No disrespect to all-pro left tackle Joe Thomas, but all eyes were on kick returner Josh Cribbs and kicker Phil Dawson for Cleveland Browns fans last night. The reason being last night may have been the last time these long-time Browns players represent Cleveland in a game. Sure, the Pro Bowl may be a meaningless game, but last night was possibly the last time fans could cheer on these savvy veterans who become unrestricted free agents in March.
Phil Dawson has been a member of the Browns since the 1999 season, his rookie campaign and the year the Browns returned to the NFL. Dawson is second on the Browns’ all-time scoring list behind Lou Groza (1,349) and will have the opportunity to break the record if he returns for a 15th season in Cleveland. But the return of the Pro-Bowl kicker is in question, especially since the team has slapped the franchise tag on him each of the last two seasons. Dawson deserves a new contract, given his amazing accuracy this season, connecting on 29 of 31 field goal attempts (93.5 percent). He was easily the most reliable part of the Browns offense last season, nailing all seven of his field goal attempts beyond 50 yards despite kicking on an unforgivable playing surface. Dawson hit all five of his PAT’s last night; if the Browns are wise this will not be the last time he boots a kick for Cleveland.
Josh Cribbs has also spent his entire career with the Browns, breaking into the league with Cleveland in 2005. Last night was his third Pro-Bowl appearance and he was able to have a major impact on the game for the AFC. Cribbs returned three kickoffs for a whopping 80 yards and also caught three passes for 56 yards, including a four-yard touchdown reception. Cribbs may be easier to let go for the Browns than Dawson, given rookie Travis Benjamin is waiting in the whims to replace Cribbs.
Benjamin appears to be a younger version of Cribbs as he is a speedy wide receiver who displayed immense ability as a kick and punt returner in the few opportunities he was given. Benjamin returned three punts for 149 yards, including running a punt 93 yards back to the house, the longest punt return for a touchdown in Browns history. On kickoff returns, he accumulated 76 yards on three kickoffs. Benjamin was mostly used as a third down receiver, similar to the role Cribbs has had as a receiver for the Browns, catching 18 passes for 298 yards and two touchdowns. He carried the ball six times in the option offense, rushing for 66 yards.
It may be time to let Cribbs go if the two sides cannot agree on a reasonable contract. Still, it will be tough to let go of man who has embraced the city of Cleveland and the Browns franchise as much as anyone over his eight year tenure. His NFL record eight punt returns for touchdowns will also make it difficult if the Browns opt to part ways with Cribbs.