In a southwestern suburb of Cleveland, Ohio exists a sprawling brick colonial. A little over 5,000 square feet, the estate greets you with a two-story grand foyer where chocolate dark wood meets crisp white pillars, both of which lead to a giant staircase. Immediately to your right is a front room typical of most large, newly constructed homes—relatively unused, pristine with pops of cardinal red paint on the walls and monochrome furnishings that ooze minimalism. The rest of the home provides a palatial experience with each additional step thanks to a 400-square foot, two-story great room complete with a marble-enclosed fireplace; a library-ready office with rich wood built-in shelving and just enough character thanks to the tray ceilings; and a saltwater aquarium that would made Deuce Bigalow do a double-take. The landscaping could use some work, but hey—it’s April.
Joshua Cribbs owns multiple NFL records. The long-time Browns return man owns a house—more specifically, this house. Yet, he has no home.
Cribbs’ career comes storybook ready. A hard-nosed kid from the Washington DC area who improved his toughness by playing tackle footballwith his older brother—on concrete— took a scholarship from a mid-major Division I university in rural Ohio. He would become a footnote in 2002’s National Championship season as the Buckeyes would dismantle his Golden Flashes in early September; it was Cribbs who the vaunted Scarlet and Grey defense would focus on given his talent level and ability to run. Though the David Flashes lost to the Goliath Buckeyes, Cribbs—fresh off of his freshman campaign where he became the first Division I-A freshman quarterback to pass and run for more than 1,000 yards in a season—ran for 94 yards in addition to his 160 yards passing. It was far from a marquee outing, representing more of a stepping stone for Jim Tressel and company, but it was one that allowed Cribbs’ name to ascend up through the fireside discussions of local football fans.
Eleven years later, after amassing three Pro Bowls and two All-Pro nods through along his eight-year, loss-filled journey with the Cleveland Browns, the former undrafted free agent is once again in similar peril. The only difference is that Cribbs will soon turn 30 years of age and has a skill set that has declined in terms of demand. Cribbs is electric in every way—fans love him, teammates love him; he is a threat to make a play every time he touches the football and a glorious battering ram any time he is deployed on kick coverage. But as the pages on the calendar turn, more and more players with Cribbs’ focused and specialized tools enter into the mix. It seems like just yesterday that Cribbs started his parade of autograph sessions, adding “NFL Record 8 KO Returns” to the scribbles that represented his name. That record has since been tied by the diminutive Leon Washington, but Cribbs’ name still stands in the record books. For now, anyway.
Washington, who was also a free agent heading into this spring, has since signed on with the New England Patriots. Unlike Cribbs, Washington has been forced to bounce around the league, making stops in New York and Seattle prior to falling into the hands of Bill Belichick. Washington signed a one-year deal with the Pats, one that included a mere $360,000 as a signing bonus and $300,000 available only through incentives. Cribbs, who said that he would have been willing to take a “hometown discount” if the new Browns regime was interested in his services, just reached the end of a deal that was famously re-worked after the affable return man staged a bit of an impasse with former team president Mike Holmgren. After being offered a $1.4 million deal, Cribbs cleaned out his locker and took to every outlet that would listen, leveraging his popularity with the fans against a team in dire need of playmakers. “It’s like I’ve been betrayed and stabbed in the back,” he stated.
On March 5, 2010, Cribbs re-signed with the Browns to the tune of three years and $20 million.
If this was the base from where the hometown discount would be applied, it’s easy to see why Cribbs is still a free agent. Following a heartfelt goodbye through his ever-growing use of social media, Cribbs began looking for a suitor. The Patriots were one of the teams which expressed initial interest in obtaining Cribbs’ acumen. As were the Giants and 49ers and Cowboys and Cardinals. The Pats were the front-runners, but—laced with a bit of irony—opted to sign Washington. The Arizona Cardinals soon waltzed into the mix. It appeared that a deal with the Cards was all but inked until word of a failed physical leaked out of the desert. Arizona has since drafted the much-maligned (but very electric) Tyrann Mathieu. Cardinals general manager Steve Kelm has all but made it official that the team is no longer interested in Cribbs.
Local interest in Cribbs is understandable. Last summer, it was Cribbs who commissioned a charter to Omaha, Nebraska so that fans could cheer on the Golden Flashes in the College World Series. Earlier this month, Cribbs escorted a local teen to her senior prom despite his Cleveland-based contractual obligations being over. Several other instances of Cribbs attending functions, giving back and merely being out amongst the people undoubtedly occurred in between. It is for these reasons, and many more rooted in on-field theatrics, that many hope that Cribbs will one day make his way back to Cleveland and retire with the orange helmet being the last one to protect his dread lock-covered head.
Joshua Cribbs’ house is presently on the market. Of the four comparative castles for sale on his street, his is presently priced the highest, real estate symbolism at its finest. Still, Cribbs and his wife are asking for roughly $75,000 less than they had purchased it for back in 2004 when Josh signed on with the Browns—a hometown discount, but one based more in regional economics than regional altruism. Soon, someone else will be enjoying the luxuries of the expansive walk-out basement and smoked glass within the master bathroom. Soon, a new set of children will be frolicking about the mutli-tiered wooden swingset that is confined within the tree-lined back yard. And soon, Cribbs will find a new domicile, in a domain yet to be determined. The size and building supplies may vary, as will the climate and clientele. But before the 29-year-old and his family descend upon a new house, he has to find a new home.
Market-based pricing can be a sobering experience. The more you look at the cabinets in Cribbs’ home, the more they resemble the dated nature of a 30-year-old special teams star. No one likes to be told that they’re not worth as much as once assumed. Unfortunately for Cribbs, whether due to injuries or NFL rule changes, it appears that his hometown discount will have to become one of league-wide proportions.
Photo: John Kuntz/Plain Dealer