There are three phases to any football game – offense, defense, and special teams.
While most attention is focused on offense and defense, there are few plays in football that are more spectacular than a kickoff return or punt return touchdown.
Few players in NFL history were better at returning kickoffs and punts for touchdowns than Josh Cribbs.
Kids dont even know this man these days😭 pic.twitter.com/uiD5zmBZBw
— Jayson Tatums Hairline (@DalvinEra) September 30, 2020
During a 10-year NFL career, including eight years with the Cleveland Browns, Cribbs scored 11 total kickoff and punt return touchdowns (fifth in NFL history).
A Pro Bowl and All-Pro returner, Cribbs also contributed on the football field as a rusher, receiver, passer, and tackler.
We take a look at the life of Josh Cribbs – before, during, and after his NFL career.
The Early Years Through High School
Joshua Cribbs was born on June 9, 1983 in Washington, D.C.
Cribbs described he grew up “not poor, but not rich, either.”
His parents, Harold Sr. and Billye Cribbs, were both in the Marines and were strict with Cribbs’ morals and values.
Cribbs learned to hold the door open for a woman and look someone in the eye when shaking hands.
Cribbs’ older brother, Harold, introduced Cribbs to football when he was age six.
“We used to play football on concrete, and he used to hit me hard, knock me into the bushes and had me crying. 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.”
Cribbs’ uncle, Joe Cribbs, had an eight-year NFL career, principally with the Buffalo Bills, in the 1980’s.
Dunbar High School
Cribbs attended Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.
In high school, Cribbs played and lettered in football, baseball, basketball, and swimming.
While Cribbs was at Dunbar High School, the school won three consecutive D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (“DCIAA”) championships.
In 1998, Cribbs was a backup quarterback, receiver, and special teams contributor.
He played against his brother, Harold (who was a linebacker), in the DCIAA championship game, known as the “Turkey Bowl”.
In 1999, Cribbs was having a successful season starting at quarterback, until he broke his right ankle in the middle of the season.
Cribbs had his best season in high school in 2000.
Starting at quarterback, Cribbs completed 130 of 277 passes for 2,022 yards, nine touchdowns, and five interceptions.
He led Dunbar High School to victory in the 2000 Turkey Bowl, throwing for two second-half touchdowns, including a 55-yard touchdown pass to future NFL tight end, Vernon Davis.
For his play in 2000, Cribbs was named a “first-team All-Met” selection at quarterback by The Washington Post.
Cribbs was recruited by Maryland and Syracuse, but those schools wanted to redshirt Cribbs and have him switch to a non-quarterback position.
However, Cribbs wanted to continue to play quarterback in college.
Kent State University, located in Kent, Ohio in northeastern Ohio, was willing to let Cribbs play quarterback, so Cribbs decided to attend Kent State.
Cribbs played four years at quarterback for the Golden Flashes at Kent State from 2001 through 2004.
Cribbs started as a freshman at quarterback in 2001.
For the 2001 season, Cribbs completed 131 of 238 passes for 1,516 yards, 10 touchdowns, and five interceptions.
As a QB, Josh Cribbs. pic.twitter.com/EIpcwG4hLN
— BV (@BVstyle06) July 24, 2020
Cribbs also rushed for 1,019 yards and five touchdowns on 164 rushing attempts (a Mid-American Conference leading 6.2 average yards per carry), and caught one pass for 32 yards and one touchdown, in 2001.
Kent State had a 6-5 record in 2001.
It was the first winning record for the Golden Flashes since 1987.
In 2002, Cribbs had three games in which he ran for over 190 yards.
For the Golden Flashes in 2002, playing in 10 games, Cribbs rushed for 1,057 yards on 137 rushing attempts – a 7.7 average yards per carry, which led the entire NCAA. Cribbs also scored 10 rushing touchdowns.
Kent State had a 3-9 record in 2002.
In 2003, helped by Cribbs’ play, Kent State improved to a 5-7 record.
