Old Man Crocker

It is often said that one must go away in order to come back—a shining example of those obvious-yet-profound­ quotes that get slapped on movie posters and Twitter bios. And Chris Crocker appears to have bought in to it.

Less than 12 months ago, this was undoubtedly the lasting image that would stick with Bengals fans when recalling the erstwhile safety—Arian Foster abusing him during his sideline scamper for a touchdown, warding off Crocker’s pathetic tackling attempt with a simple shove of his arm and mere competence, securing a playoff victory for the Texans in the process. Nevermind that Crocker had accrued a rather respectable tenure with the Bengals in seasons prior; he was done, washed up, destined for Sunday street clothes. That flailing mess attempting to impede Foster’s dominance was all the evidence necessary.

So Crocker went away. The team released him this past April, the official word coming down months after what many assumed had happened in the locker room following that playoff loss. Reggie Nelson re-upped his contract with the squad, securing his spot at free safety, and the Bengals were prepared to offer Crocker’s position to a revolving door of a veteran former cornerback, a special teams standout, and a young castoff excelling only in squandered hype. It wasn’t so much a slap in the facemask to Crocker as it was an admission of his diminished skills and a premature confidence in the remaining talent at hand. Crocker couldn’t even craft much of an argument against his release. Between nagging injuries and his consistently declining performance, the reasoning was clear.

But as all good, cagey veterans do—those who have come to accept and understand the vacillating nature of NFL—Crocker waited patiently. He got healthy and stayed in shape, well aware that some desperate franchise could inquire soon enough. Heading into Week 4 of the season, with the Bengals underwhelmed by the play of Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles and the secondary plagued by injuries to Leon Hall, Nate Clements, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Jason Allen (who may or may not actually exist), the 32-year-old Crocker was the unlikely savior brought in to scour the deep caverns of the gridiron should any opposing receivers slip through the first line of defense.

Expectations weren’t high among those that follow the team, but neither was the necessity: Crocker was on the field for no more than 44 percent of the defensive snaps in each game through his first four, including only three snaps in the loss to Miami. Nevertheless, Crocker clearly impressed someone during the team’s bye week (or someone finally grew weary of the Mays/Miles plateau), playing all but one defensive snap in the Week 9 loss to Denver, a trend that has yet to dissipate. (Hat-tip to Cincy Jungle for the handy week-to-week snap counts.) He’s roaming the secondary on just over 97 percent of defensive plays in six games since the bye week, even snagging the team lead in interceptions. Suddenly, Chris Crocker has come back.

I doubt he found a mythical elixir. It’s not as if his on-field play has so impressively stood out that I’m constantly updating the NFL’s suspension list, expecting to discover he’s been busted for horse steroids. Crocker’s improved and rejuvenated effort seems as simple as the guy getting healthy and proving he’s an intelligent enough football player for his brains to overcome any physical limitations. He doesn’t have to be great, and he knows it. He just has to be solid.

And if he can keep it going long enough, perhaps we’ll forget all about that Arian Foster play.

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