NAPA — It began to dawn on Josh Cribbs when he was an undrafted rookie with the Cleveland Browns: Even if he was accustomed to being an offensive star, he could make a nice living as a special-teams player in the NFL.
Cribbs’ special-teams coach at the time suggested he familiarize himself with the name Brian Mitchell. Mitchell, like Cribbs, was a college quarterback without the prototype NFL skill set. Mitchell had a 14-year career, primarily as a return specialist and special-teams player.
Cribbs recalled the exhibition game in which he raced downfield and made a tackle inside the 20-yard line.
“A guy who had returned kicks the previous year came up to me and said, ‘You mean you can tackle, too?’ ”
Cribbs said. “He was basically like, ‘Damn. I don’t have a chance.’ They released him. The more you can do, the more you have value to your team.”
Cribbs gets most of his publicity for his kickoff return skills — he shares the NFL record of eight returned for touchdowns with Leon Washington — but is involved in every part of special teams.
He brings to special teams what Charles Woodson brings to the defense — a veteran presence who has done it all, seen it all and is expected to not only make plays but also teach others how to make them.
Aside from returning kickoffs and punts and playing on coverage teams, Cribbs has become the upback or “personal protector” on the punt team. He has even worked recently as an emergency long snapper.
A record-setting quarterback at Kent State, Cribbs played some wide receiver and dabbled as a spread quarterback in Cleveland, all the time realizing that special teams paid the bills.
“I’ve seen all-time great players in this league come and go,” Cribbs said. “I’m hoping to make my 10th season next year. I won’t abandon special teams, and special teams won’t abandon me.”
Raiders coach Dennis Allen finds it appealing to have a player who isn’t looking to use special teams as a steppingstone for a starting position on offense or defense.
“He understands his role is as a special-teams player first, and he embraces that role,” Allen said.
Cribbs, 30, was released by the Browns following offseason knee surgery. He was a spectator through the Raiders’ offseason but has been a regular participant in practice during training camp and is still following the lead of Mitchell, even if the two have never met.
Mitchell, now a radio talk show host in Washington, D.C., finished his career with 23,316 all-purpose yards — second in the NFL to Jerry Rice (23,546 yards). He had 14,014 yards returning kicks and 4,999 yards returning punts, with the rest coming as a runner or receiver.
“People used to ask me if I was a starter and I’d say ‘Yes, I’m the starting return specialist for the Washington Redskins,’ ” said Mitchell, who also played for Philadelphia and the New York Giants. “People just don’t understand, and neither do a lot of players. I knew a lot of players were out of the game and making $50,000 while I was still playing and making $300,000.”
Cribbs freely counsels his teammates and at times will step up to the grease board and provide analysis at the behest of special-teams coach Bobby April.
With Raiders players having playbooks on iPads, it has given Cribbs an extra tool to dispense information.
“It seems like every other day he’s writing an email to the whole special-teams group to tell us something,” long snapper Jon Condo said. “His message is always, ‘If you’ve got questions, then ask. If you don’t want to reply to this email, talk to me after a meeting. Don’t be afraid to talk to me. Don’t be afraid to get better.’ “
Alex Barron worked as the first-team left tackle, and, with Mike Brisiel out for the third consecutive practice, Andre Gurode has been the first-team right guard.
As special teams player from a small college, Josh Cribbs has been compared to fellow Pro Bowler Brian Mitchell. Here’s a look at how the career statistics of Cribbs, a Kent State product, match up with those of Mitchell, who starred at Louisiana-Lafayette and played in the NFL from 1990-2003:
Cribbs Statistic Mitchell
8 NFL seasons 14
14,083 All-purpose yards 23,316
10,015 (8) Kickoff return yardage (touchdowns) 14,014 (4)
2,154 (3) Punt return yardage (touchdowns) 4,999 (9)
753 (2) Rushing (touchdowns) 1,967 (12)
1,161 (7) Receiving (touchdowns) 2,336 (4)
20 Total touchdowns 29