Frightening hit gave Cribbs sense of urgency

Cribbs is carried on a backboard after suffering an injury against the Ravens

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Clarity and urgency converged for Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Cribbs during one of his most vulnerable moments.

On the final play of an already decided Week 10 game in an already decided season, Cribbs was fiercely flattened by Baltimore Ravens defensive end Dwan Edwards(notes) and carefully strapped onto a stretcher by eight Browns staffers.

"I thought my neck was broke," Cribbs said Thursday following the AFC's practice in preparation for Sunday's Pro Bowl. "They didn't want me to move, and I got carried off the field.

"I thought I was done. That put things in perspective for me."

After only a few hours, Cribbs checked out of a Cleveland hospital and checked in with his agents.

"I said, 'I need to get this deal done,' " Cribbs said, " 'because I'm out here playing my tail off and putting my life on the line for the team, and they don't give me much in return.' "

Undrafted out of Kent State in 2005, Cribbs signed a reported six-year, $6.77 million contract with the Browns late in the 2006 season. Yet in five seasons, he has been a two-time Pro Bowl selection and a two-time Pro Bowl alternate while establishing himself as one of the league's most versatile players.

Second on the team with six touchdowns, Cribbs is a threat to run and catch the ball in addition to returning kickoffs and punts. This season, he was tied for third in the league on kickoff returns (27.5-yard average, three touchdowns) and tied for fourth on punt returns (11.9-yard average, one touchdown).

Key club executives promised Cribbs a new contract, but he threatened never to play for the Browns again when they offered him a new deal that averaged $1.4 million – about $4 million less than Chicago's Devin Hester(notes) – following the season.

But the Browns hired Mike Holmgren as the team's president, a move that has encouraged Cribbs.

"Holmgren came in and made a lot of changes; the offer that was made to me was made by people who are no longer there," said Cribbs, voted team MVP in 2009. "Holmgren reached out to my people and said he was going to right the ship and make it right.

"I'm going to give him a clean slate, give him the benefit of the doubt, until he gives me a reason not to."

Forgive Cribbs for his skepticism; this is the third regime to tell him a new deal was in the offing.

While he played in all 16 games (he's missed just three in five seasons), Cribbs said that hit against the Ravens, with the Browns trailing 16-0, scared him straight. He basically played for the league minimum his first two seasons, and his last extension included $2 million in guarantees – a modest amount for a player with his credentials.

By contrast, Andre' Davis(notes) received a four-year, $16 million contract from the Houston Texans which included $8 million in guarantees after he finished the 2007 season second in the NFL in kickoff return average … behind Cribbs. In the two seasons since, Davis hasn't scored a touchdown. Cribbs has scored nine.

"I can't get a break," Cribbs said. "I feel like, when you produce at a high level, you get rewarded for it, and I'm still getting paid well below everyone else at my position who are doing [less] than me.

"It's been frustrating when it's something that should be evident. So I'm getting to see the business side of the NFL, which is not a good side that I want to see. I guess I have to speak up for myself, and the time is now."

In fact, he doesn't want his agents, John Rickert and Peter Schaffer, to give him blow-by-blow updates.

"I try to stay out of it as much as possible because I do get frustrated," he said.

As for the blow he endured against the Ravens, Cribbs said he doesn't second-guess Eric Mangini for leaving him in the game even though the head coach did just that afterward.

"In retrospect, I would probably do it differently if I had to do it again," Mangini said at the time.

Asked if he wanted to be on the field for that final play, although the Ravens had the game won, Cribbs said: "I did.

"I'm a competitor. That's the coach's decision, why I'm out there. But I'm a player so I'm going to play."

Cribbs' contract status has drained him and tormented him, and he's endured a franchise with nine wins in the past two seasons.

"I've said, 'Forget it, I'm done. I've had enough.' But the fan base there is so phenomenal," said Cribbs, 26. "The way I'm treated at stores, restaurants and clubs, the fan support is phenomenal. That's a big reason I play the way I do, and the reason I want to stay in Cleveland.

"I'm optimistic."

Sean Jensen covers the NFL for the Chicago Sun-Times