FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Before, the words were too often the focus. They got the attention, as Antonio Cromartie allowed himself to say outlandish things, to trash talk, to insult, say, an opposing quarterback. He would open his mouth and, suddenly, it was hard to remember what he had accomplished on the field.
And while he could be relied upon to consistently fill a reporter’s notebook, he was inconsistent in the place it mattered more. The skills were there. The size and strength and football acumen. It just wasn’t quite working, at least not as well as it should.
The words haven’t stopped now. The Jets cornerback, in fact, spent nearly three-quarters of an hour with a crowd in front of his locker Wednesday. But it’s his words to his teammates — and righting a defensive backfield that could have been devastated by the loss of Darrelle Revis — that are making more of an impact now.
Instead of a debacle, the Jets have found in Cromartie a cornerback nearly as good as the one they lost.
“He’s always talking,” said veteran safety Yeremiah Bell. “He watches so much film and he knows so much, so we’ll be in the middle of a play [in practice] and he’ll be like, ‘YB, watch this.’
“It just helps everybody else around because it brings our awareness up. Without him doing that, then we’re kind of just playing. But he gives us that extra, just something to look for.”
He counsels them, teaches them, talks to them. It’s something that has become notable in the meeting room, as Cromartie shares the fruits of those hours of film study, the benefits of being able to break down tape in ways that other players don’t always have the ability to do.
“It’s for everybody,” Bell said. “You can tell he loves doing that, that he loves breaking down the film, trying to see teams, how they’re trying to attack and things like that. But I think especially since Reve went down, he’s probably watched a little bit more.”
He has taken more upon himself, to help out his teammates, to help out his team. And while he did all that before Revis went down — felled by a torn ACL in Week 3— it has more gravity as a good player has approached greatness and a secondary that looked ticketed for trouble has not found it.
“He hasn’t become a different person, because he has always been vocal in that room,” said defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. “I think what he has realized is, if I’m going to have any credibility in this room, I have to be playing well.
“He has done that. He has played some of his best football since Darrelle went down.”
It starts as soon as Wednesday, after the Jets’ day off. With most of the team just starting to look at the upcoming opponent, Cromartie already has his mind wrapped around it, the plays and tendencies and information leaping off the screen at him.
As Bell said, “I’ve only played with one other guy who breaks down film like Cromartie does, and that was [former Dolphins linebacker] Zach Thomas. He was a big film guy, could break it down easy.
“It’s almost like they have a knack for it. Like, I study and almost all the guys study, but it’s almost like they see it in a different way. It just comes like natural to them.”
Pettine points out that there is a difference between watching film and studying film, a trap that less-experienced players can fall into. The question, always, is what they have learned from it, what they have taken from it that they didn’t know before.
“I see him being more vocal with his teammates, talking, bringing them into the film room,” said head coach Rex Ryan. “He’s a guy that studies the game. He always has since we’ve been here. He really prides himself on knowing the opponent, but he’s sharing that as well with the younger players.”
Said Pettine, “You have guys who are filling up notebooks with information. I think Cro is one of the best at that and I think that’s one of the ways he has had a positive impact on that group.”
He watches. He learns. He picks out things that others often can’t.
“He’s very detail-oriented,” Pettine said. “He’s very perceptive. He sees the little things that an offense does. He just has the ability to process a lot of the information as opposed to just watching a play and thinking in general terms of it.
“He can get very graduate level. I think it has rubbed off on the rest of the group.”
Cromartie points to that detail as the reason for both his success with film and his failures. It’s needed to understand offenses, to be able to counter them and read them and see what the quarterback is seeing. It also gets in the way.
“What hurt me last year was I paid attention to too much detail, rather than just the detail itself,” Cromartie said. “I tried to be perfect on everything, knowing that you can’t be perfect on everything. I think this year is more so about just going out there and playing football. Not trying to be perfect. Just going out and playing football the best way I know how.”
So what changed? What made him see what he needed to do — and what was too much?
“I couldn’t even tell you,” Cromartie said. “It just clicked for me, to be honest.”
It is clicking for the defensive backfield as a unit, as well, as guys like Kyle Wilson and Ellis Lankster have taken on more responsibility and seen more time. It’s something that, despite Revis’s presence for every game of 2011, wasn’t always there.
There was, Cromartie said, a lack of trust among the defensive backs.
“I think one of the things last year that beat us is we wasn’t never on the same page on the back end, even with having Darrelle in the secondary,” Cromartie said. “I think we never communicated the right way.”
They are able to do that this year, because they have taken on a new pair of safeties. Though it might seem counterintuitive, the new players helped with communication, helped build trust.
“I think the corners realized that we were new at safety,” Pettine said. “The corners knew the system better than the safeties did. I think as a group they realized they can’t depend on the safeties, not for any other reason than they’re new in the system.
“I think the defensive backs, as a group, have really taken it upon themselves and the communication has become a lot more two-way than one-way.”
The corners are taking control. And that starts with Cromartie.
“There’s a bigger trust within our group to understand that that guy’s going to be there and understand that if we end up making a mistake that guy’s also going to protect us on the back end,” Cromartie said.
“When every guy is out there doing their job and knowing where every guy is supposed to be, it makes things a whole lot easier. And you can play a whole lot faster.”
Just what they hoped for
For just about any other team in the league, losing Revis would have been catastrophic.
And that’s not to say that it wasn’t for the Jets. Revis is a vocal leader in the locker room and perhaps the best defensive player in the league. He is a truly dominant corner in a defense that demands one.
But somehow, at exactly the right time, Cromartie found what his coaches had been seeking, started pushing himself when it mattered, started practicing at game tempo. He found the results that had been locked in a body with the size and athleticism and talent to do the things that Revis could.
The void is there. But it’s not as big as it could have been. Not nearly.
“Especially since Revis went down, he really took over that role of being that shutdown guy,” Bell said. “I think he always saw himself that way, but since Revis went down, he took it to another level.”
It was an opportunity, and Cromartie took advantage. He has become the cornerback that the Jets hoped for when they acquired him from San Diego in 2010 for a second-round pick, as the team built a secondary with an eye on countering New England.
Cromartie has three interceptions on the season, returning one for a touchdown. He had two touchdown returns last Sunday against the Colts called back by penalties, though one of the interceptions was allowed to stand.
“When you look at it, he’s probably playing better than any corner in the league right now,” Ryan said. “Obviously we knew that we had a great player in Antonio Cromartie, but now he is the guy that has to take the tough down, and he’s doing a good job for us.”
And he is making things easier on his teammates, by sharing his insights from his film, by making sure they’re communicating, by doing the nearly impossible: making the loss of Revis tolerable.
“Honestly, I’m just trying to make sure I do my job and make sure the other young guys are doing theirs,” Cromartie said. “If you call that leadership, I guess. I just think it’s part of the job.”