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Can Cribbs adjust, bounce back?

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Posted Aug. 03, 2011 @ 1:10 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

There is a case for calling Joshua Cribbs the greatest returner in NFL history. You couldn't tell it from his numbers a season ago, but such is the lot of returners, even aces like Cribbs.

Sometimes opponents can neutralize even the most dynamic return stars. Teams held Chicago's Devin Hester without a kickoff- or punt-return touchdown in 2008 and '09, but that didn't make him any less feared, or skilled, as he showed by returning three punts for TDs last season.

Opponents held Cribbs in check last season, limiting him to 20.4 yards on kickoffs and 8.4 yards on punts. For the first time in his career, he did not return a kickoff or a punt for a score. Opponents did an especially good job blunting Cribbs' effectiveness on kickoffs, on which he has been so dangerous over the years, returning an NFL-record eight for scores since entering the NFL in 2005. One strategy that teams employed: kicking short, forcing Cribbs to catch the ball further upfield.

The Browns might welcome such kicks this season, what with the kickoff line of scrimmage moved to the 35-yard-line. Teams with kickers boasting strong legs might be inclined to try to pin Cribbs in the endzone and leave him to make a split-second decision on whether to take the ball out.

Whether Cribbs can bounce back after a disappointing 2010 season and thrive in spite of a rule that could make it more difficult for him to be a game-breaker on kickoffs is a story line to watch. There is also the question of how he'll fit in head coach Pat Shurmur's offense. He had a limited impact as a wide receiver in former coordinator Brian Daboll's scheme, with his biggest contribution taking direct snaps from center in the Wildcat-style "Flash" package.

Cribbs has been one of the Browns' most important players in recent seasons. They haven't had anyone else whom opponents have feared. Shurmur, who will be his own offensive coordinator, needs to find a way to get the ball into Cribbs' hands.

And Cribbs, for his part, needs to find a way to contribute on offense. Shurmur's scheme figures to be more WR-friendly than Daboll's attack. Catching 30-40 passes is a reasonable goal for Cribbs.

No one could reasonably say Cribbs is not one of the league's best returners. The NFL's special-teams coaches would laugh any suggestion otherwise. That said, he's one of the league's most well-compensated returners, and expectations are higher for him.

This is a big season for Josh Cribbs. How he adjusts to the Browns' offensive scheme change and a major special-teams rules change bears watching.

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