Cardinals cornerback Antonio Cromartie leaps in front of Philadelphia wide receiver Josh Huff to make one of his two interceptions last weekend.
If Antonio Cromartie feels any vindication, any 'I told you so' at all, he's covering it up as well as he's blanketing receivers.
The first week of free agency came and went this offseason without much activity for the three-time Pro Bowl cornerback. As money was thrown around to younger, less established players, he was forced to wait until finally a one-year, $3.5 million offer from the Cardinals came across the table.
It was a far cry from the 4-year, $32 million terms in his previous contract -- one ripped up by the Jets when they deemed his cap number too expensive for a player coming off a hip injury entering his age 30 season – and for the first time, the NFL world was
telling him to prove his worth.
Seven games in, Cromartie has done just that. He is rated as the second-most effective player on the team by Pro Football Focus, trailing only defensive end Calais Campbell. Cromartie had his best outing of the season on Sunday against the Eagles, snatching two interceptions, but isn't gleefully pointing it out to the 32 teams who wouldn't offer him a multi-year deal.
"It's what, Week 9? I'm not worried about it," Cromartie said. "I'm more worried about the 'W' column. I'm worried about going out and playing at a very high level."
Cromartie has had one noticeable hiccup this year, giving up seven completions for 221 yards and two touchdowns on 15 targets against the Broncos -- self-described as "probably by far the worst game of my career" – but even that came against one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history (Peyton Manning) and his best receiver (Demaryius Thomas).
"I can't say anybody over there who didn't have a rough outing against Denver, including me," defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said.
Before and since Cromartie has been spectacular. In the other six games, he's given up 13 completions on 28 targets for 120 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He has 10 pass breakups on the season, which is on pace for a career high.
"He's still making it very difficult," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said. "That's the same Cromartie that we've always seen."
Between the hip problems and his advancing age, questions about Cromartie's effectiveness were inevitable. Thirty is a dirty word in
the NFL, especially for someone with an injury history. Safety Rashad Johnson said it's a stage all veteran NFL players go through.
"When you first come in as a rookie, it's just to prove yourself that you can do it," Johnson said. "Someone around my years, prove that I can be a legitimate starter for any team in this league. And a guy like him, who's been a starter and been to Pro Bowls but had a couple down years, it's definitely now for him to prove that he still has it, that he can hang around for some more years and do it at a high level – and get paid for his performance at a high level."
A healthy Cromartie is making the case that he does deserve another lucrative payday. He's rated as the ninth-best cornerback in the NFL against the pass this year, according to Pro Football Focus.
"From a physical standpoint, I'm not just where I've always been, I think I'm better, to be honest with you," Cromartie said. "Coming up and playing the run, covering the deep ball, trying to be a little more physical in the press – from a physicality standpoint, I think everything's where it needs to be."
If this story sounds familiar, it's because General Manager Steve Keim is practically writing the book on identifying undervalued veterans and benefitting from their performance at a fraction of the cost it warrants.
Last year it was linebackers Karlos Dansby and John Abraham. This season it's been Cromartie, linebacker Larry Foote and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly.
Dansby's situation is the most similar. He signed a one-year 'prove it' deal with the Cardinals last year and finished as arguably their most impactful player. He parlayed that into a four-year, $24 million deal from the Browns at the age of 32.
If Cromartie continues to play at a high level, similar offers could come in March. When the Cardinals made their pitch this offseason, they knew playing within their defense could boost his value.
" 'Look at who you're playing with,' " coach Bruce Arians told him. " 'You're going to get balls thrown at you because Pat (Peterson) isn't going to get too many.' The rest of the guys, the front, he saw it very similar to what New York had a few years back with he and Darrelle (Revis) and that front. So it was an easy sell."
Dansby's departure led to plenty of hand-wringing, and if Cromartie is money-whipped by another team, it would lead to questions in 2015. Does Jerraud Powers move back outside? Is Justin Bethel ready? Should they bring someone else in? Cromartie isn't looking that far ahead.
"I just want to go out and play football the best way I know how," he said. "I want to continue to help this organization win as many games as we can."
If he continues to do so, it may naturally result in heavier interest this offseason, but Cromartie's doing this for himself, not the next contract.
"It's not a point of reestablishing my value, it's the point of reestablishing the player I know I can be after the injured season," Cromartie said. "That's the whole point. You've got to prove to yourself, and only to yourself, that you are still the player that you know you can be."