Crocker Cheers Bengals

Chris Crocker

Strength coach Chip Morton heckled him about lifting weights. Cornerback Adam Jones razzed him about getting to a meeting. Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins kidded him about being the only guy in the locker room during lunch.

And Chris Crocker loved it. "It's like Cheers," Crocker said. "Everyone knows my name."

More specifically, Crocker is Cliff and the Bengals hope he can help their young defensive players find the answers as they cope with transition and injury.

When Crocker stretched for the first time this season with any team anywhere Thursday, he turned to old friend cornerback Leon Hall and reminded him the last time he signed with the Bengals just a few days before a game they were also getting ready to play the Jaguars back in 2008.

"It's business. Don't hold grudges," said Crocker, doing what he said he might do when he got cut back on April 6 and re-signed with the Bengals. "I'm still able-bodied and obviously they have a need. I'll let it all loose this weekend. It's exciting just to be back and just to see all the guys and to be accepted. Other than that, I'm ready to play."

Crocker says he doesn't see this as an emergency deal for a couple of weeks. His sense is he's in for the long haul of the AFC North chase and he says he's got a lot to prove. For one, he thinks he should still be out there.

"I didn't leave on the terms that I wanted to and I'm here to prove that … I have a lot of things to prove and I'll just leave it at that," he said.

Although defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said after Thursday's practice that the Bengals anticipate Hall (hamstring) and safety Nate Clements (calf) to play Sunday (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Jacksonville, they didn't practice Thursday and neither did cornerback Jason Allen (thigh).

But besides the injuries, the fact that the Bengals are turning to Crocker, 32, the ultimate Coach On The Field, at this late date shows they feel their young players need some ballast on the field as the defense grapples with run numbers that put the Bengals next to last in the NFL and tied for 30th in points allowed.

"A little stability in the back end; it's something we probably needed a little bit," Zimmer said. "We're doing a lot of different things. This just isn't out of the blue. We've been in contact with him for a while. He stayed in shape and we've talked to him. We're trying to have a calming influence. We've got a lot of young guys.

"We're just trying to get a little stability. Someone that knows what's going on and communicates well."

The Bengals know Crocker can get people lined up in the defense that he knows so well and they hope he can settle everyone in the secondary as it careens through changes. He can also play nickel corner, as do safeties Jeromy Miles and Reggie Nelson. The Bengals are looking for something at that safety spot, opposite Nelson, where Clements, Miles and Taylor Mays have all started already in the first three games. Clements's experience looked like it carried the day before he got hurt last Sunday.

Mays, 24, a sophomore in this system, got his first start Opening Day and then got benched. Miles, 25, a third-year player, made his first NFL start the next week before the team turned to Clements to start his first game as a safety in the third game after 161 starts at corner in 12 NFL seasons.

Plus, Zimmer noted he's got a rookie learning a new position in WILL backer Vontaze Burfict and a second-year guy, Vincent Rey working behind him in nickel.

"Stability," Zimmer said, and Crocker is fine with that.

"I've pretty much been that person the whole time I've been here," Crocker said. "I'll just come in and do the same things I've been doing the whole time I've played here. I think that has a lot of value. I don't know if that's what they've been missing but I know that's what I can bring to the table throughout my career."

How soon? No one is saying he'll start Sunday. But no one is saying he won't. After watching Crocker work Thursday, Zimmer said he already knows 85 percent of the calls. Crocker says he can play even though he's done no football since the Bengals playoff loss in Houston back in January.

"I think I can play whatever they need me to do. I think I'm able to do it. It's just a matter of what they see me doing this week or next week or whatever," Crocker said. "It's a coach's decision at the end of the day. It doesn't really matter what I think. I think I should have been here for Game 1 but, you know, it's really a coach's decision. It's up to them how many snaps I play, if I'm out there or whatever.

"Sometimes you don't need all that stuff (OTAs and training camp). Especially coming off an injury sometimes those things can't be good. I had time to get healthy at my own pace. It's not as if I'm coming into a place where I have to learn a new defense. I know the guys and a lot of familiarity."

The Bengals know him well enough that he think he can go out there Sunday.

