EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - In seven weeks, Antonio Cromartie has gone from expendable to irreplaceable for the New York Jets.
When the lockout ended, the Jets furiously pursued Nnamdi Asomugha, the main prize of free agency. They wanted to pair him with Darrelle Revis, giving them lockdown cover men _ not to mention All-Pro cornerbacks _ on both sides of the field.
New York came close, but Philadelphia spirited away Asomugha at the last minute.
So the Jets turned back to the incumbent, re-signing Cromartie for four years and $32 million, not a bad payday for being the team's second choice. Cromartie had a solid year in his first season in New York in 2010 as one of those feast or famine kind of players. He makes big plays for your side, but he also gives up big ones to opponents.
Cromartie has been in his usual form through two games this season. Dez Bryant toyed with him early in the opener and the Jets had to switch Revis onto the second-year Dallas receiver. Revis shut down Bryant for much of the rest of that Jets victory, but Cromartie was outwrestled for a TD pass by Miles Austin.
Cromartie didn't sulk, and he was dominant in Sunday's 32-3 rout of Jacksonville. He had two of New York's four interceptions, nearly scoring with one return, and his two long kickoff runbacks set up 10 points early on, when matters were in doubt.
"The coaches didn't have to be on us, the players know what our standards are. We set our standards high," Cromartie said of the difference between the performances by the defense (and himself) from last week to this. "We came out there flying and communicating."
Cromartie came flying out of the end zone on the opening kickoff, running it back 39 yards. The Jets moved 65 yards on six plays to a touchdown, their first on offense in the opening quarter in 17 games.
Later in the period, he returned a kickoff 46 yards, setting up a drive for a field goal.
In the second quarter, he had the first rushing attempt of his six-year career, although it gained just 1 yard on a reverse. Back on defense, Cromartie returned an interception 37 yards, blunting a Jacksonville drive.
And in the third period, he jumped a route, picked off Luke McCown's throw and went 26 yards down the sideline.
Had he gone 27, Cromartie would have scored.
"I was having fun," he said. "The (first) interception was changing the game in giving us a short field. We make plays when we have a chance to."
Cromartie seems to get involved in big plays one way or another. Coach Rex Ryan said he knew Cromartie would bounce back from the difficult opener.
"We might not have had his best game," Ryan said of the win over Dallas, "but there are very few corners that can line up and play as much man (coverage) as we do, and still be out there swinging. He never flinched.
"I hope teams keep taking shots at Cro."
Oh, they certainly will. With Revis on the other side, most offenses will focus on challenging Cromartie. That's fine by him.
"As a defense as a whole, we want to cause havoc on our opponent as much as possible," Cromartie said. "That's what our defense is built on."
Cromartie spent four seasons with San Diego, where he earned a reputation as a dynamic playmaker who gambled too much and wasn't much of a tackler. He was an All-Pro in 2007, and had half of his 20 career picks that year.
But things soured with the Chargers, and he was traded to the Jets for a second-round draft pick.
Starting cornerbacks, particularly on an aggressive, blitzing unit like the Jets, usually are kept away from special teams, particularly as a returner. But Cromartie has proven he's by far New York's best in that dangerous job.
"When I get my chance and my name is called," he said, "I'm ready to step up."
He certainly did that Sunday, impressing Revis with his recovery skills.
"He rebounded really well," Revis said. "He gave up two (touchdowns) last week and then he got two (interceptions) today. Cro knew last week is behind him and he had a great game."