Over the past week, there has been a lot of talk about Antonio Cromartie's role in the return game. Today, John B. touched on the benefits of taking Cromartie's return duties away in this article. I want to go deeper, because it is a weighty question. He seems to be a natural fit to return kicks, with his long strides and 4.38 40 yard dash. He has made some huge plays in that role, none bigger than the 47 yard return during last year's postseason, which essentially put the Jets in position to defeat the Colts. He also has a 109 yard return on his resume, and has generally been very dynamic. Casual fans might see something like this and wonder why his name isn't mentioned among the likes of Devin Hester and Joshua Cribbs. However, Cro had only returned 20 kicks in his NFL career prior to this season, and there must be a reason for that. Take the jump!
Firstly, we have all seen that Cromartie tends to make some boneheaded plays, including the costly fumble last week. In fact, he has fumbled 4 times in 27 career returns (including this season), and is pretty much as likely to turn the ball over as he is to break a long run. This has been discussed and re-discussed, and I am not writing an article about Cromartie's lack of brain cells. On the contrary, I believe that there are much more important reasons for Cro to relinquish his special teams duties. This summer, the Jets signed Cromartie to a four year, 32 million dollar contract, which is essentially #1 cornerback money. He has always been a polarizing player on defense, as talented as anyone but maddeningly inconsistent. This year, despite another year to soak in the system, he is performing poorer than ever (albeit at a much smaller sample size). He racked up penalty on top of penalty against the Raiders (many of which were bogus, but that is beside the point), and perhaps he is holding to compensate for his tired legs. Furthermore, he left last Sunday's game with bruised lungs, which he injured on the botched kickoff. If Cro were to miss any time, we have a more than capable replacement in Kyle Wilson. However, Mike Tannenbaum made an investment in Cromartie as a cornerback, so it is time to protect that investment. The potential drop off in special teams is far less significant than the decreased production that the defense has shown this year, with quarterbacks picking on the self proclaimed "Alcrotraz". Let Antonio focus on one aspect of his game (stopping receivers), and he will undoubtedly improve. There is a reason that Darrel Revis doesn't return punts, despite the amazing talents that he possesses. We have many players already on the roster than can return kicks and don't have any other responsibilities (e.g.- Joe McKnight, Jeremy Kerley, even Kyle Wilson can return punts). Last year, Percy Harvin was the only "big name" offensive player to return kicks. The year before that, Jamaal Charles and Felix Jones were extremely successful returning kickoffs, but were replaced on special teams when their respective teams realized how valuable they are to the offense. Even DeSean Jackson, who is one of the most dangerous returners in the league, has been placed on a "pitch count" of sorts, and returned only 20 punts last year (compared to 50 in his rookie year). As recently as two weeks ago, Dez Bryant was taken off returns because of the risk of injury. As talented as Cromartie might be, the last thing that the Jets need is a burden in the form of a 4 year, $32 million cornerback who was injured returning kicks.
Note: Personally, I'd prefer Joe McKnight as Cromartie's replacement. With the new kickoff rules, the returners need to be smart and adapt at finding lanes, and McKnight is certainly better at that than Cro. Lets hope he breaks one this week and solidifies his spot in the return game.