MACtion Moment 💫
— #MACtion (@MACSports) July 7, 2020
For the 2003 season, Cribbs completed 178 of 364 passes for 2,424 yards, 14 touchdowns, and nine interceptions, rushed for 701 yards and 14 touchdowns (second in the Mid-American Conference) on 161 rushing attempts, and caught one pass for 29 yards and one touchdown.
In describing Cribbs before playing against him in 2004, Buffalo’s defensive coordinator Tom Jones said:
“He is elusive. You have to know where he is at every minute or every second of every play. You have to account for him. . . . In his mind, the play is never over. He’s going to find a way. If he can’t make something happen himself, he’s going to try and find a way to get the ball to one of his teammates and have them continue the play. He’s a never-say-die guy.”
For 2004, playing in 10 games, Cribbs completed 216 of 335 passes (third in the Mid-American Conference in pass completion percentage) for 2,215 yards, 17 touchdowns, and six interceptions, rushed for 893 yards and nine touchdowns on 170 rushing attempts, and caught two passes for 32 yards and one touchdown.
Cribbs was voted “Honorable Mention” at quarterback on the 2004 All-Mid-American Conference football team.
Josh Cribbs should’ve been a starting QB in the NFL pic.twitter.com/H0qM7nzXoO
— Colton Denning (@Dubsco) July 13, 2020
Kent State had a 5-6 record in 2004.
Cribbs ultimately received his degree from Kent State in 2010, as a communication studies major with a concentration in public communication.
Even today, 16 years after he last played at Kent State, Cribbs is prominently featured in the Kent State football record book, ranking second in career pass completions (616), second in career passing yards (7,169), tied for second in career passing touchdowns (45), fourth in career rushing yards (3,670), first in career rushing touchdowns (38), second in career average yards per carry for players with at least 100 rushing attempts (5.8), first in career total offense yards (10,839), and first in career total touchdowns (83).
Given his future NFL career, what may be most interesting about Cribbs’ college career is that while he showed versatility as a passer, runner, and receiver at Kent State, he did not return a single kickoff or punt in college.
You will definitely stump your friends if you ask them whether Cribbs punted or returned more punts for the Golden Flashes.
Pro Football Years
Cribbs was not drafted in the 2005 NFL draft.
However, discovered largely by Cleveland Browns scout Kevin Kelly, Cribbs was signed as a free agent by the Browns.
As Cribbs explained:
“Well, I wanted to play in the NFL. I tried out for the Redskins and they wanted me to be on the practice squad. But I wanted to play right away. The Browns told me, ‘We want you to be our returner right away. Right now.’ So, I ended up taking that. I came out when running quarterbacks weren’t as popular, before (Colin) Kaepernick came and did what he did. I came out back in the days of Seneca Wallace and (Antwaan) Randle El and those guys. Randle El had to change positions, too. Back then it was really only pocket passers who were sought after. I played in the MAC conference and came out in ’05.”
As a free agent, Cribbs was signed for a $5,000 bonus (according to Phil Savage, the then general manager of the Browns, the largest bonus the Browns had given to a free agent) and a chance to try out for the team; there was no guarantee that Cribbs would make the Browns roster.
“I was definitely not confident I would make this team and thrive like I did. I just was confident I was going to give it my best ability. I was confident that if I had to walk away, if I was forced to walk away, I would be able to look myself in the mirror and say I did everything in my power necessary to allow this dream to come true.”
However, Cribbs made the Browns team and had a solid rookie season in 2005.
In Cribbs’ best game during his rookie season, on October 23, 2005, Cribbs scored his first NFL regular-season touchdown, on a 90-yard kickoff return, as Cleveland lost to the Detroit Lions 13-10. In the game, Cribbs returned four kickoffs for 152 yards.
Playing in 14 games during the 2005 season, Cribbs returned 45 kickoffs for 1,094 yards (a Cleveland Browns franchise record) and one touchdown, and one punt for five yards, caught one pass for seven yards, and made 12 solo tackles and three assisted tackles.
