Antonio Cromartie is one of the most athletically gifted players in the NFL.
Although he only started one year in college and was coming off a major knee injury, the Chargers took him with the 19th overall pick in the 2006 draft.
In 2007, the man they call "Cro" began to pay dividends. He recorded a team record 10 interceptions, highlighted by a three interception effort against Peyton Manning on Sunday night football in Cromartie's first career start.
Cromartie also proved to have a knack for finding the end zone. He scored on a fumbled snap and an interception return in one game against the Texans, and his 109 yard return of a missed field goal against the Vikings will live on in football infamy.
Expectations were high for Cromartie entering the 2008 season. Cromartie even publicly announced a goal of 15 interceptions.
Unfortunately, 2008 was nothing like 2007.
Cromartie finished the season with only two interceptions and had a notoriously bad game against wide receiver Brandon Marshall in Week Two. Fortunately, referee Ed Hoculi stole some of the attention.
Fans seemed to blame him for all of the teams poor pass defense. Even when Cromartie wasn't to blame, he was blamed.
For example, the quick-snap touchdown against the Colts in the playoffs.
That play was the fault of defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who tried to substitute players when the Colts did not substitute. When an offense substitutes players the defense is given time to do the same.
On TV Cromartie appeared lost on the play, when in fact he was looking to the sidelines for signals from the coaches.
Many Charger fans wanted Cromartie benched, calling his play horrible on Chargers message boards. There were even rumors in the offseason that Cromartie was on the trading block.
Taking a closer look, however, reveals that while Cromartie struggled at times, he wasn't nearly as bad as some think. In fact, in the second half of the season, Cromartie was again one of the leagues best, despite the fact that the Chargers still lacked an elite pass rush.
I reviewed every game from the '08 season and Cromartie simply wasn't as bad as many people believe. I believe that lofty expectations and one very bad game against the Broncos stuck to firmly in the minds of most fans.
In my review of the '08 season, Cromartie had one terrible game, which was really more of a terrible half, against the Broncos. Despite this, Cromartie only gave up one touchdown. Quarterback Jay Cutler threw three other touchdowns in that game, all in the middle of the field.
Cromartie had two other games that could be labeled below average—against the Panthers in Week One and the Chiefs in Week 10. Although Cromartie didn't play his best in those games, he did not give up any touchdowns.
On the year Cromartie only allowed three touchdowns. In Week Two to the Broncos, Week Three against the Jets (he also had two INT's), and Week 12 against the Colts—which was actually a communication breakdown between Cromartie and Antoine Cason.
Fellow corner Quentin Jammer actually allowed more touchdowns on the season—in Week Five against the Dolphins, the Bills in Week Six, the Chiefs in Week 10, the Chiefs in Week 15. Against the Buccaneers in Week 16, a communication breakdown between Jammer and safety Eric Weddle led to six points.
In fact, Jammer was more frequently targeted by other teams. Other teams almost always lined up their number one receiver on Jammer, such as New England's Randy Moss, Pittsburgh's Hines Ward, Atlanta's Roddy White, and Tampa Bay's Antonio Bryant.
A bigger problem to the Chargers porous pass defense was the play of the safeties and the linebackers. Opposing tight ends had career days against the Chargers in '08.
Dante Rosario, Tony Scheffler, and Zach Miller all scored their only touchdowns of the season against the Bolts while seven different tight ends had season highs in yards, touchdowns or both against the Chargers in '08.
Cromartie's sometimes up and down play in the season's first half can be attributed to several things, including an anemic pass rush and a hip injury which limited his ability to plant and close out of his backpedal.
To compound the problem, former defensive coordinator Ted Cotrell continued to play cover three and off-man coverages. These coverages force a cornerback to backpedal, plant and close on virtually every snap. Cromartie's hip injury prevented him from playing these coverages to his abilities.
Cromartie's second half was much improved, as his hip healed and the pass rush improved. Another factor was Ron Rivera, who put Cromartie in more press coverages, both man-to-man and Cover Two.
This difference in coverages greatly reduced the amount of times Cromartie was forced to backpedal, plant, and close on receivers. Cromartie was allowed to play to his strengths while limiting the effects of his hip injury.
The difference showed, as teams rarely threw at Cromartie in the second half of the season. Cromartie finished the year particularly well, with strong outings against the Raiders, Buccaneers, Broncos. Against the Colts in the playoffs Cromartie was a true shutdown corner—the Reggie Wayne touchdown was Rivera's fault.
The only thing Cromartie didn't do in the second half of the season was deliver big plays, mainly interceptions. Again, many fans perceived this as poor play, when in fact he was rarely tested.
While Cromartie didn't have his best season in '08, it shouldn't be considered poor.
The whole unit struggled, especially the pass rush. Opposing offenses realized that Cromartie was not the weak link, and spent more time attacking the rest of the Chargers defenders.
2009 should see the return of big plays from Cromartie and the Chargers.
The pass rush should be ferocious. All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman returns and the team added first round draft pick Larry English, who is another pass rushing demon.
And coach Rivera gets to install his defense in training camp, which will be predicated on pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers.
Expect Cromartie to regain his form, as both an interception machine and fan favorite.