FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
It wasn't so long ago that the mention of Tom Brady would send Antonio Cromartie into an obscenity-laced tirade. Remember the run-up to the 2010 AFC Championship Game, when Cromartie used a few choice -- and unprintable -- words to describe how much he detested the Patriots' quarterback?
Now, with the Jets' cornerback preparing for another meeting against Brady?
"You have to appreciate him," Cromartie said Tuesday at his locker, the same location for previous rants aimed at Brady. "The guy has won multiple Super Bowls. You have to have a respect for him."
Question: Who is this man, and what has he done with Antonio Cromartie?
Answer: It's really him. Seriously.
"I'm in a totally different place career-wise, life-wise," he said. "It's just going out and playing football. I'm having fun . . . I don't know how much longer I'll be playing, so I'm going to continue to have fun."
Cromartie has made a remarkable transformation in recent months, traced largely to his epiphany just around the time Darrelle Revis suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 3. No longer the loose cannon whose locker room rants would often overshadow his level of play, Cromartie has taken on a more serious approach, largely because Revis' absence triggered something in him.
Cromartie realized he had to take on more of a leadership role, and admitted that his level of play leading up to this season wasn't as proficient as it should have been. It was a startling admission from a player who rarely suffers from a lack of self assurance, yet it was a moment that signaled a major turnaround. Cromartie is indeed playing his best football, and now laments that he didn't take his craft more seriously before.
"It shouldn't have taken for Revis to go down for me to be playing at a very high level," he said. "There's something I think I took for granted having Revis on the other side and not being able to play at a high level when he was here."
A conversation the week before Revis got hurt signaled a tipping point for Cromartie. After the Jets lost to the Steelers in Week 2, they spoke on the plane ride home, and Revis said he thought Cromartie should be better. It was jarring to hear, Cromartie said, but it was needed.
"Hearing it from your peers, you take more out of that than hearing it from your coach," Cromartie said. "Your peers expect so much out of you and expect you to play at a higher level, especially when he's one of the best corners in the league."
Cromartie responded immediately, allowing just one catch in an overtime win over the Dolphins in the game which Revis was injured. Cromartie has three interceptions and has solidified a secondary without the NFL's best cover corner. The last time the Jets played New England, they nearly pulled off an upset in Foxboro, losing in overtime.
"I think the biggest thing that's changed for me is the leadership role," Cromartie said. "Just making sure everyone was on top of everything, helping guys study film and knowing how to study film. I think I just took on a role that once [Revis] left, and I wanted to make sure I played at a higher level every single week."
And all that trash talk Cromartie has been known to dabble in? He keeps it on the field, not in the locker room. His original rant at Brady stemmed from an incident during the Patriots' 45-3 win over the Jets on Dec. 6, 2010, at Gillette Stadium. Cromartie thought Brady taunted to the Jets after throwing a TD pass, and the cornerback was furious.
"[Brady] has a lot of Philip Rivers in him, from a competitive standpoint," Cromartie said, referring to his former teammate in San Diego. "Guys are going to talk trash to you."
And if Brady did something like that again? "It's football," Cromartie said. "Just go about your business and try to make a play on the next one."
Same guy, different mind-set. The right one, actually.