- Rich Cimini, ESPN New York Jets reporter
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CORTLAND, N.Y. -- The New York Jets like to believe they're building a dominant secondary. At the same time, an archipelago is forming in their defensive backfield.
On one side, there's Revis Island -- assuming cornerback Darrelle Revis ends his holdout. At the other corner, there's Alcrotraz.
"You can't escape Alcrotraz," Antonio Cromartie told ESPNNewYork.com.
Cromartie figured the secondary is big enough for two monikers, so he decided to create his own. A Twitter follower suggested "Alcrotraz," and he went with it. He's planning to market the nickname, with T-shirts due out in a few weeks.
New identity, fresh start.
After a bitter divorce from the San Diego Chargers, with whom he went from All-Pro to problem child in two years, Cromartie is hoping to resurrect his career with the Jets. Healthy again and comfortable in Rex Ryan's man-to-man scheme, he wants to be the cornerback who terrorized opponents with 10 interceptions in 2007.
Cromartie also wants to clean up his off-the-field image, which has taken a beating because of his well-documented paternity issues. In March, at the time of the trade, he admitted to fathering seven children with six women. The Jets gave him a $500,000 salary advance for outstanding child-support payments.
Still only 26, Cromartie has acknowledged that he's made "wrong decisions," but he's trying to show more maturity. On July 2, he married Terricka Cason, who starred on E!'s reality soap "Candy Girls." Three months ago, Cason gave birth to Cromartie's eighth child, Jerzie.
"Marriage makes me think more of my family and providing for my family," Cromartie said. "I'm not just playing for me. ... I have a great, supporting wife. She's by my side, day in, day out. I've learned that you need a supporting cast in life."
Cromartie said he's settling down. That, no doubt, will prompt some snickers. Is it lip service? Only time will tell.
For now, Cromartie is impressing on the field, dazzling his new teammates and coaches with his raw athleticism. He received the ultimate compliment from the defensive coaches, when he was moved to left corner, Revis' position. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery called Cromartie "a freak of nature," with Ryan adding, "If you think you're open, don't forget he's got arms that are about 6 feet long."
It's hard to find a 6-foot-2 cornerback with blazing speed. After 2007, Cromartie looked like he was on the fast track to Canton, but his play slipped in 2008 because of a fractured hip -- only two interceptions. He played through the injury, which hampered his ability to turn and open his hips, especially to the right side. A cornerback with a bad hip is like a quarterback with a sore arm.
Cromartie followed with another lackluster season in 2009, recording only three interceptions. He blamed it on the Chargers' shift to a zone-oriented defense. People close to the Chargers said he became disinterested and lacked toughness, sealing his departure with his infamous "Matador" tackle on the Jets' Shonn Greene in last season's playoffs.
Former Chargers defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who coached Cromartie in his '07 breakout season, believes the Jets got a steal with the trade. In fact, they consulted him before pulling the trigger, trying to determine why Cromartie's career had gone south.
"The X-factor was him respecting who he's working with," Cottrell told ESPNNewYork.com. "He's like a lot of players. Some guys won't show it or say it, but he's not afraid to. He's got to respect you. That's the way God made him.
"The main thing is being straight up with him. Rex has the right type of demeanor. There's not going to be any problem. Don't B.S. him. Don't try to sugarcoat it."
Cottrell was asked about Cromartie's physical talent. The old coach laughed.
"He is, without a doubt, one of the finest athletes I've ever been around," said Cottrell, who coached Hall of Famer Bruce Smith with the Buffalo Bills. "He could probably be a Pro Bowl receiver."
Said Jets secondary coach Dennis Thurman: "If he plays the way we think he can play, look out."
The other day, Cromartie said he and Revis have the potential to be one of the greatest cornerback tandems in history. Without a doubt, the scheme is right for him. He likes the challenge of jamming a receiver at the line and playing man-to-man, claiming the Chargers' zone scheme drained his aggressiveness.
There are whispers that Cromartie's hip still is an issue. Actually, his "good" hip became fatigued in minicamp, prompting some rest. But if healthy, and motivated, he could return to his '07 form. He already has a catchy nickname.
Escape from Alcrotraz? Not on his watch.
Cromartie says he is a changed man, but the Jets hope he's not a changed player.