CINCINNATI – His locker isn’t in the same place. He even lost his old, recognizable jersey number to a free agent who joined the team last spring, during a time he wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to play football again.
Chris Crocker, 32 years young, is back with the Cincinnati Bengals. He’s back in the starting lineup, too, and if Crocker and the Bengals can win Sunday in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field — a place he’s won all of once during his 10-year NFL career — they’ll go back to the playoffs.
That’s more than enough to make an old man like Crocker smile.
He’s a longtime NFL player. A survivor. To the young players who occupy the lockers immediately to Crocker’s left and right, he’s a grizzled old man, a source of wisdom and a guy they count on to make plays from his safety spot each Sunday.
“My football eulogy has been written a few times,” Crocker said. “It just hasn’t been published yet.”
The 2012 season started with Crocker at home at Atlanta. He’d started 44 games with the Bengals since landing in Cincinnati in 2008, but his body started to tell him last season that it might have had enough. The Bengals knew this, started making other plans and released him last spring.
“A little sprain or a bruise that used to hurt for two days,” Crocker said, “now it hurts for two weeks.”
As Crocker worked his way back through the end of summer, he said a few other teams called to inquire about his rehab and his potential services. He chose to keep working, and to keep waiting for the Bengals.
“I was ready to move on,” he said. “I knew I had some tread on the tires still, but I was ready to drive away. I wanted to be where I knew where I meant the most, and I’m fortunate that the Bengals wanted me back.”
He signed with the Bengals on Sept. 27, and three days later he had a fourth-quarter interception in Jacksonville.
In the NFL, it’s not just the old players who get hurt. It’s not just the most public plans that get changed. The week of the 2012 season opener, the Bengals brought in Crocker’s old friend and Browns teammate Jeff Faine to play center. Way back in 2003, Faine was the first-round pick of the Butch Davis-led Browns; Crocker was picked two rounds later. Both had been traded in 2006. Both had spent time on the waiver wire.
“That was a little bit crazy, us being back on the same team,” Crocker said. “But crazy is the standard in the NFL.”
Earlier this month, regular center Kyle Cook returned from injury and Faine was released.
Of the seven players the Browns drafted in 2003, only Crocker and Antonio Garay (now a nose tackle with the Chargers) are currently playing in the NFL. Only three — Crocker, Faine and Ryan Pontbriand — made it to 100 career games.
Second-round linebacker Chaun Thompson made it to 98 career games, lasting through 2009. Lee Suggs has been coaching small-college football since 2008. Pontbriand works in the oil industry. On the current Browns’ roster, the only players Crocker played with in Cleveland are Phil Dawson and Joshua Cribbs. He played with Frostee Rucker the last four years in Cincinnati.
The Bengals have spent the last six weeks picking up the pieces from a four-game losing streak that could have sunk their season. Crocker has been helping that cause and making some new friends — from a different age bracket.
Dre Kirkpatrick, the Bengals’ first-round cornerback, turned 23 in October.
“We listen to some of the same music,” Crocker said, laughing. “So we have that in common, and maybe not a bunch else. But Dre wants to listen. He asks me and (Terrence Newman) questions all the time, and that’s a good thing. He’ll get healthy and have a great career.
“I like to talk about when I was a rookie, what we went through in Cleveland and how the league was so much different then. I think Dre’s listening, but he was in elementary school then. It’s funny.”
Crocker said he has an “obligation” to share what he knows, but that what the young Bengals don’t know might actually help them.
“There aren’t many guys who have been here a long time,” he said. “The young guys don’t even know about the history of coming up short. They don’t remember 2008 when we lost (10) in a row. They don’t have a clue that it’s been 30 years since the Bengals had back-to-back winning seasons. Not a clue. They’re trying to get the next win.”
Early in Crocker’s career, those wins were hard to come by. So, too, was any stability.
Crocker remembers a Browns team meeting during which Butch Davis told the gathered players that the Browns had finally gathered the necessary pieces, that every player in the room was one of “his guys” and that they’d go forward together, on to big things.
“The very next day, he traded Quincy Morgan,” Crocker said.
Crocker said that day really stuck with him when he was traded to Atlanta in March of 2006, after starting every game in the first year of the Phil Savage-Romeo Crennel administration with the Browns.
“That was maybe my best season (in 2005),” Crocker said. “I thought I was really getting to the top of my game and becoming one of the best players on that defense. Then, I was gone. It turns out you don’t get to decide anything. This league is just about the unknown and the unforgiving.”
Crocker played the next two seasons with the Falcons under current Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, then signed with the Dolphins in 2008. When things didn’t work out there and he was released at midseason, he was reunited with Zimmer in Cincinnati.
Both by necessity and by luxury, Zimmer has moved Crocker all around the secondary this season. He’s started seven of 11 games and leads the Bengals with three interceptions.
Crocker said the best examples of veteran Browns who helped him as a young player were fellow defensive backs Robert Griffith and Daylon McCutcheon.
“I learned a lot of little things from them at first,” Crocker said. “A lot of it was on-field stuff. It was also stuff about habits, about being a pro, about handling things better as you go.
“They both left me feeling that if you did this thing right and were lucky enough to have a long NFL career, you’d leave with some money in the bank and a lot of really great, really important relationships.”
Griffith spent three (2002-04) of his 13 NFL seasons with the Browns. McCutcheon had a solid, productive NFL career by all accounts in seven seasons with the Browns (1999-2006).
“Griff would say, ‘If you’re going to buy a blender, buy the very best blender,'” Crocker said. “I don’t really remember if we ever talked about the best blenders, but he meant that you think about what you’re investing in, and you go for it. It was the same with getting your body ready to play these seasons. It takes some luck, but most guys don’t play eight or 10 years by accident. They put their best into it.
“Daylon was a really good player, tough as nails, and his run only lasted seven seasons. Daylon is not an old guy at all and he’s been out of football for (six years). Man, you have to enjoy this while it lasts.”
Crocker has done that. Ten years in, he can smile and say he’s been enjoying the ride.