While Cribbs is known for his contribution to special teams as a returner, it should not be ignored that Cribbs also regularly made tackles on special teams.
Unfortunately for Cribbs, during his eight seasons with Cleveland, the Browns never made the playoffs and only once had a winning record.
On November 19, 2006, Cribbs scored his second NFL regular-season touchdown, on a 92-yard kickoff return, as Cleveland was defeated by the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-20.
During 2006, playing in all 16 games, Cribbs returned 61 kickoffs for 1,494 yards (again setting a Cleveland Browns franchise record and ranked fourth in the NFL in 2006) and one touchdown, and six punts for 51 yards (Cribbs ranked third in the NFL in 2006 with 1,545 total kickoff and punt return yards), caught 10 passes for 91 yards, rushed for 11 yards on two rushing attempts, and made 10 solo tackles and two assisted tackles.
During 2006, the Browns rewarded Cribbs, as Cribbs signed a six-year, $6.7 million contract (including a $2 million signing bonus).
Cribbs made $232,000 his rookie season.
2007 probably turned out to be Cribbs’ second-best season in the NFL over his career.
On September 23, 2007, in a 26-24 Browns loss to the Oakland Raiders, Cribbs scored his third NFL regular-season touchdown, on a 99-yard kickoff return.
Cribbs returned four kickoffs for 174 yards, and one punt for 22 yards, and rushed for seven yards on one rushing attempt, in the game.
Cribbs (who also returned five kickoffs for 183 yards in a 51-45 Cleveland win over the Cincinnati Bengals on September 16, 2007) was named AFC Special Teams Player of the month for September, 2007.
In a 31-28 Cleveland loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 11, 2007, Cribbs scored his fourth NFL regular-season touchdown, on a 100-yard kickoff return.
Josh Cribbs is the greatest kick returner of all-time 🐐 pic.twitter.com/lF1SoFzHM5
— Everything Cleveland (@EverythingCLE_) June 26, 2020
Cribbs returned four kickoffs for 204 yards, and four punts for 19 yards, in the game.
In 2007, Cribbs led the NFL in all of kickoff return yards, average yards per kickoff return (30.7), total kickoff and punt return yards (2,214), and all-purpose yards (2,312), and ranked fourth in the NFL in punt return yards and third in the NFL in average yards per punt return (13.5).
Cribbs was invited to his first Pro Bowl in 2007.
In addition, Cribbs was voted first-team All-Pro by the Pro Football Writers Association and the Sporting News, second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press (as kickoff returner), and first-team All-Conference by Pro Football Weekly (as kickoff returner)
Before the 2008 season, Browns special teams coach Ted Daisher said about Cribbs:
“There really is no one else in the NFL that does all the things that Josh does. There’s guys that are great kick returners . . . 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. . . . Once he gets in the open field, he’s kind of hard to deal with.”
In 2008, Cribbs scored both his first NFL regular-season rushing touchdown and his first NFL regular-season receiving touchdown.
By 2009, Cribbs had developed a reputation as one of the best returners in the NFL.
“He’s very physical, runs really hard and he’s just a tough tackle. Guys have to wrap up and really hit him thick. He gets yardage and is really effective at it. He’s a playmaker and in order for us to be successful this week, we need to gang tackle him and when we get a chance to hit him we’ve got to wrap him up.”
“[Y]ou rarely see a bigger guy like Cribbs who can get out . . . and take the hits, take the pounding as he’s running. 1-on-1 tackles are very hard to come by with him, so you have to make smart decisions and go low. . . . He’s going to bring toughness. [He] sees you and sometimes will try to run through you . . . Cribbs is just that type of guy.”
2009 probably was the best season in Cribbs’ NFL career, including that he scored all of kickoff return, punt return, rushing, and receiving touchdowns.
Cribbs also became more of a regular offensive player, starting 12 games at wide receiver for the Browns in 2009 (including the final nine games of the regular season).