"I'm a Crock fan," said Jones, who along with Hall and Clements has stayed in touch since the release. "He knows the defense in and out. He makes the game a lot easier for me. Yes, he could (play Sunday) as long he looks at the film. Crock could go out there and play right now … because he knows the defense inside and out and because he's a smart player. As far as tackling-wise, he may have a couple, but as far as being in the right spot, knowing what's going on, there's not a better person you could bring in. Not one."

It should be recalled that when Zimmer went to get his old safety on the 2007 Falcons the next season, he'd only been on the street for 10 days after the Dolphins cut him. Crocker had limited snaps in the 21-19 win over the Jags on Nov. 2, and after the bye he came off the bench to get a sack and interception in the 13-13 game with the Eagles and got the first of his 44 Bengals starts in Pittsburgh four days later in a Thursday night game.

"I don't see why he couldn't," said cornerback Terence Newman, who only knows Crocker from tape. "There's no reason he can't be the same person and come in and make plays. There are guys that know the program and can come in because they know the situation. If anyone could come in and do that, he definitely could do it."

Newman is a fellow 2003 draft classmate (he was the fifth pick, Crocker was the 84th pick in the third round), but they don't know each other.

"I saw him on tape; he's kind of a hybrid," Newman said. "He's a safety that can play corner and nickel corner. I liked his technique and what he was doing. We just need guys to talk and to make sure we're all on the same page."

No one doubts Crocker can get everybody to the right page, but can he make the play after he turns it? If the fans are still disgusted with the 42-yard touchdown run Texans running back Arian Foster exploded on him and everybody else in the last belch of the playoffs, so is he.

"It was my last game so obviously … I wasn't too pleased how I played. I get to right that wrong over the next couple weeks," he said. "It wasn't my best game but I haven't dwelled on it. Try to move forward."

He also said what everyone knew. His knee wasn't right the second half of last season, the lockout robbing him of getting it right after he injured it in November 2010 against the Bills. After undergoing knee surgery following last season "to fix some old and new things," Crocker says it's the healthiest he's been in a while.

"It feels good. Had a lot of time to do things on my own and rehab and get healthy at my own pace," Crocker said. "That was sort of a positive. The negative was I hadn't played any football since the playoff game. I know this defense, it's just a matter of getting back out there and being in a group and doing things I've done for a long time."

The Bengals are Crocker's fourth team and he says it is his favorite spot. And why not? When the Bengals rose from the '08 ashes to sweep the '09 AFC North, he became a face of the renaissance.

Bright, personable, coachable he became one of their influential locker room leaders and one of the rare guys to make the playoffs with both Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton. Back then, it was the defense that carried the offense.

"When I got here in 2008, we weren't very good. That's where we started to form our identity, defensive-wise. That's when we really took a shape of our own. It was completely different," Crocker said. "On the offensive side of the ball, we struggled a lot. The defense really picked it up. All of a sudden, we had a run there. I felt like I was at the beginning of something new. And now, this team is fairly young. It's sort of a reboot again.

"Except offensively, we're not having those same problems we had when I first got here. I've seen transition on both sides. It's just fun to be around, to see other people grow and go through ups and downs together and try to win. We've only been in the playoffs since Marvin's been here three times, and I was here for two of them. I've experienced a lot of good while I was here, and I'm excited about being back."

Crocker says he's been watching the Bengals as a fan. He's seen every game, rooting for his friends and freely dispensing his opinions "at the barbershop." So he won't expound on them in the locker room, but he does think this team is better than the one in '11.

"Yeah, especially mentally. They're just more mature and understand a little bit more, especially the quarterback and receiver," Crocker said of Dalton and A.J Green. "Those two, it's a lot easier. The chemistry goes to a whole other level. Any time you're together for a certain number of years, you just get better because of the familiarity and being around that same person. That's why you don't like to have a lot of turnover. "

Talk about what goes around comes around. Crocker's baby girl Cydney was born a year ago this week and while she's back home in Atlanta with mom Carrie, Crocker knows exactly what it means.

"We'll celebrate something different this time," he said. "This time it's sort of a rebirth. I'll be in a different number (33 instead of 42). I'm coming back in sort of the same capacity but it's different. It's different. I still have a lot to prove."

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