Returning to the returner

The author meets his favorite Brown since the return.

The Browns undoubtedly got worse this week, as five career-long Browns signed elsewhere in free agency.

The hype-driven investment in Johnny Manziel long ago blew up in the Browns’ faces, and the debris of this two-year fiasco was finally swept aside yesterday, a long-awaited official exodus.

Nearly everywhere is a “need” position, and the Browns made a couple value signings at inside linebacker and on the O-line in Justin Tuggle and Alvin Bailey, two three-year vets whose teams chose not to tender them restricted free agent offers.

But I wanted to reflect on an event that took place a week ago, when I got to meet a former Brown who was actually offered and signed contract extensions on two separate occasions. His hard-nosed approach to the game, connection to the fan base, and underdogged determination make Josh Cribbs my favorite Browns player of the current millennium.

He was this year’s guest at my local Brown Backers club’s annual banquet, the Southeast Michigan Browns Backers‘ Cry in Your Beer Bawl. This vibrant chapter coordinates two locations for Browns to gather for games, raises tens of thousands of dollars for charity, and has brought in such guests as Kevin Mack, Earnest Byner, Travis Benjamin, Brian Brennan, Reggie Langhorne, Eric Metcalf, Frank Minnifield, T.J. Ward, John Hughes, “Turkey” Joe Jones, and Ross Fichtner to meet fans and sign free autographs.

Several of these speakers were interesting and personable, particularly Byner. But Cribbs topped them all in this regard, proving what I already knew: that the communications major truly “gets” the spirit that animates Browns fandom. He was also candid in his view that none of the QBs in the draft class merit the second-overall pick, and that the Browns should seek their answer in a veteran such as Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick, the latter possibility now apparently in the works.

It was a pleasure to meet the man who almost single-handedly made Browns football bearable during some very tough years, who rose from the undrafted ranks to earn a long-term deal that he far outperformed. It’s clear that Cribbs would have stayed a Brown longer if he had the choice. Instead, his last game turned out to be known as Deflategate.

As I wrote in the book I was honored to present to him:

The converted Kent State quarterback made a might impact with his hard-charging, relentless style as a returner, kick cover man extraordinaire, and occasional receiver and wildcat option on offense. Popular and genial, the dreadlocked Cribbs gave fans a reason to pay attention no matter how bad Browns football had become. His phenomenal 2007 season ranks among the very best years for any returner. Two years later he scored touchdowns and had plays gaining at least 35 yards four different ways. A member of the Hall of Fame’s All-2000s team, he gained more yards in a Browns uniform than anyone except Jim Brown.

Thanks again to the SEMBB, to my dad for again sponsoring our shared Browns loyalty, and to Josh Cribbs for all the fun his hard-fought excellence provided to so many during his stellar career. The analytics experts now running the Browns would do well if they could fill the roster with 53 guys like him.