- Associated Press - Thursday, September 15, 2011

BEREA, OHIO (AP) - Two yards from being out of bounds, and 109 yards from scoring a touchdown, Josh Cribbs took a gamble that paid off for the Browns.

Next time, he might not be so daring.

After watching three straight kickoffs sail over his head for touchbacks in Cleveland’s home opener against Cincinnati on Sunday, Cribbs snagged the fourth one, a line drive to the deepest recesses of the end zone. Cribbs took a deep breath and took off, returning the kick 51 yards to the 43-yard line.

“We needed a spark,” Cribbs said. “We needed something to happen. I felt I could provide that for the team.”

Cribbs‘ gutsy return _ his initial one in the regular season under the NFL’s new kickoff rules _ did indeed fire up the Browns, who overcame a 13-0 deficit before losing 27-17 to the Bengals. Cribbs, the league’s career leader with eight kickoff return touchdowns, said the changes have altered the way he and other specialists will handle returns.

“Coaches want me to be smart, but make plays at the same time,” said Cribbs, who had three kick returns for 91 yards and six punt returns for 58. “Returners will juggle with that. It’s kind of a crapshoot. It’s a tough situation to be in, having to decide whether to be smart or try to make a play for your team.

“It’s almost 50-50.”

That was almost the ratio of touchbacks to kicks returned last week as 79 of 162 (49 percent) were not brought out of the end zone. Last season, only 18 percent (24 of 137) went for touchbacks on the opening weekend.

Cribbs has been highly critical of the league’s rule change, which was implemented for safety concerns. Cribbs argued that there isn’t statistical data to support the switch and he was certain there would be fewer scoring returns.

However, three were taken all the way back last week, matching the opening weekend mark set in 1970 and equaled in 1998.

When he wasn’t playing, Cribbs watched Week 1 games, paying particular attention to every kickoff. He noticed returners being more indecisive than usual. Some grabbed the ball and ran. Others hesitated, and many of them paid for it.

“I see a lot of returners getting themselves in trouble,” he said. “Guys are having some success, but guys are also getting themselves in trouble. You have to be smart and you have to factor in the hangtime of the kick. But, at the same time, guys are trying to make plays and it can either work out in their favor or against them.

“A lot of times, the majority, it’ll work out against them.”

Cribbs had no shot at the first three kickoffs by Cincinnati’s Mike Nugent, who had no problem kicking the ball high and out of the end zone. His fourth kick, though, was low enough for Cribbs to snatch and bring out. He broke a few tackles and put the Browns in good field position. Four plays later, they scored their first TD of the season.

Cribbs knew it was risky.

“It was about nine yards deep,” he said, “and it could’ve went either way.”

Browns coach Pat Shurmur wasn’t sure what to expect on the first weekend under the new kickoff rules. Now that he’s coached one game and watched highlights of a few, he’s convinced kickoffs could be even more adventurous as players test their limits _ and their coach’s patience.

There could be as many long returns as short ones.

Some coaches will encourage returners to take a chance. Some will tell them to take a knee.

“It almost looks like returners now are treating that back line like the goal line,” Shurmur said. “Returners in this league have great courage. They realize the opportunity to make a play, and so we’ll have to see. It’s going to take a couple more weeks to really see how that plays out. Josh obviously jump started us with his return. He’s a playmaker.”

And a risk taker.

Cribbs is unlikely to change too much about his return style. He has promised to choose the smart play over the sensational one _ for now. As badly as he would like to return kickoffs from one goal line to the other, Cribbs understands he must lower his expectations or risk disaster.

“My goal right now is just to get the ball to the 20 and go from there,” he said. “I hope every time I bring it out I get it out to the 40 or 50 or score, but at least to the 20.”

Notes: RT Tony Pashos will likely miss Sunday’s game in Indianapolis with an ankle injury. Offensive line coach George Warhop indicated it could be weeks before Pashos is back. Until Pashos returns, the club may continue to rotate Artis Hicks and Oneil Cousins but Shurmur would like to settle on one. … WR Mohamed Massaquoi said his hamstring is not an issue after being limited in Wednesday’s practice.


Tom Withers can be reached at https://twitter.com/twithersAP

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