As an NFL cornerback, Antonio Cromartie has made a nice living putting pressure on people. Now, he's putting a lot on himself.
Cromartie, coming off two disappointing seasons with the San Diego Chargers, is now with the New York Jets and hoping to put together the kind of season he had in 2007, when he intercepted 10 passes and broke up 18. He has even embraced the nickname "Alcrotraz" — as in a place no one can escape — as his answer to fellow Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis' "Revis Island." Cromartie, who took on the moniker at the suggestion of a Twitter follower, told ESPNNewYork.com he plans to sell Alcrotraz T-shirts in a few weeks.
There's definitely no escaping this: Cromartie is one of those guys heading into a pivotal season. A good year will launch him into the next phase of his career. A bad year, and the same people who got those 19-0 New England Patriots shirts will be sporting ones reading Alcrotraz.
Four other NFL players under the microscope this season:
Darrius Heyward-Bey, wide receiver, Oakland — The seventh pick in the 2009 draft, Heyward-Bey had only nine catches for 124 yards and a touchdown as a rookie. Those came in 11 starts, and he was on the field more than any other Raiders receiver in those games. This year, with a legitimate quarterback in Jason Campbell, it's up to Heyward-Bey to prove he deserves that $23.5 million in guaranteed money. Word is, he looked good in the spring.
Nate Allen, safety, Philadelphia — This isn't a do-or-die season for Allen. He's a rookie, after all. But it's a very important one. He was the 37th overall draft pick (a selection the Eagles got as part of the Donovan McNabb trade) and was thrust into the starting lineup almost immediately when Marlin Jackson suffered a torn Achilles' tendon in June. Can Allen be the next Brian Dawkins, a player he once idolized? Now is his chance to prove it.
Doug Free, tackle, Dallas — The Cowboys have most of the pieces in place to make a Super Bowl run, but a major question mark is Free, who replaces Flozell Adams at the crucial left-tackle spot. Is Free up to the job? If he isn't, we should see that right away in a division loaded with outstanding pass rushers. At least Free can breathe easy that DeMarcus Ware is on his side.
Dan Connolly, guard, New England — If an offensive lineman is doing his job, you'll almost never hear his name mentioned. The Patriots are hoping that's the case with left guard Connolly, a third-stringer thrust into the lineup because of Logan Mankins' holdout and a back injury to transplanted right tackle Nick Kaczur. If the Patriots don't work out a deal with Mankins, Connolly should expect to hear his name called, and just hope that's the last time he hears it.
Light feels right — Jerry Rice, enshrined Saturday in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was a tireless worker on the practice field. But it didn't stop there. He had some quirky eating habits to go with his relentless workouts.
If he was going up against an especially fast cornerback on a given Sunday, he'd eat light that week, subsisting on maybe an apple and a salad for lunch every day. If he was preparing for a stronger cornerback, he might spend an extra hour more in the weight room every day. Those last-minute adjustments might have had more psychological than actual physical benefits, but who's to say they didn't work?
"I had times where I felt like I needed to be a little bit bulky, a little stronger, and there were times when I needed to be nice and trim and not carry that much weight," Rice said. "I did it a little bit different."
Power drain — San Diego still might be the favorite in the AFC West, but the Chargers are missing their firepower. Jay Paris of the North County Times notes the team is "down" a combined 18 Pro Bowl invitations in training camp: five for LaDainian Tomlinson (Jets), three for Jamal Williams ( Denver Broncos), three for Kassim Osgood ( Jacksonville Jaguars), one for Cromartie (Jets), and a combined six for holdouts Shawne Merriman, Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson.
Just the facts — Seattle linebacker Lofa Tatupu doesn't like his coaches chatty, especially when he's the one wearing the earpiece in his helmet. Tatupu has tried to tell that to new Seahawks linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr., who uses a walkie-talkie to relay schemes and messages to him on the field.
"Ken Norton's in my ear 24/7," said Tatupu, only half-joking about the annoyance. "I don't know how he never loses his voice."
It seems that Norton, who coached Tatupu at USC, is almost itching to have a conversation, even though Tatupu has no microphone with which to respond.
"I try to tell him, 'Keep it short. Just give me the play,' " Tatupu said. "Because he'll be there like, 'How you feeling?' I'm like, 'I don't need that. I need the play.' I'll just wave him off. Like, 'Stop!' "
The earpiece might not be long for Tatupu's helmet.
"I swear," he said, "I'm about to rip it out."