From raw free agent to elite returner, Cribbs proves quick study

From the day he joined the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted rookie, there was always something unique about Joshua Cribbs. The return specialist arrived with a certain quality that couldn't be quantified at a scouting combine.

Some call it "heart." Some call it "fearlessness." Players often describe it as a certain "swagger." Regardless of the term, Cribbs showed up to his first training camp with the confidence of a first-round pick, although every team -- including the Browns -- ignored him in the 2005 NFL draft.

But by the end of his first season it was clear that Browns general manager Phil Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel discovered a gem. Three seasons later, Cribbs is Cleveland's special teams ace and is fresh off his first Pro Bowl appearance.

"Coming in as a rookie, I was just trying to make the football team," Cribbs said. "I didn't care what I played. I could play O-line, D-line, any position to make the team, and that's what showed up when I took the field, was the desire to play in the NFL."

Cribbs never returned a single kick at any level until he made it to the pros. But the former Kent State quarterback had a natural instinct for it and is considered the AFC's version of Chicago Bears returner Devin Hester.

The two players have different styles -- Hester seems quicker, Cribbs seems more powerful -- but both are effective. They combined for an astounding nine kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns last season. Cribbs scored twice on kickoffs and once on a punt, and Hester tied an NFL single-season record with six return touchdowns.

So who's better?

"I let my stats speak for themselves and so does he," said Cribbs, who meets Hester in a preseason showdown on Aug. 28 in Cleveland.
"He's a real humble guy and right now he's got me on punt returns. I was the best kick returner in the NFL and he's the best punt returner in the NFL for 2007, but 2008 is untold."

In the 2008 Pro Bowl, Cribbs had six kickoff returns for a 26-yard average (including a long of 41 yards) and Hester averaged 33 yards on five kickoff returns(including a 51-yard effort). Neither had a punt return in the Pro Bowl, which the NFC won 42-30.

With 11 career scoring returns, Hester is widely regarded as the most explosive kick returner in the NFL. But Browns special teams coach Ted Daisher said he would take Cribbs over anyone in the league because of his versatility.

Cribbs also plays on two coverage teams, leading Cleveland in special teams tackles the past two seasons.

"There really is no one else in the NFL that does all the things that Josh does,'' Daisher explained. "There's guys that are great kick returners like Devin Hester and Roscoe Parrish in Buffalo, but you don't see those same guys go down on a kickoff and hit a wedge and make a play, or (field) a punt. Josh has all those skills and those tools."

There is a secret to Cribbs' success that traces deep into his childhood. The catalyst is Harold Cribbs, Joshua's older brother.

Harold was the star athlete in the family before Joshua had a chance to be. The younger brother always followed the older brother to his games and at age six, Harold began introducing Joshua to football the hard way -- through blood, bruises and scrapes.

"We used to play football on concrete, and he used to hit me hard, knock me into the bushes and had me crying," Joshua Cribbs said. "Then he'd keep me quiet so he won't get in trouble for doing it. My brother made me tougher and I love him for that. Without the hard work he instilled upon me, I probably wouldn't be where I am today."

That toughness has translated well in the NFL. Cribbs plays with reckless abandon and has only missed two games in three years due to injury. He's been nicked and beat up, but he also dishes it out.

Cribbs' return style is very physical, mimicking more of a running back than his secondary position of wide receiver. He is stocky at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, with enough strength to run through arm tackles and the speed to break away from bigger defenders.

"Once he gets in the open field, he's kind of hard to deal with," Daisher said.

By the middle of last season teams began waving the white flag.

Opponents gradually were kicking away from Cribbs. Some would try kicking it to Cribbs at the beginning of games, then avoid him in the second half. Others would decide before the game that it was safer to avoid Cribbs entirely, such as the case last season against the Arizona Cardinals.

As easygoing as Cribbs is, this is the one topic that often gets under his skin. Cribbs only has a few chances to have an impact in a game, so he does not enjoy teams taking away those opportunities.

"It's a sign of respect, but at the same time it's a sign of defeat," Cribbs said. "It's saying your team is not capable of (covering the kick). It's 11 guys, man up!

"We don't kick away from nobody … I don't agree with kicking it away (from other teams), so I don't agree with people kicking it away from me. Everybody who is in the NFL is on the field, so your team should be capable of stopping one guy."

As a coach, Daisher has to work constantly with Cribbs to explain that avoiding a dangerous returner is just part of the game.

"Obviously Josh is frustrated, because obviously he wants to make a play," Daisher said. "But he has to understand it's all for the team and field position and just take it for what it is. It's respect from another team for Josh's skills."

As the Bears have tried to incorporate Hester into their offense as a wide receiver, the Browns are experimenting with Cribbs as a wideout. They want to throw Cribbs a few more short passes and reverses. But the Browns are careful not to exhaust Cribbs and affect what he does best on all four coverage teams.

Cribbs also has expanded his talents to land a television deal as well.

Last year Cribbs completed his first season on a local cable television show, aptly named "Josh's Cribbs." It has no set theme: One episode focused on his family's hunt for a Christmas tree. The success of the show also helped paved the way for teammate Joe Thomas, who recently landed a local hunting and fishing show that recently completed its first season this summer. Both have been ratings successes in Ohio as locals can't get enough of seeing what their favorite players are doing away from the gridiron.

"Season 2 is on the way, and it's going to be hot again," Cribbs said while laughing. "But anytime I can open the door for anybody else to come in and succeed and get notoriety, it's good. We want all of our players to get noticed. We want our team as a whole to get noticed, and it's happening."

Browns fans have identified with Cribbs for the past three seasons, and now the secret is out.

With five primetime games and a spotlight shining on Cleveland in 2008, a lot more people will get to see the dynamic talents Cribbs has to offer.

James Walker covers the NFL for ESPN.com