A DYNAMIC returner 🙌
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) June 18, 2020
In the opening game of the season, Cribbs scored his second NFL regular season punt return touchdown, on a 67-yard punt return, as the Browns lost to the Minnesota Vikings 34-20 on September 13, 2009.
Cribbs has some of his best games against the Steelers (including three of his kickoff return touchdowns), prompting Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin eventually to comment in 2011:
“We cannot let Josh Cribbs do what he has done to us time and time again in the past, we’ve been dead indians in his cowboy movie enough.”
The following Browns game after the Steelers victory, on December 20, 2009, Cribbs probably had the best game of his NFL career, in a 41-34 Cleveland victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
In the game, Cribbs scored two kickoff return touchdowns (his seventh and eighth NFL regular season kickoff return touchdowns), for 100 yards and 103 yards, and returned six kickoffs for 269 yards and four punts for 36 yards. For his play in the game, for the second consecutive game, Cribbs was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week.
— Michael (@big_mike9169) March 24, 2020
Cribbs in 2009 led the NFL in total kickoff and punt return yards (1,994), ranked second in the NFL in kickoff return yards, punt return yards, and all-purpose yards (2,510), ranked third in the NFL in average yards per kickoff return (27.5), and ranked fourth in the NFL in average yards per punt return (11.9).
In 2009, Cribbs was named NFL first-team All-Pro and invited to his second Pro Bowl.
In addition, Cribbs was voted first team All-Pro by the Associated Press (as kickoff returner), the Pro Football Writers Association, and Pro Football Focus (as returner), second-team All-Pro by the Sporting News, and first-team All-Conference by Pro Football Weekly (as both kickoff returner and punt returner).
After the 2009 season, Cribbs and Cleveland had a contract dispute, as Cribbs wanted to renegotiate the six-year contract that he signed in 2006 and felt that a reported $1.4 million per year offer from the Browns was way too low.
On March 5, 2010, Cribbs and the Browns agreed on a three-year, $20 million contract.
Cribbs’ production declined in 2010, including that it was his first NFL season without scoring a kickoff return or punt return touchdown.
Cribbs’ production improved in 2011 from 2010, both as a returner and as a receiver.
On December 24, 2011, Cribbs had the last return touchdown of his NFL career, returning a punt 84 yards for a score, as Cleveland lost to the Baltimore Ravens 20-14.
Cribbs was voted first-team All-Conference by Pro Football Weekly (as punt returner) in 2011.
2012 turned out to be Cribbs’ final season with the Browns.
Cribbs’ 27.4 average yards per kickoff return ranked fourth, and Cribbs’ total kickoff and punt return yards (1,635) ranked second, in the NFL in 2012.
The Browns did not re-sign Cribbs after the 2012 season.
Cribbs’ production in the second five years of his career did not match how he performed in his first five years in the NFL in large part because of injury.
Longtime Cleveland sportswriter Terry Pluto stated in 2013:
“The average NFL career is 3 1/2 years. Cribbs played quarterback at Kent State where he was primarily a runner. So, he was probably was hit 200 times a season in college. . . . They line everybody up, somebody kicks the ball and then you have 22 guys all running at each other like maniacs. This is not a way to have a long career. . . . Eric Mangini, who was the coach in 2010, said [Cribbs’] toes were almost curled in the last few games. His feet were getting smashed in by people and he just kept playing. Then, Pat Shurmur, his coach last year, said he hardly let Josh practice because that knee was so bad. But Sundays, he was just there.”
Cribbs signed with the Oakland Raiders on May 15, 2013, but was released on August 25, 2013, never seeing any regular-season action.
— Jesse Jester (@JesseJesterOne) July 31, 2013
Cribbs then signed with the New York Jets on October 15, 2013.
He played in six regular-season games for the Jets in 2013 (returning 20 kickoffs for 490 yards and eight punts for 96 yards) before being placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.
Cribbs next signed with the Indianapolis Colts on November 17, 2014.
