Seldom-seen side of Antonio Cromartie: A student of the game

Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie talks with field judge

Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie talks with field judge Gary Cavaletto before a game between the New York Jets and the San Francisco 49ers. (Sept. 30, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Antonio Cromartie didn't want his secret exposed. But it was too late.

His Jets teammates and coaches already had outed him, detailing in recent weeks just how much of a football nerd he really is.

Cromartie arrives -- like clockwork -- at the Atlantic Health Center at 6 a.m. most days to begin his daily regimen of tape study, treatment and everything in between. He spends about 21/2 hours a day poring over tape -- an hour and a half at the facility before morning meetings and practice and 45 minutes to an hour at home.

The cornerback's tape study for Sunday's highly anticipated AFC East rematch between the Jets and Dolphins began Tuesday and continued through Saturday.

Cromartie, who prepares that way every week, spends as much time studying his opponent as he does critiquing himself. He's always been that way, he'll tell you, ever since college. It's not so much a "routine" as it is his way of life now.

To some, he may seem immature, irresponsible and self-absorbed. But the Jets' young defensive backs are quick to share stories of Cromartie's tutelage and his coaches rave about the sacrifices he makes for the good of the team.

This is the side of Cromartie you don't see -- and, quite frankly, the part of him he would rather not broadcast.

"I'm kind of glad you don't," he said with a laugh when asked why this side of him isn't written about more. "I don't really think anybody knows. I'm always low-key. I'll never try to get recognition for being a film junkie."

After some prodding, Cromartie revealed he's saved each one of his tape study notebooks since his second year in the NFL with the Chargers. And after five years, he's compiled "a whole library worth" of detailed scribbles.

He keeps about three pages on receivers he expects to cover on game day -- and his top priority Sunday could be Brian Hartline. Cromartie limited the Miami wideout to one catch in Week 3, but it was a 41-yard reception in overtime.

Cromartie is his own worst critic. So given his 10 interceptions and Pro Bowl nod in 2007, it may come as a surprise that he believes this season is the "best I've played in my career."

The improvement in his game is rooted in his improved focus, said Cromartie, who has three interceptions and one pick-6.

In the absence of Darrelle Revis, the spotlight has found him. And Cromartie not only has managed to steady what many expected to be a shaky Jets secondary but has emerged as the face of Rex Ryan's defensive backfield.

The myth is that he became a leader when Revis was lost for the season with a torn ACL. But those willing to dig a little deeper have found that Cromartie set out to be a teacher, a mentor and a shutdown corner this past offseason.

He brought former Jet Julian Posey to California to train with him in the offseason and also invited cornerback Ellis Lankster to live with him and his family from March until the Jets ended their offseason program in June. Since then, Cromartie has become Lankster's surrogate big brother, delivering criticism and encouragement in tough-love form.

"He just showed me how to be a grown man," said Lankster, 25, who has a 5-year-old and a baby due any day. "I'm young still, so I just wanted to do this, do that. But he said to me: 'You need to take your job seriously.' "

Cromartie's infamous clip on "Hard Knocks" -- in which he struggled to list all of his children (reportedly 10) -- helped shape his negative image. Lankster, too, had assumed Cromartie was "wild."

"But no," Lankster explained. "Cromartie doesn't drink, doesn't do none of that. I was thinking he never gets a chance to talk to all his kids. But when I was staying with him, he was actually doing it. He'll spend an hour on the phone with each one of them. I was like, 'OK, he handles his business.' He prays. He plays with his whole family. It really amazed me."

Bart Scott also defended Cromartie's character. "A lot of times, media can build somebody to what they want, but we know what he is," he said. "That's why we value him so much. They think they know the person, but they don't. He's here every day, 6 o'clock in the morning. Rain, sleet or snow. They don't know that."

Cromartie is "not just talk," wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal said.

Although he caught the ball out of bounds, when Cromartie grabbed a long pass from Mark Sanchez against the Texans a few weeks ago, Lal said something "clicked." He added, "Like, this guy probably could be a real receiver. And a very good one."

Lal said the Jets had "a pretty extensive" Cro package" heading into their Week 6 win over the Colts, but they had to shift gears once their ground game took off. But Lal was impressed with how quickly Cromartie had absorbed the material.

"It showed me he really took it to heart and really studied it and took pride in it," said Lal, adding that Cromartie comes to his office to study more tape after his defensive back meetings. "He's the model student, in my opinion."

During his time on Oakland's staff, Lal was warned of Cromartie's ball skills by Hall of Famer James Lofton. During one season when Cromartie was with the Chargers, the Raiders were preparing to face San Diego. Lofton -- who had spent five years as the Chargers' receivers coach before coming to Oakland -- turned to Lal and said: "Watch out for Cromartie."

"That always stuck in my mind," Lal said of the exchange. "If James Lofton says this guy can play wide receiver, he probably can."

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