In Chris Crocker, Bengals have a vet leader

CINCINNATI -- Chris Crocker had barely been in the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room a month, and already he was barking orders at his new teammates as if he had been in the building his entire career.

The year was 2008, and Cincinnati was going through another one of its recent abysmal downturns. In the nine weeks before the safety arrived from Miami, the Bengals had lost eight games and were in a race for the league's worst record and the next year's top draft choice.

"I can remember walking through here and him challenging guys," said Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, who was in his third season in the league the year he became Crocker's teammate for the first time. "Here's the new guy, and he's basically walking in and challenging different guys on the team, saying, 'You've got to play better and quit coasting,' and those types of things.

"He came in here and kind of changed this locker room with his attitude."

While the Bengals don't appear in need of an attitude adjustment this time around, they are hopeful that after re-signing him earlier this week, Crocker will bring the same spark and energy that took root in the locker room six seasons ago.

"He's been one of the guys who set the foundation of things here and the foundation is good," coach Marvin Lewis said Friday.

In the seven games Crocker spent with the Bengals at the end of the 2008 season, Cincinnati went 3-3-1. After notching a tie in the safety's first game in a Bengals uniform, he and his teammates dropped three straight before pulling out three victories to close the year. One of those wins was a 14-0 finish that came in Cleveland in front of more than 72,000.

This weekend, Crocker and the Bengals are headed back into that same hostile, northern Ohio territory when they visit the Browns for the first of two division games this season. When he emerges from the visiting team's tunnel at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday, Crocker may be carrying a feeling of nostalgia onto the field with him. Cleveland is where he began his career.

"Like Leon [Hall] said, 'You would come back the week we play Cleveland,'" Crocker said. "I've always loved to play in that place. I do. I loved to play in there as a player. I loved to play in there as an opponent because the fans are very familiar with me and they either love me or they hate me. It's just a great place to play."

The former Marshall standout was drafted by the Browns in the third round of the 2003 draft. He spent three seasons with them before playing two in Atlanta. After those, his on-again, off-again relationship with the Bengals began.

This marks the second straight season that he returned to Cincinnati just in time to travel to Cleveland.

Much like last year, Crocker's presence this season is the product of the Bengals needing an extra defensive back's body to lessen the blow of a series of injuries to their secondary. This weekend, they could be without up to three cornerbacks. Hamstring injuries forced cornerbacks Hall, Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Reggie Nelson into being listed as doubtful for Sunday's game.

Crocker's addition means the Bengals not only have a safety who can take Nelson's spot on the two-deep depth chart, but it means they also have a corner to play in the slot in the event Hall doesn't play and backup Brandon Ghee has trouble getting going after returning this week from a concussion.

Lewis calls Crocker Cincinnati's "insurance policy."

"He's able to come in and cover different spots," Lewis said. "If called upon, he'll be ready to go. He'll be up to it."

Crocker said he's also up for fulfilling his standard leadership role.

"I've always had that onus on me where I wanted to help other guys," Crocker said. "Sometimes you need to pull somebody else along with you. I've been that person my whole career so I'm just going to continue to be that person and be a playmaker and lead by example and good things are going to happen; for me and this team."

With three interceptions, including one in his first game, Crocker was one of the Bengals' better playmakers last season. When an injury prevented him from participating in Cincinnati's lone playoff game, his time in a Bengals uniform, he thought, was over. Unsure of what the next step would be, he went back to his home in Atlanta and spent the offseason learning how to be a referee and brushing up on his broadcast skills.

"I've been very, very busy," Crocker said when he arrived in Cincinnati earlier this week. "I kept my mouth shut this whole offseason. You haven't heard much from me, but I have got my hands in some things that are pretty positive. Post-career should be very, very good."

Forget reffing, Crocker might have a future in coaching, if he wants it. In the brief time he has spent with the Bengals' mostly young secondary, he has turned into a mentor for the group.

"This offseason, when the whole safety thing was up for grabs, I learned a lot from Crock," George Iloka, a second-year safety, said. "There's still a lot more things that I can soak and learn from him. He's a real smart guy. I'm like a sponge right now just trying to soak up as much information from guys like him and [veterans] Terence [Newman] and Leon and Reggie; guys who have done it before. "

Crocker has done it all, alright.

Well, maybe there's one thing he hasn't done.

"Obviously, the goal is the Super Bowl. That's unfinished business," Crocker said. "It's not about what you did in your last game, it's about getting to the ultimate game."

If the Bengals' season continues trending in the direction most believe it may, perhaps he finally will.