It might appear as if fans sitting at Soldier Field Sunday for the game between the Browns and Chicago Bears are watching a tennis match.
If returners extraordinaire Joshua Cribbs of the Browns and Devin Hester of the Bears are on top of their games, heads will be turning left and right as if it's center-court action at Wimbledon.
Cribbs and Hester are arguably the best at what they do in the NFL. Cribbs has been giving opponents fits since 2005 on punt and kick returns, while Hester's darting moves have been lethal to the opposition since he entered the NFL with a huge rookie season in 2006.
In his career, Cribbs has returned six kicks and two punts for touchdowns. He began this season with a career average of 26.4 yards on kick returns and 10.6 on punt returns.
Hester, who's used more on punt returns, had four kick returns for touchdowns and seven punt returns for touchdowns entering the season. While Cribbs has scored on one punt and one kick return this year, Hester has yet to reach the end zone in the return game.
There's definitely mutual admiration between the players.
"Everything about his play is inspirational to me," Cribbs said. "He's knocked down a lot of doors for the return game and special team players and is now becoming an outstanding offensive player. He's letting coaches know that special teams players can be core players."
Hester broke down one door that Cribbs would like to walk through. After a brief holdout in 2008, Hester signed a contract extension through the 2013 season that could pay him as much as $40 million. Cribbs is stuck in the third year of a six-year deal that will pay him a total of $6.7 million.
If you're J.R. Rickert, the agent representing Cribbs, those contract numbers don't seem fair. Rickett has been talking to Browns' negotiators about a new contract, but nothing seems ready to break at this time.
"They gave him a nice contract, and that allowed his organization to use him and say, 'We have to spend time and develop him as a receiver and make it happen,' and they have," Cribbs said. "They've done a great job of finding ways to get him the football. When a team spends money on a player, it's an investment. They've been real patient with him, and it's paid off."
There are a couple of differences between Cribbs and Hester. Cribbs was an undrafted rookie in 2005 out of Kent State. Hester was selected in the second round of the draft out of the University of Miami.
Another major difference is Hester's value on offense. He began his NFL career as a defensive back, but coach Lovie Smith converted him to receiver in 2007.
Hester has 127 career receptions for 1,710 yards and eight touchdowns. He leads the Bears this season in receptions (28), receiving yards (373) and receiving touchdowns (three).
"To start a new position at the highest level of football you can imagine in the NFL is tough," Hester said. "Just learning the basics of receiver is a challenge. It's just repetition in practice. The more repetition, the better you become."
Once Smith got an up-close look at Hester's return skills, it was a no-brainer to test him at receiver.
"It's good to be a great returner, but that limits you as far as the amount of plays you have," Smith said. "He did play some wide receiver in college, so I think it's a natural move."
Romeo Crennel, the Browns coach when Cribbs made the roster, always talked about making more use of Cribbs as a receiver, but he seldom followed through on the plan. Cribbs had one reception in 2005, 10 in 2006, three in 2007 and two last season.
New coach Eric Mangini has made a concerted effort to deploy Cribbs on offense, but the results have been mixed 10 receptions for 38 yards. Cribbs lacks the straight-ahead speed that makes Hester valuable on offense, and he hasn't been able to establish himself as a possession receiver.
For now, Cribbs' primary value is as a returner. In that area he's second to none or maybe second to Hester.
"It's like a best-of-the-best," said Cribbs.