Rare is it that a player in any sport says anything of great interest that when he does you want to just cut him some slack, leave the comments to dangle and just enjoy the fact that you don't have to write another “we respect our opponents” or “we're just going to go out there and try to have some fun” quote. But on the other hand, if said player in any sport is going to leave it out there dangling like a carrot at the end of a stick, said player shouldn't be surprised when someone comes along and tries to grab it.
Josh Cribbs, the special teams player ordinaire for the Cleveland Browns, used the run up to the game this week against the Dallas Cowboys to finally unleash what had been building up at least since the aftermath of the Baltimore Ravens game when he sat in the locker room biting his liplike Mitch McConnell being forced to watch a Barack Obama press conference. Cribbs said then he didn't want to say anything that would get him in trouble. Apparently after seeing the game plan against the Cowboys that didn't feature him doing anything more but watch kickoffs said over his head, Cribbs decided that trouble was the least of his concerns.
It was classic Cribbs all the way. One of the more passively aggressive athletes to wind his way through Cleveland in years, Cribbs made sure first we all understood just what a team guy he is before proceeding to explain in rather stark detail just what a typical “me first” guy he really is.
Cribbs' main gripe, of course, is that he just wants the damn ball. He explains that he believes he's the best athlete on the team and that it is wrong, shameful, boneheaded, inexplicable, pick your descriptor, that he is being used on offense slightly less than the Jets are using Tim Tebow on offense. And lest anyone thing Cribbs doesn't carry around his stats like a math geek who can recite Pi to 48 places, Cribbs told the Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot in an English be damned screed, “me going from being able to run the wildcat, to playing receiver last season and catching 41 passes and four touchdowns to nothing—I can't believe it.”
I can. There's no harm in Cribbs walking the Berea campus with confidence and swagger in his own ability. It's what athletes do or else they won't be professional athletes for long. But let's not mistake Cribbs' ego as anything more than furthering Cribbs' particular interests at the expense of the team's. It's also what athletes do.
See, Cribbs is in the final year of a contract and isn't getting the chance to show teams that his skills, such as they are, go beyond special teams. No one is paying special teams players, even with Cribbs' resume, the same as they are paying true offensive playmakers. In other words, for all of Cribbs' bitching, the words between the lines say, essentially “the Browns are taking money out of my wallet each time they design a pass play for Greg Little to drop.”
If Cribbs had merely confined his frustration to how the lack of offensive opportunities this year is costing him money next year, that would have been enough. We could have then used the opportunity to point out that the only reason Cribbs was in a position to catch said 41 passes and 4 touchdowns last season was because general manager Tom Heckert decided that the Browns didn't need to have any actual credible receivers on the roster. Someone had to get in the way of the damn ball and that someone on occasion was Cribbs. We could also have then pointed out again how Cribbs wasn't anything close to a reliable NFL receiver last year or at any point when he lined up wide. His lack of training as a receiver was the context for his inability to run anything resembling a crisp or reliable route. Sometimes he'd square in on a 10-yard pattern at 8 yards or 12 yards or wherever he felt like it. He'd do the same on a 10-yard out. He'd go long when the pattern called for him to curl in. These kinds of mistakes, repeated not just weekly but several times within each game, were understandable because Cribbs was being asked to basically play out of position.
But Cribbs wouldn't leave it at that. His unintentionally hilarious slant on the world and how he fits into it pushed him further into furthering his agenda by further feeding into the animosity fans have against Shurmur. Cribbs told Cabot that he has talked to Shurmur about his role earlier this year and that it had no impact, so no reason to go down that road. “There's no point,” he said. “Obviously they feel like everybody that's in front of me is a better athlete. I disagree. I feel a different way than the coach feels about me. They must feel I can't produce. We have a difference of opinion.” That's putting it mildly.
The truth Cribbs has never faced is that just being an athlete, for whatever that's supposed to me on a team that's supposedly filled with athletes, doesn't necessarily translate to awesomeness in any position you deem yourself capable of playing. Cribbs really never did progress as a receiver. He was raw when he started, got slightly better only through some fleeting familiarity with the position, but leveled out quickly. Think what you will about head coach Pat Shurmur and his decision making ability, but he's been around enough receivers in his life to know one that is credible and one that is not.
Shurmur isn't saying that the mediocre receivers in front of him are better athletes but he is saying they are better receivers and it's hard to argue that point. They are better receivers. They've been doing it longer and are better trained. They run better routes. In short they do the things receivers are supposed to do better than Cribbs. All Cribbs really has done is prove that he occasionally can catch a pass. He's not a deep threat. He's not a consistent go-to guy on third down. Hell, he's not particularly good at using the elusiveness he's developed as a kick returner to much effect as a receiver, mainly because by the time the ball gets to him from the quarterback, it's generally hard to shake loose the guy draped on your back.