Playing in six regular-season games for the Colts in 2014, Cribbs returned 19 kickoffs for 608 yards and 19 punts for 125 yards.
With the Colts in 2014, Cribbs also finally participated in the NFL playoffs.
Playing in three playoff games for the Colts in 2014, Cribbs returned six kickoffs for 174 yards and nine punts for 42 yards.
Cribbs was released by the Colts on May 1, 2015.
On March 22, 2017, Cribbs formally announced his retirement from the NFL.
The Years After The NFL
Cribbs met his wife, Maria, while attending Kent State and they have been married since 2002.
The family lives in the Cleveland suburbs.
Cribbs and his wife host a local Cleveland television show, “Cribbs in the Cle”.
“The show focuses around Josh and Maria Cribbs as they discuss local and national headlines, relationship and parenting topics, health and fitness, entertainment headlines, and lifestyle points of interest for Northeast Ohio.”
Cribbs has also been active in acting.
He appeared in a movie, “The Murders of Brandywine Theater”, and in episodes of the television shows, “The League” and “Hot in Cleveland”.
Cribbs has formed a nonprofit foundation, TeamCribbs Foundation.
As Cribbs explained:
“We partner with other smaller foundations or smaller initiatives to help bring awareness to those initiatives and those other foundations that may be overlooked, to have them either get bigger or to help them with their cause.”
With the motto, “No Cause Left Behind”, TeamCribbs Foundation has been involved in such activities as handing out backpacks to students at a charter school in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood and partnering with the Greater Cleveland Salvation Army in providing turkey dinners on its annual Thanksgiving Pantry Day.
Cribbs was a coaching intern for the Browns in 2018 and for the Houston Texans in 2019.
In 2020, Cribbs was inducted in the Cleveland Browns Legends Program.
Josh Cribbs and Webster Slaughter have been named to our 2020 class of Browns Legends!
RT to congratulate the duo!
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) June 18, 2020
Cribbs’ NFL Legacy
While the Cleveland Browns have had such great returners as Eric Metcalf, Greg Pruitt, and Bobby Mitchell, a strong argument can be made that the greatest returner in Cleveland Browns history was Josh Cribbs.
Cribbs ranks first in the Browns record book in Browns career kickoff return yards (10,015), kickoff return touchdowns (8), and punt return yards (2,154).
He also ranks second in Browns history in Browns career average yards per kickoff return with 50 or more kickoff returns (25.9), tied for second in Browns history in Browns career punt return touchdowns (3), and fourth in Browns history in Browns career average yards per punt return with 50 or more punt returns (11.0).
A strong argument can also be made that Josh Cribbs is among a handful of the greatest returners in NFL history.
Cribbs ranks third in NFL history in NFL career kickoff return yards (11,113), tied for first in NFL career kickoff return touchdowns (8), and third in NFL career total kickoff and punt return yards (13,488).
Cribbs was selected by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the first-team kickoff returner on the NFL’s All-2000s decade team.
In 2019, Cribbs was nominated for induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Josh Cribbs has been named an NFL HOF nominee for 2020. #Browns
• 13,488 career return yards
• 11 return TDs
• 26.1 yds/KR
• 3x Pro Bowler
• 1x All-Pro
— MoreForYouCleveland (@MoreForYou_CLE) September 12, 2019
In explaining his decision to live in the Cleveland suburbs after his retirement, Cribbs stated:
“Had the fans not been so great, I would have easily made the decision to move back east to D.C. or move to another location in a warmer climate. That experience, the fan base, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. There’s a lot of good fan bases in the country, but none like the Browns.”
Cribbs’ appreciation of the Browns fan base would be reciprocated by Browns fans.
Nephew wit Josh Cribbs ✊🏾🙌🏾🏈 pic.twitter.com/2c0wh4Mqui
— Cha-Cha vs Charlie ✌ (@cha_hustle) September 20, 2020
Cribbs was a bright light for Cleveland during many non-playoff years for the Browns, with his play providing many happy memories for Browns fans.