BEREA — Browns quarterback Derek Anderson claims he never looks at his statistics because they’re “garbage.”
Teammate Joshua Cribbs would beg to differ.
“I’m checking those numbers all the time,” the Pro Bowl special teamer said. “My guys are always out there blocking for me, laying their bodies on the line, trying their best to make big plays.
“I want to see how well I’m doing —how many yards and what kind of field position I’m getting —for them. (Knowing my averages) make me work even harder to be the best I can be.”
Cribbs’ quest for statistical success continues Sunday at Soldier Field, where Cleveland will attempt to get back in the win column against the Chicago Bears.
On the opposite sideline will be one of his role models and the only other legitimate candidate for the title of “best return man in pro football”: Devin Hester.
Hester is the lone NFL player with more kickoff/punt return touchdowns than Cribbs since he turned pro in 2005, taking 11 kicks to the house to Cribbs’ eight. He also has made the transition from full-time special teamer to starting wide receiver, which the Browns’ standout is in the process of doing.
“Everything about his play is an inspiration to me,” said Cribbs, who leads the league in return yardage with 1,018 this season.
“He’s knocked down a lot of doors for the return game, showing that special teams players become outstanding offensive players. He’s letting coaches know that (special) teams players can be core players.”
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Hester is coming off a career-best performance last week, when he had eight receptions for 101 yards in a loss to Cincinnati. That raised his season totals to 28 catches for 373 yards — both of which lead the Bears.
He also remains an electrifying punt returner, ranking sixth in the NFL with a 12.9-yard average, but has given up kickoff runback duties to save wear and tear on his relatively slight frame.
“Devin Hester is an exceptional athlete and obviously has played a lot of positions in his lifetime,” Cleveland cornerback Eric Wright said. “He’s definitely an explosive player and somebody that can change the game at any moment.”
The same, obviously, can be said of Cribbs, who leads the NFL with a 16.4-yard punt return average. He also ranks fourth in kickoff return average at 28.9, highlighted by his league record-tying sixth touchdown (he shares the mark with Mel Gray, Dante Hall, Ollie Matson, Gale Sayers and Travis Williams).
“Just like we talk about Devin, when Josh gets his hands on the football, a lot of good things can happen,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “We will be conscious of where he is on the field all day.”
Cribbs, in turn, will be conscious of Hester’s ongoing pursuit of the most coveted NFL record for special teamers.
Brian Mitchell amassed 13 total kickoff/punt returns for scores, while Eric Metcalf and Dante Hall both reached the end zone 12 times. Hester has 11 and often speaks of his desire to eclipse Mitchell’s mark.
“I’m chasing the same goal,” said Cribbs, who owns eight return touchdowns. “I grew up watching Brian Mitchell return kicks and play running back. That’s one of my idols in the NFL.”
So is Hester, which is why fans shouldn’t change the channel whenever the Browns or Bears send their punters on the field. When two of the most electrifying athletes in the sport get going, anything can happen.
“With him on the other side, it’s like a best-of-the-best (matchup),” Cribbs said. “He’s an awesome returner. I’m trying to chase him because his stats, scoring-wise, is above mine, but it’s gonna be fun. I’m looking forward to seeing how it happens.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.