Cribbs' comments are a challenge to Shurmur but don't expect much to come of it. There was a time when the Plain Dealer probably would have run this story on the front page of the paper, forget the front page of the sports section. Instead it was buried well inside the sports pages playing 10th fiddle to a story about John “Not Buddy” Greco and high school playoffs. That's about right. This town is indifferent.
But the impact of his words will linger. Sure Shurmur probably won't do anything because he's a lame duck and he has bigger problems to worry about, such as figuring out which teams may need a quarterbacks coach next season. But new president Joe Banner will probably notice and not in the way Cribbs imagines.
Cribbs in for a wake up call for the rest of his career. He's been fine on special teams this season but not spectacular. He may be back next year for the Browns or he may not but wherever he finds himself next and whoever he's playing for then he'll still end up being the frustrated best athlete in the room. No team short of a team like the Browns of last season that believe having credible receivers on a roster is overrated is going to insert Cribbs into the offense except as an interesting, occasional diversion.
As a wrongheaded ego-driven loudmouth, Cribbs is a mere amateur against someone with the All World skills of Rob Ryan, the former Browns defensive coordinator now plying his trade in Dallas. Because everything in a Ryan world is about a Ryan, the almost meaningless match up between the Browns and the Cowboys has turned into a sort of Call of Duty: This Time It's Personal death battle.
Apparently Ryan didn't feel like his massive skills as a defensive coordinator were respected by the Browns when they made their most recent regime change. Ryan claims he slept in the office for 7 straight weeks so that he could work longer and harder to turn around the Browns' fortunes and that this should have been recognized. It was, just not in the way he would have liked. He was fired because he was part of the stinking bath water of the Eric Mangini regime.
I'm not sure, really, what Ryan is bitching about. It's not as if he landed as a crew shift leader at Subway, though I suspect that he wouldn't have minded that gig judging by a waistline that is expanding far faster than the economy. He landed as the freakin' defensive coordinator for America's team or at least what once passed as America's team until owner Jerry Jones took it upon himself to see how many fans he could actually alienate.
What probably chafes at Ryan is not that he landed in Dallas in the same slot that he left in Cleveland but that he didn't even get an interview when Mike Holmgren hired Shurmur. That, really, is what's personal about all of this, proving that coaches aren't any more self-aware than the players under their charge.
The Browns aren't the first team to not see greatness in Ryan as a head coach. They aren't even the latest. Every year there are at least 4 or 5 head coach openings, including this past off season, and none of them resulted in Ryan being elevated to the position he really covets. If Ryan keeps making it all personal, pretty soon he's going to hold a grudge against the entire NFL establishment to the point that his only viable alternative really will be as crew chief at Subway.
There are plenty of reasons Ryan isn't a head coach and isn't likely to ever be. His lack of any semblance of personal discipline or politics makes Chris Perez look like Colin Powell. There's nothing particularly innovative about the schemes Ryan runs. He's related to Rex Ryan.
Let's also keep in mind, too, the initial and most obvious point. When a Ryan speaks it's always about the Ryan. The “this is personal” meme was even too cliché to have been a plot point on Friday Night Lights. It stopped being a motivational tool along about the time players formed a union. But as a tool for furthering the narrative of Rob Ryan it works, clumsily, but it works.
The likelihood of the Cowboys beating the Browns on Sunday is high. The likelihood of the Cowboys defense, just like any other team's defense, getting in the head of a rookie quarterback with an interception problem is equally high. So if the Cowboys do what all sense and logic dictate they should do, Ryan can at least advance the theory that it was his crazy motivational skills that righted the Cowboys ship and not the fact that as bad as the Cowboys are they still have more than enough to beat the Browns, one of the NFL's worst teams. I only hope he gets a game ball for his efforts.
Lost in all the “goodbye, Mike, we hardly knew ye” was the gem that Holmgren threw out about the itch he still has to coach one more time. If that doesn't piss off Browns fans then they truly have stopped caring.
At this point I'm pretty convinced that Holmgren's better days are well behind him but putting that aside, if Holmgren still wanted to coach there was an opening on the team that he oversaw as President not too long ago, like 3 weeks ago. When Holmgren dumped Mangini a year too late, he had every opportunity to scratch that coaching itch here and it would have been well received at least until the moment that fans realized that even a Super Bowl credentialed coach isn't going to help this team with this roster win more than 4 or 5 games a season.
It's never been adequately explained why Holmgren chose the route he did but because he did, he finds himself out of Cleveland completely, which may have been his crazy, brilliant motivation all along. Meanwhile the Browns find themselves where they tend to find themselves every two years, on the precipice of another exhaustive search for a head coach.
What all this demonstrates more than anything else is that Randy Lerner made absolutely the right decision to sell the team. It was the only right decision he made during his entire tenure. The only real hope in turning this franchise around is through an engaged owner and not one who would cower in the corner when the lights came on.
Cribbs' crybaby outburst leads to this week's question to ponder: Who would you rather have on your team, Josh Cribbs or Tim Tebow?