A rule change passed Tuesday by NFL owners has frustrated Browns return man Joshua Cribbs. Kickoffs will take place at the 35-yard line instead of the 30, meaning touchbacks will likely become more frequent while returns decrease.
Cribbs discussed the new rule, plus potential workouts the Browns' players are planning for mid-April, in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. Here is an excerpt from the question-and-answer session:
Q: What do you think of the rule change?
A: "The more we change this great game of football, it's only gonna be a downward spiral. Injuries happen in football. If you look the underlying effect and underlying cause of all these rule changes to supposedly make the game safe, it all stems back to extending our (regular) season to 18 games. Yes, they're trying to make us safe, but only to add more games on. That's been the problem with the injuries thus far and the rule changes thus far. Guys have been playing this sport for years. Now we're in the NFL, the farthest the talent will take you, and the game is changing. It's like how they asked (Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker) James Harrison to change his style of play. It's gonna stem back from that as well. I just disagree totally with the rule changes. A couple of years ago, they (reduced the number of players allowed to block in) the wedge. I came in the league, and I did great with the wedge. When they ended that, I had to adapt. I still went to the Pro Bowl. I still did good without a wedge. Now they're pushing (the kickoff) up. It's gonna make room for a lot of touchbacks. You're gonna see a lot of superstar kickers that's gonna be kicking the ball through goal posts and out of the end zone. Guys are gonna be starting at the 20 every time. To change the game up so much, it's almost not what you signed up for. We know what this job entails. It's a high-injury-rate job. I commend their efforts to try make the game safer, but at the same time, you cannot change the game to the point where it's not football anymore. If you look at Arena (Football League) and Canadian (Football) League, there's noticeable differences. That's not NFL football. I felt as though the game is perfect the way it is, and rule changes here and there, how they call penalties, what's holding and not, you can tweak those. But when you start changing the distances of kickoffs and messing with the returns, you know I made my career off returning. (Chicago Bears standout return man) Devin Hester made his career. You can go down the list of great returners. We made our career off that. The future careers of guys coming out of college won't have the opportunity to even build something. If I didn't do great in kickoff returns, they would have never given me the opportunity to make the transition to play offense. I just would have loved to have a player's input and insight into the negotiations of those rule changes. But again, I disagree."
Q: So you believe the owners will use this rule change to continue to push for an expanded regular season?
A: "Yes because that's our main problem (with) extending the (regular season). Our contracts aren't guaranteed, and the injury rate is through the roof. We're in the lockout right now. Players don't have insurance. Who do you think is gonna insure players with existing injuries, problems, knee injuries, hip injuries? Think about that. They know how bad we need this, and they know that our main concern is health. So they're trying to make the game healthy, so we won't have that argument. But it's football. You're gonna get injured. If it's not on a kickoff return or kickoff coverage, it's on something else. I think the more they change the game and make it less of a violent sport -- 'cause it is, it's a gladiator sport -- the more they change it, the more that it almost corrupts the game of football. You'll hear the old (players) say, 'This is not the football I went through.' ... They're already on our backs about how soft the game has gotten, and I'm gonna be on the NFL's back about how they're making the game soft now. We worked our tails off to get to this point, to play this gladiator sport in front of the world, and I feel like it's just changing too drastically. Over the last 10 years or eight years, you've seen (several) rule changes, and most of them have been on special teams. That's my territory when you start talking about special teams. I could talk about this for days. I feel like there's places where you can just not change these rules. I think a year or two with these rule changes, they'll be like, 'Hey, we don't have these kick returns happening.' The game is gonna get dull. They want the game to be exciting. Leave it like it is. The game works. The system works. We're in a recession, but people are still buying tickets. They're watching football games. People are still fans of football. It works, and that's really one of the big, major labor disputes. The system works. I just disagree with the rule changes because it affects me tremendously and other guys tremendously. I count on Devin Hester breaking records and everything, so I can chase him. They count on me breaking records, so they can chase me and vice versa. But without the opportunity, it takes us out of the game sometimes."
Q: As you mentioned, in 2009, the league reduced the number of players allowed in a blocking wedge to two. Do you expect the new rule change to be more difficult to adjust to than that rule change?
A: "I'm telling you this beforehand, this will have a greater effect. I'm gonna talk about the other rule first, then I'm gonna go back to (the new one). The reason why the other rule had a great effect is because I came into the league with a three-man wedge, and that's all I knew. That's the style of (former Browns special-teams) coach Jerry Rosburg. That's the style he taught me, running off the three-man wedge like a running back. Those guys would crush one guy. One of them would would go off to another guy. It was a perfect set up. I had it down pat. I could read my holes. The vision was clear, and then all the sudden it changed. I had to change my whole style of running. I had to change my whole style of envisioning what would take place when I caught the ball. Everything had to change, and I adapted. I still did well. I still broke records. Now, teams (that) kick away from you, now they can just kick it out of the end zone. There are so many kickers that can kick out of the end zone. With Phil Dawson, there's never gonna be a return. He can kick it out every single time. Guys will lose stats. Guys will lose everything."
Q: The Browns have had strong special teams in recent years, so does this rule change hurt the Browns more than other teams?
A: "I will adapt. We'll adapt. I can't say that I want to adapt. I will adapt to the rule changes. We'll have time to ... No, I can't even say that. I was about to say we'll have time to practice it. This is the time I would be practicing at the facility, catching punts, catching kickoffs. Right now (because of the lockout), I'll probably have to commandeer a college kicker and try to go catch some kickoffs. We won't have the time this season. We have a new playbook. We won't have the time to put in everything. It's a lockout. ... As far as it affecting the Browns more than other teams, I think so now that I think about it only because we have a new playbook, we have new coaches. The camaraderie is a big factor, knowing who is gonna be on your team. There's a lot of turnover with players on our team. This will be a (challenge) to not only to the players but the coaches to see if they can get guys on the same page in a really short period of time. ... It's a test, and we'll see."
Q: Will return specialists lose their value because of the change?
A: "I guess I've just got to get my punt game up and try to break some records there. I've got a long way to go on punt returns. Maybe I've just got to get that part of my game back up. It's almost as if they're shutting kickoff returns down, like they got too popular and now they've got to bring it down a bit."
Q: Is quarterback Colt McCoy organizing workouts for the Browns' offensive players during the lockout?
A: "Yeah, in April. I've been talking to Colt. I talked to him in Dallas. I said, 'Hey, man. You're the man. You're the QB. I know you're young, but at some point, it's on your shoulders. You've got to rally the guys.' He already had that in mind. That was already his mindset. We're gonna get the offense together and train, run some routes, work out together, build that camaraderie back up that we didn't necessarily have because if you look at last year, we went through (three) quarterbacks and they were playing with injuries. We weren't able go with one all the way. There were differences in coaching styles and opinions. But this year, with (Colt) coming back as the man, we can basically rally around him. In April, we'll take a trip and work out and train together."
A: "It more than likely will be down in Texas. But wherever we can secure a spot, a location, and train with no problems. I think it's gonna be multiple locations. We'll meet up in Texas, maybe Atlanta. I might have all the guys come back here, and we'll meet up at Kent (State University). There's gonna be a lot of hopping around depending on how long the lockout lasts."