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By Tom Withers | Associated Press
BEREA -- Kickoffs have defined Josh Cribbs' career in the NFL, and made him an invaluable weapon for the Cleveland Browns.
So the thought of the league abolishing the exciting play irritates the return specialist.
"They need to call it a different league if they do that," Cribbs said. "It'll change the game drastically."
Earlier this week, Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league's competition committee will consider eliminating kickoffs in the offseason. In an effort to reduce head injuries and protect players, the league previously moved the kickoff from the 30 to 35-yard line to cut down on violent collisions.
Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano has suggested that instead of kickoffs, teams would have the option of punting from the 30-yard line and going for a first down in a fourth-and-15 situation. While he coached at Rutgers, Schiano witnessed one of his players, Eric LeGrand, get paralyzed on a kickoff in 2010.
Goodell has called Schiano's idea "interesting."
Browns kicker Phil Dawson believes it's illogical.
"I'm all for player safety," said Dawson, in his 14th season with Cleveland. "I do think the NFL has done a good job in the past -- like with the wedge rule. This suggestion doesn't add up. It doesn't address what they say the dangers are because punts are just as violent. There aren't going to be any touchbacks. How many times have you seen a punt returner waiting for the ball to come down and the gunner just kills him?
"It doesn't make sense to me."
Cribbs, who shares the league record (8) for kickoff return touchdowns with Seattle's Leon Washington, can't envision the game he has played since he was a kid not having kickoffs.
"I couldn't ever see that," said Cribbs, sixth on the career kickoff yardage list. "That's like taking the goal post out of the stadium, taking the whole post and uprooting it. Only play offense and defense, just like intramurals. Then play indoors and put flags in our pants."
Dawson believes recent rules changes like banning the blocking wedge, moving the kickoff up five yards and limiting the number of players that can line up on one side of the ball for an onside kick, have lessened the number of violent collisions in games.
However, there are plenty of other plays when hard hits are common. He cited punts as a prime example.
"When the ball is 50 yards down the field, guys are running full speed and you get a lot of cross blocks and guys getting knocked out," Dawson said. "I still wouldn't say it's any more dangerous than any other play. I watch wide receivers get concussions each and every week in the NFL, yet we're going to pick on kickoffs? That doesn't add up to me."
Dawson said taking away the kickoff -- and it's only a suggestion at this point -- would also remove other elements that help make pro football special.
"There is so much scheming, personnel matchups, strategy that goes into each and every kickoff that people will never understand," he said. "All they see is a guy run and kick the ball. But there's a lot that goes into it and it would be a shame to see that much thought be removed from the game.
"And hey, I'm probably someone who would benefit from this rule, so I don't have a vested interest. I'm known as a field-goal guy, so if anything it would help me, so I'm not saying this because I'm mad, I'm a kicker and I'm going to lose. I don't think this suggestion makes sense."
The argument that taking away kickoffs would cost players jobs isn't a sound one, Dawson said. Most teams use the same players to cover punts and kickoffs and only two teams have kickoff specialists.
For both Cribbs and Dawson, the kickoff is as much a part of pro football as the handoff or forward pass. It is engrained in the sport's deepest roots.
"From when I was a little kid I dreamed about having the opening kickoff in the Super Bowl and all the flashbulbs go off," he said. "I want to be that guy. There's so much that can be accomplished on that play for both sides. To think a guy like Josh Cribbs wouldn't have the opportunity to have the career he's had because of all the excitement he's brought the game.
"I can remember Desmond Howard returning a kick for a touchdown in the Super Bowl and what a game-changing play that was."
Cribbs also applauds the NFL's efforts to make the game safer, but thinks it's becoming too muted. Stripping away the kickoff would make things worse.
"It's getting to be too much of an entertainment business instead of a sport," he said. "I know it's a sport and entertainment and there's a lot of revenue involved, but it'd be straight entertainment and no sports. We won't even be on NFL Network, we'll be on MTV.
"It'd be a made-up sport."
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