The Broncos needed some athleticism at cornerback, preferably a player who was taller than 6-foot. Rodgers-Cromartie? Well, he needed a new start after two seasons as part of the failed “Dream Team" free-agency initiative with the Philadelphia Eagles.
"He’s an extreme talent," Broncos coach John Fox said. "We saw that in studying the free-agency pool of players."
And perhaps lost in the historic seven-touchdown binge quarterback Peyton Manning dropped on the football nation Thursday night is that Rodgers-Cromartie showed he's a defensive back worthy of working as a team’s No. 1 guy. Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald once called him the best athlete he had faced in the league -- but a guy who was going to have to be pushed to get there.
The Broncos' message to Rodgers-Cromartie, 27, before he signed in Denver had more than a tinge of tough love in it. It was long the lines of: They liked him enough as a player to offer him $5 million for the season, but he shouldn't bother accepting it unless he was ready to listen to some things that might be uncomfortable.
"Hey, I was with that," Rodgers-Cromartie said. " ... Coming in [to the NFL], I was happy just to be in the league and not really understanding everything that is put into it as far as the time, your body, the offseason, the studying, the playing. Now I understand that the older I get, you have to take it ... seriously because at the end of the day, it is just an opportunity for us to play and the opportunity can be gone at any minute."
With Champ Bailey out of the lineup Thursday against Baltimore because of a left foot injury, Rodgers-Cromartie was asked to step up. He lined up at Bailey’s left cornerback spot and was often matched with Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith. The Ravens threw at him just once in the game. When all was said and done, Smith -- who had blistered Bailey and the Broncos in January for two touchdown catches in the Ravens' playoff win -- had four catches for 92 yards.
Smith’s biggest catch of the night, a 34-yarder, came in the fourth quarter, with the Broncos holding an 18-point lead and Rodgers-Cromartie elsewhere in the formation.
"But he’s a very talented guy who matched up well with 82 [Smith]," Fox said, “and we’ll continue to do that moving forward."
The book on Rodgers-Cromartie for much of his career from personnel people around the league was that he’s gifted, but not committed. His concentration simply wavered too much for him to be trusted with the most difficult assignments, no matter how much potential he might have.
But the Broncos believe surroundings mattered and that Fox -- a longtime defensive backs coach as an NFL assistant, including under Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll -- defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, and the Broncos' assistants could make it happen. And there was proof Rodgers-Cromartie had listened to the message before in his career. When the Cardinals advanced to the Super Bowl in Rodgers-Cromartie’s rookie season, he said, veterans Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson snapped him into shape. The two had discovered Rodgers-Cromartie was not taking notes on the team’s upcoming opponents or his duties in specific situations.
The Broncos were looking for a similar reset with Rodgers-Cromartie, something they say they’ve gotten so far.
“He’s been really, really good," Fox said. “And very responsive to his position coaches ... He’s just going to get better."
Fox added that Rodgers-Cromartie, as well as some of the other defensive backs, struggled with some of the Broncos’ work in zone coverages against the Ravens. It wasn’t "quite as well-oiled" as it needed to be.
But Bailey’s return will give the Broncos more options in matchups, even if they simply line up Bailey, as usual, on the left side, with Rodgers-Cromartie on the right, and leave them be.
It is all a one-season audition for Rodgers-Cromartie. Even though he's under contract for two years, the second year voids five days after the Super Bowl. And while it’s wise to never turn early reviews into too much before the whole story is told, the Broncos certainly would be ready to talk if things continue on their current path the next five months.
"The main thing for me is just get established," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "I'm that new guy, and these guys were pretty good last year. I just want to help and be as good a player as I can be. I think I still have a lot in me."