Antonio Cromartie has plenty of doubters.
The 27-year-old New York Jets cornerback has always been able to get by with his physical gifts alone when he’s out there on the field.
In 2007, as a member of the San Diego Chargers, he led the league with 10 interceptions in just his second year in the league. That year he was named to the Pro Bowl and was a first-team All-Pro.
But the mercurial Cromartie soon wore out his welcome with teammates and coaches, culminating in a trade to New York in 2010 in an attempt to revitalize his career.
Under head coach Rex Ryan and his position coach Dennis Thurman, something has started to click with Cromartie here in his second year in the system, and his coaches are taking notice.
“For 5½ years, I did it on physical talent,” Cromartie admitted to Thurman. “I see why I need to do more.”
Jenny Vrentas of the Star-Ledger reported this week about some of the specific techniques the Jets coaching staff has done over the past two seasons to help the physically gifted Cromartie reach his full potential.
“He decided that he was going to be a great player, and I think that’s what it is,” said Ryan. ”He’s got as much God-given ability as any corner I’ve ever been around.”
With Darrelle Revis on the other side of the field, Cromartie gives the Jets an element that few teams have, the ability to effectively shut down an opponent’s two best receivers.
“When he’s playing at a high level,” Ryan said. “our defense plays at a high level.”
The maddening part is that Cromartie has struggled in the past to stay consistent when he’s playing at a high level.
There’s always been an element of “Jekyll and Hyde” with his play. There have been instances in which Cromartie has made a mistake, and then been unable to prevent that from snowballing into a series of mistakes.
But over the last few weeks, with the Jets fighting with their backs against the wall, he’s found a way to minimize those mistakes. Cromartie has played like a true shut-down corner, playing his best football in years.
“He’s responded, I think, to the situation,” said defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “He’s been challenged by me, by Dennis Thurman, by Rex. He’s a prideful guy, and he wants to succeed.”
Amazingly, had it not been for the Jets’ Week 15 opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, Cromartie’s Jets career likely would’ve ended after just one season.
In August, the Jets heavily pursued free agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. According to many, the two sides nearly agreed to terms on a long-term contract, but it never materialized.
Instead, the Eagles swooped in and signed Asomugha, and the Jets instead re-signed Cromartie to a four-year, $32 million deal.
Some said that he wouldn’t be worth the money, or the trouble. But now the Jets could not be happier with their choice to commit to him on a long-term deal.
“There are doubters every day,” Cromartie said. “My job is to prove doubters wrong, and try to help this team and this organization get to the big game, and that’s the Super Bowl.”
Nobody knows how different things would be if Asomugha had chosen the Jets over the Eagles and Cromartie had signed elsewhere. Right now, it’s a moot point.
Being opposite the game’s best in Revis definitely makes his job easier, but Rex Ryan was quick to point out that Cromartie is slouch himself.
“I think Cromartie’s a number 1 corner, anyway,” Ryan said. “I think he has that ability. He’s a great player in his own right.”
At age 27, finally grasping the full scope of his responsibilities as a player, the Jets believe he’s only scratched the surface of what he’s capable of.
“It’s like he’s coming out of his cocoon, which is kind of scary,” Thurman said. “If he continues to work at his game, and he continues to want to improve… with his athletic ability and his physical talent, really the sky is the limit.”
Sunday, Cromartie will get a chance to prove himself against Asomugha head-to-head for the first time since the two were division rivals in the AFC West from 2006 to 2009.
While they may not actually go up against each other, their respective performances will definitely be a storyline to watch. The Jets and Eagles kick off at 4:15 Sunday in Philadelphia.