SAN DIEGO – The longest play in NFL history starts on a trampoline.
The drill goes like this: Cromartie stands on one foot on the trampoline while trainer (and former Auburn quarterback) Jeff Klein fires passes at him to catch. The goal is to catch 15 while keeping only the one foot down or if Cromartie jumps, to come down with one foot and maintain balance.
"We found that it's a way of teaching guys to maintain proper body angles and to keep their feet underneath them," said Melvin Williams, who trains Cromartie along with Klein at Infinite Sports Performance. Williams has worked with Cromartie for more than two years since Cromartie left Florida State after the 2006 season. "You have to keep your foot under your shoulders when you do it."
Now, go back to Nov. 4 of last season, when Minnesota lined up for a 58-yard field goal. The Chargers lined up Cromartie in the end zone for a possible return. The kick was short and slightly right of the goal post, but still appeared headed over the end line. Instead, Cromartie leaped up, snared the ball with one hand behind his head, landed with his back foot only inches from being out of bounds and then proceeded to return the kick 109 yards for a record that can never be surpassed.
AccuScore on the Chargers
AccuScore expects the Chargers to cruise to an AFC West title with a 78 percent chance of winning the division. That is the second highest division win probability in the league. Even with a shaky start to the 2007 season, the Chargers finished with an impressive +8 average margin of victory. AccuScore expects them to have a healthy +7 average margin of victory in 2008. Despite their forecasted success, the Chargers are a clear third in the AFC to the Patriots and Colts. The Chargers are winning just 37 percent of simulations for Week 6 (vs New England) and Week 12 (vs Indianapolis).
The reason why the Chargers are not favored at home vs the Patriots and Colts is Philip Rivers' interception rate. Rivers had 19 INTs in 19 total games in 2007 and is averaging 2.5 interceptions in two games against the Patriots and Colts. However, if Rivers throws no interceptions against the Patriots, the Chargers' winning percentage goes from 38 to 53 percent and from 39 to 56 percent against the Colts. In fact, if Rivers cuts his interceptions by 40 percent (like 2006 level), the Chargers challenge the Patriots for the top record in the AFC.
Projected Record: 11-5
Playoff Probability: 84.7%
In the euphoria of the moment after the game, Cromartie called Williams and screamed about how it was all because of the trampoline drill.
OK, that's overstating things a bit, as even Williams will admit. What Cromartie did is because he's a freakishly great athlete, a rare man who at 6-foot-2, 203 pounds is blessed with sprinter speed and grace, amazing quickness, superior hand-eye coordination and, just as important, the will to maximize his abilities.
"What's important about Antonio is that when he hurt his knee in college, I think he realized that he's not made out of brick and mortar," Williams said, referring to an torn anterior cruciate ligament that cost Cromartie the 2005 season at Florida State. "He works at it … I tell all the guys I train who are in the NFL to take 60 days off after the season just to rest their bodies. I think that's really important. But with Antonio, I can't keep him away. He's back seven days after the season, even if it's just to do some cardio work."
Chargers general manager A.J. Smith became a fan of Cromartie's work ethic – in addition to his physical tools – which led to San Diego taking the corner with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2006 draft.
"You take guys who have championship characteristics, the size, the speed, the ability and you do your research to make sure they have the desire to work at it," Smith said. "I'm not naïve enough to think that some great players don't work at it or that you don't have to work with some guys to teach them how to work at it, but that's not the case with Antonio. He does it. Some guys say in the offseason program, 'I'll see you Monday.' Then Monday comes and you hear, 'Oh, I had something come up.' Not with him."
Cromartie's record return was part of a three-week run last season that vaulted him from second-year reserve to starter to Pro Bowl. The week before the Minnesota game, Cromartie had two interceptions against Houston, including a stunning 70-yard touchdown return in which he kept his balance after being hit by planting one hand on the ground and then bouncing back up. He also recovered a fumble for a touchdown.
The week after the Minnesota game, Cromartie had three interceptions against Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, including a leaping, one-handed effort in front of Pro Bowl wide receiver Reggie Wayne that was just absurd. He had another interception against Manning in the playoffs and also stripped Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison in that upset win by the Chargers at Indianapolis.
"That's how you want it to be when you play the best," Cromartie said. In February, Manning paid Cromartie high praise at the Pro Bowl by almost reverently calling Cromartie "special."
Cromartie's teammates say the flow of monikers are just a matter of time – though the nickname "Crime Time" has caught on with some Chargers – after Cromartie nabbed 10 interceptions in the regular season, two more in the playoffs (the other was against New England's Tom Brady) and then tied the Pro Bowl record with two in that game.
"He's the next of those guys who are the best of their era," said San Diego wide receiver Chris Chambers, a fine deep pass catcher who admits that he can only get the best of Cromartie in practice when everything is perfect. "I don't know if he has a nickname like Prime Time or whatever, but he's going to have it soon … His closing speed is just ridiculous. You can get open against him, but you can't stay open."
Or as Chargers coach Norv Turner said: "He has that extra gear where he can not only outrun the ball, but he can outrun the receiver to get to the ball."
The reference to Deion Sanders' nickname is appropriate. Like Sanders, a fellow Florida State football alum, Cromartie is blessed with the aforementioned size, speed, quickness and will. And a healthy dose of Sanders' confidence.
"How fast am I? As fast as I need to be," Cromartie said. He's smiling as he says that, but he's fully serious. "Yeah, I think I'm the fastest man in the NFL. I don't know who's faster."
While there's no easy way to answer that short of a league-wide track meet, it's quite obvious that Cromartie has great functional speed.
"You're not supposed to run that perfect when you're that big," Chargers teammate and Pro Bowl special teams player Kassim Osgood said. "The way he runs is like an instructional video."
Said Williams: "Antonio has the really unique ability to be able to change his speed depending on the situation. There are a lot of guys in the NFL who are really fast, but they don't have control of their speed. Antonio can accelerate or decelerate depending on the situation. He just has great control of his stride."
In short, he's one of those guys who can do just about anything, as Williams found out during Cromartie's personal workout for the NFL before being drafted. As Cromartie was getting ready to do the vertical jump, he told Williams he would hit the 50-inch mark.
"I said, 'Antonio, you're not going to do that, you're not an Olympic high jumper,' " said Williams, who has worked with Olympic athletes such as sprinter Lauryn Williams. "He just said, 'We'll see.' So we get to the vertical jump and they set the top height at 44 inches.
"Well, Antonio jumps up and cups his hand over the top of the whole thing. Everybody goes silent and just kind of looks at each other. They didn't know what to really do. But it takes awhile to set up the apparatus to measure the jump, so they just write 45 and move on. It was just ridiculous. It was way past 45, whatever it was."
When it comes to Cromartie, it seems that the only boundaries are the dimensions of the field.