With a $200 million-plus free-agent upgrade on defense, a promising first-round cornerback and a maddening sequence of narrow defeats in 2015, there is no in between this year for Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
“[The Super Bowl] is definitely the talk around here,” the 30-year-old elder statesman of the secondary said. “You know how you get a feel for a team, and everybody feels it around here. The tempo is up. Guys are pushing guys. Ain’t no slacking off, because it’s championship or nothing.”
Just another overly optimistic NFL player feeling good about his team before the games have started? Perhaps, especially when you see so many players around the league talking about how good they feel about their respective teams. But in Rodgers-Cromartie’s case, the all-or-nothing attitude may be a bit more genuine, because he is not often given to hyperbole. Especially now that he’s in his ninth NFL season and has seen so many dreams of winning a championship go up in smoke.
But at least he knows a Super Bowl team when he sees one, having gone to the title game as a rookie with a 2008 Cardinals team that was beaten by the Steelers in one of the most thrilling Super Bowls ever. And he also knows a paper tiger when he sees one, having been a member of the 2011 Eagles’ “Dream Team.” Philly went on a free-agent spending spree that year, signing and/or trading for the likes of Ronnie Brown, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, Rodgers-Cromartie and Vince Young, who came up with the “Dream Team” nickname that ultimately came to mockingly symbolize the team’s futility. Those Eagles finished 8-8 that season, while the Giants, whose one notable free-agent signing was punter Steve Weatherford, won the second Super Bowl of the Tom Coughlin-Eli Manning era.
You can argue that general manager Jerry Reese did his best imitation of Eagles GM Howie Roseman, the architect of that 2011 disappointment, by signing cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and defensive end Olivier Vernon in the first hours of free agency. But unlike the Eagles’ spending spree, Reese’s targeting of players in their mid-20s and thus at or near the peak of their careers, was a more sensible approach to free agency.
Throw in the drafting of Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple, who is already working with the first-team defense, and Rodgers-Cromartie’s enthusiasm about this year’s roster seems plausible.
“I feel a lot better about this defense,” he said. “We’ve got guys that come in with experience and know the game. Then you look at the younger guys coming into their second year in the program [under defensive coordinator] Steve Spagnuolo, I feel real good.”
A measure of Rodgers-Cromartie’s comfort with the new players around him: He no longer feels as if he has to do anyone else’s job, something that he couldn’t say last season while playing for the NFL’s last-ranked defense. It was largely as a result of that unit’s poor performance that the Giants blew five fourth-quarter leads in a 6-10 season.
Turn that stat around, and the Giants are coming off a playoff season. Instead, they finished third in the NFC East and parted with Coughlin after 12 seasons.
“It makes it much easier for everybody, including myself,” said Cromartie, who signed a five-year, $35-million deal in 2014. “You can just play your game. I’m telling you. It’s starting to gel well.”
Rodgers-Cromartie particularly likes what he sees from Apple, who was selected with the 10th overall pick in April. Apple suffered a knee strain in Friday night’s preseason opener against the Dolphins but may return to practice as early as Wednesday.
“He’s got the body frame, he’s got the quickness and he definitely has the smarts,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “He’s picking up our system well. He’s going with the ones. When he’s competing like that, that says a lot about you as a young guy.”
So it’s not simply idle talk about having what it takes to win a championship.
“Yessir,” Rodgers-Cromartie said when asked about whether there is indeed enough here to make a Super Bowl run. “You look at last year. We didn’t finish [games] good. It’s like, we’re right there. When you don’t finish and you bring in guys that have the mentality of competing, the hunger and guys who just want to win, that looks good for us.”
Just another player thumping his chest before the games have even started? Perhaps. But for a player like Rodgers-Cromartie, who usually keeps to himself when it comes to delivering big talk, it says something about the steadfast conviction he has in his retooled team.