It was a Sunday night in November of 2007, and the defending Super Bowl champion Colts were in San Diego, one week after they lost their first game of the year to the undefeated New England Patriots. Peyton Manning doesn't take very well to losing, especially two games in a row, so a Colts victory over the 4-4 Chargers seemed like a sure thing.
Then, Cromartie stole the show. The second-year cornerback was filling in for the injured Quentin Jammer, and at point in his career, Cromartie he had just three interceptions. By the end of the night, he doubled that total.
Cromartie, who registered on most people's radar a week earlier by returning a field goal 109 yards for a touchdown, was everywhere that night. He picked off Manning just minuted after Darren Sproles had returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. He picked him off again before the first quarter ended. On the second play of the second quarter, he hauled in this one-handed interception.
Though the game was remembered as much for Adam Vinatieri's shank at the end of regulation, Cromartie became an instant star. He finished the season strong, even picking off Manning and Tom Brady in the playoffs.
Poised for a huge 2008 season, Cromartie's interception total dropped from 10 to two (though his tackles skyrocketed from 44 to 64, for whatever that's worth). Last year, he intercepted just three passes, and in the past two years combined, he's registered just one more pass defensed (19) than he had in 2007 (18).
The reasons could be many. It's well-known that he's battled his fair share of paternity suits and has a few marks on his record, which is always a distraction. There was the questionable coaching staff, with Norv Turner at the helm and Ted Cottrell, who was fired in the middle of the '08 season, leading the defense. There's also the fact that San Diego just didn't intercept many passes as a team. The leader in '08 was linebacker Stephen Cooper with four, and in '09 it was Cromartie and Jammer's three. That's what we know; there's likely tons more that we don't.
Basically, Cromartie was on the verge of superstardom, but for whatever reason, it didn't work out. Now in New York, he's in the perfect spot to get back there.
For one, Rex Ryan loves defense. Maybe he doesn't know when it's a bad time to flip someone the bird, and maybe he's not entirely sure how the playoff field is determined, but he knows what he's doing when it comes to defense. Handing Ryan a player like Cromartie for just a draft pick is like handing Ryan a cheeseburger for 25 cents. The guy is going to be happy about it.
"He has all the tools," the coach said at his Wednesday news conference. "We want him to be physical. He?s got these great long arms and strong hands, let?s use them. Let?s be more physical at the line. His ball skills are God-given. I don?t know how to describe him. I?ve never seen anything like that. Somebody is calling him a spider because he?s so long, he?s tall and he?s got those long arms. That?s why he gets all those interceptions. Don?t forget he can reach out six feet. He?s a rare guy."
Ryan will also tell you that Cromartie is already buying into the system.
"He wants to learn how to do things the Jet way," Ryan said.
Even more important than schemes, perhaps, is the fact that Cromartie won't have to be the best corner on his own team — assuming Darrelle Revis actually shows up to play. With Revis lined up on the opposing team's best receiver, Cromartie's job is instantly easier. Add in the fact that quarterbacks tend to dislike throwing the ball Revis' way, and Cromartie's chances for picks should increase dramatically.
Of course, that's a best-case scenario for Cromartie. Distractions won't go away in New York City, and in the NFL, there's no guarantee for success. Still, Cromartie is in the perfect position to once again become a premier corner. If he gets there is only up to him.