Eagles searching for consistency from DRC
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- This is why the Eagles love Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
It’s Saturday afternoon, 1-on-1 drills at Lehigh between the cornerbacks and receivers.
DRC on DeSean Jackson.
Jackson races down the field a good full stride ahead of Rodgers-Cromartie while a Michael Vick bomb sails high and deep and the crowd murmurs louder and louder as the ball starts to spiral downward.
DeSean and DRC sprint down the right side of the field, just like they did in the 2008 NFC Championship Game, and the ball drops toward Jackson. In the 2008 NFC title game, Jackson caught an underthrown Donovan McNabb pass against DRC for a 62-yard touchdown to gave the Eagles a fourth-quarter lead that Kurt Warner quickly wiped out.
This time, DRC is there. At the last possible moment, just before the ball touches Jackson’s hands, there he is, out of nowhere, turning around, spotting the ball, a bit underthrown, and then exploding back toward Jackson, lunging at the final moment to knock the ball away.
The crowd gasps. They’ve just seen a glimpse of why the Eagles believe Rodgers-Cromartie can be an absolute stud.
His make-up speed is astonishing.
“He’s been the same way since I’ve known him,” Nnamdi Asomugha marvels later Saturday, after the Eagles’ first full-contact practice is over. “His make-up speed ... he can make as many mistakes before the play, during the play, but he always has that make-up speed that he can rely on to get him back.
“He’ll be the first one to tell you, if he makes a mistake, he’s still fine, because he knows that he can get himself together with that speed and catch up.”
Asomugha smiles and adds, “I don’t want to make the mistakes that he can make, you know what I’m saying?”
Rodgers-Cromartie loves to bait quarterbacks. He’ll even intentionally drop a step or two off a receiver, just to lure the QB into throwing the ball to his guy. When he does? He swoops in.
“You tend to give a guy a step of two, depending on who they are,” he said. “You can’t do that to everybody, but you give them a step or two and nine times out of 10, a quarterback is going to look and throw. Depending on how he throws the ball, you’re going to be able to make up most of the time.”
This was just one play at Lehigh. The Eagles need this consistently from the mercurial Rodgers-Cromartie, who remains one of the biggest mysteries on the roster.
Which DRC will the Eagles get?
Will they get the DRC who looked so comfortable late in the season? Or will they get the DRC who struggled so badly early last year in the slot? Will they get the explosive playmaker from Arizona? Or will they get the mediocre tackler and inconsistent player we saw the first half of last year?
If Rodgers-Cromartie, now back to his comfortable outside corner spot after a disastrous year in the slot, can regain his Pro Bowl form, the Eagles should have one of the NFC’s best corner tandems. Even without Asante Samuel, traded to Atlanta.
If not, they could be in some trouble.
“I’d say it shot up,” DRC said of his comfort level in the defense. “Coming in last year, just thrown in head-long and playing slot, it was kind of hard. But now I understand and know my role. … Outside, that’s where I came into the game as and that’s where I feel most comfortable.”
Eagles fans might think of DRC as a shaky slot corner, but in his previous incarnation he was a star. His 13 interceptions with the Cards from 2008 through 2010 were sixth-most among all NFL cornerbacks during that span, and his four INT returns for touchdowns match the most in NFL history by a player in his first three seasons (tied with Phillip Buchanon, Dick Harris and Ronnie Lott).
Rodgers-Cromartie didn’t have any interceptions last year, but with Samuel gone, the opportunities will be there.
“The opportunities are going to be there, especially with Trent Cole and Jason Babin coming off that edge,” DRC said after practice Saturday.. “The quarterback has to get rid of the ball a lot faster, and we got Nnamdi on the other side, who’s got a lot of respect from a lot of quarterbacks who aren’t going to look that way. So the opportunities are going to be there for me as far as them coming at me and trying to stay away from him.”
Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie started together, both on the outside, the last two games of last year, when Samuel was hurt, and the Eagles easily won both games, beating the Cowboys in Dallas and the Redskins at home.
After allowing 25 touchdowns the first 14 games of the season, the Eagles allowed only two in those two games.
The Eagles are hoping for 16 games of that consistency this year.
If you’re an opposing quarterback and you drop back and see the 6-2 Asomugha on this side and the 6-2 Rodgers-Cromartie on that side, where do you go with the ball?
“Going to be a tough decision, but for the most part, I think he’s going to tend to look over on my side a lot more just on the experience and what Nnamdi has done over the seasons he’s been in the league,” DRC said. “I’m looking forward to them to coming over there.”
Asomugha has become a big fan of Rodgers-Cromartie. The two are opposites, which makes them an interesting pair.
“I think [my game] is a little more cerebral, his might be a little more just athleticism, just pure athleticism,” Asomugha said. “Either way, I think we have a chance to be really great out there.”
Asomugha is quick to point out that Rodgers-Cromartie is not just a physical specimen who makes up for a lack of understanding of the defense with incredible size and speed. He’s actually developing a good idea what he’s doing and is committed to learning more and more.
“He’s in the meetings, he’s taking notes, he’s asking questions, he’s doing that sort of stuff, so he’s working to get more of the mental side of the game, because with that combination and then his athleticism, it should be really special,” Asomugha said. “He gets that down, and he stays in the books and understands what he’s doing in the defense, he’ll be right.”
The Eagles have allowed 27, 31 and 27 touchdown passes the last three years, tied with the Vikings for the most passing TDs allowed during that span. To find the last non-strike Eagles defense to allow 27 TD passes in a season, you have to go back to 1967. And these Eagles have given up that many three straight years.
The goal now is to be the best secondary in the league, the best cornerback tandem in the league.
“That’s been our goal since we got here, but I think now, knowing everybody, being more comfortable, I think it’s even more of a possibility,” Asomugha said. “Being top 10 last year [in passing yards allowed, the goal this year is going to be much better than that.
“We always want to be the best, and we’re some guys that have been around and have been on top defenses before, so we know what it takes to get there.”
One last thing about DRC. With the possible exception of Derek Landri, he’s the only Eagles starter who doesn’t have a contract beyond 2012.
So he’s got a lot to play for. If he returns to Pro Bowl from 2009, he’ll be a rich guy and an Eagle for a long time.
“You think about it, but then again you don’t think about it,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you don’t perform, you know how it is. It puts that pressure on you to go out and do better, but you want to do that anyway.
“I learned that if you go out there and play ball and play consistent, it’s going to come. If it comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”E-mail Reuben Frank at email@example.com