Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie sticks with wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald during a practice in Flagstaff.
FLAGSTAFF – Wide receiver Steve Breaston had just schooled young cornerback Greg Toler in the end zone and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was not happy.
The drill was one-on-one pass defense, and Breaston – a veteran with a 1,000-yard season on the résumé – slowed down just enough to slow Toler, and then burst forward at the last moment for the TD catch. Toler wasn't happy anyway, and then DRC blistered him when he came back to the group, which on their side included rookies A.J. Jefferson and Jorrick Calvin.
"You see guys like Greg and Money Mike (Adams), you see them get beat on plays and you get mad because you know they are better than that," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "So I am going to be more vocal, because even though we are around the same age those guys kind of look up to me. I can see that."
DRC is already a Pro Bowl cornerback. But he can be more. The Cardinals know it, and so does he.
Call it the maturation process. Call it leadership out of necessity. But DRC is the Cards' obvious gold standard at the position, and his quest to have that impact both his play and his teammates is part of training camp.
Just this offseason, Rodgers-Cromartie recoiled at the idea of being a leader after the trade of veteran Bryant McFadden. The trip to Flagstaff has changed that, which is why DRC leans on Toler when the heir apparent to McFadden messes up. Or why DRC flipped a ball at cornerback Rashad Barksdale – who was recently released – and bouncing it off Barksdale's helmet when Barksdale didn't stop a fourth-down pass during 11-on-11 at a recent practice.
"I felt like coming in, I was getting the vibe from the guys that I have to do it," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "They look at me on film and ask, 'How you do that?' That's the role I have to take on."
Rodgers-Cromartie is coming off knee surgery following the playoffs that forced him to go through rehabilitation. DRC is not quite 100 percent, coach Ken Whisenhunt has noted, but it has been impossible to tell in Flagstaff.
DRC has played well in practices battling Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald. To the naked eye, there are no lingering issues with the knee.
Rodgers-Cromartie made six interceptions last year on his way to his first Pro Bowl in just his second season. But he also admitted during the year he would blank out on plays or become bored and not as focused when teams didn't throw in his direction.
The 2010 version of the player is not the same, said safety and camp roommate Adrian Wilson.
"He still tells jokes now and then and he'll still take a play off now and then, but he is a lot more focused," said Wilson, adding that's exactly how it should be.
"He's all-pro," Wilson added. "His pay grade should have him come out here and play the way he needs to play and that is the bottom line. Whenever you are top five in the position, or whatever you consider yourself, you need to come to practice every day and put in the work."
That alone helps his teammates. Toler said DRC "doesn't even realize he is teaching when he is playing."
"You just try and watch what he does," Toler said. "You see the technique in his game and yet he isn't afraid to take chances."
Defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson chuckled when reminded Rodgers-Cromartie said this summer he didn't want to be a leader. At the time Henderson was new, the coach said, and part of that was DRC trying to protect himself because it was foreign.
Yet looking at other cornerbacks like the unproven Toler, the undersized Adams, the rookies, or guys like Justin Miller and Trumaine McBride (both of whom were out of football at the end of 2009) leads down one road: DRC as point man.
"He has to take a bigger involvement," Henderson said.
It's a strange place to be for a guy who likes to break into dance before plays at practice or wear a Toy Story backpack during road trips. And in fact, DRC refuses to let maturity kill his fun.
"No questions asked, that ain't going nowhere," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "I'm still going to be the goofball.
"I can be the leader at the same time. But has far as being hyper and outgoing, that ain't going anywhere."
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