted Cleveland as his hometown. He not only embraced cheering for the Indians and Cavaliers but he also entrenched himself within the community through his ‘Team Cribbs Foundation’ which he will continue post-career.
“I’m trying to set the example to athletes that when they do retire or when they’re not part of a team that hey, your community service doesn’t stop,” Cribbs said. “You just have more time to do it.”
Cribbs hopes to coach at the collegiate or NFL level in the near future after he completes his MBA degree.
“Football is ingrained in me so I won’t stay away from the game,” Cribbs said.
Cribbs was elated when the Cavs broke the city’s 52-year championship drought last June. He was even more thrilled when the team invited him to be a part of the championship parade through downtown Cleveland that saw fans pack the streets so tightly the cars and floats could barely get through.
“I was humbled,” Cribbs said. “But then I felt like a fan myself. When the Cavs won the championship, I felt like I was an extension of the fans. It felt like we were the ones that went out there and made the winning shot. Even if I wasn’t in the parade I would’ve been a part of the parade standing on the route cheering on the Cavs and I think the fans know that.”
Cribbs still dreams of a Super Bowl championship parade for the Browns, who haven’t won it all since 1964. He also knows that the sea of humanity he saw last June fill downtown would pale in comparison to the celebration that would happen if the Browns were to ever win it all.
“I’ve never seen a crowd like that. Maybe on television or in movies but not in person,” Cribbs said. “I always envision even more [people] for a Browns Super Bowl win. I envision the shut down of the state if it happens.”