Return of the native

Chris Crocker has no idea how the Cleveland fans are going to treat him when he shows up out of nowhere Sunday, an old Browns third-round pick facing the Dawg Pound instead of toasting it.

But then, Crocker has no idea explaining how he went from being a starter in Miami around the last time these two teams met less than three months ago to now. Walking into Cleveland Browns Stadium for the first time since general manager Phil Savage traded him and coming in this time as the Bengals best defensive player.

"I ended up in Atlanta and that wasn't a bad thing, but I felt like I played really good in Cleveland," Crocker said of that 2006 deal before Wednesday's practice. "Phil Savage, plain and simple. That was a big part of it. That's OK because I've come full circle."

Make that full circle out of a whirlwind. In six games since he signed off the street as a devastated cut of the Dolphins, Crocker has racked up 39 tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception, and a video montage of consistently big hits the Bengals have been lacking for years out of the safety position.

In fact, after Crocker emerged from last week's win over Washington with 14 hits that included a game-changing tackle jarring the ball loose from tight end Chris Cooley on the game's first series and an appointment as a game captain, secondary coach Kevin Coyle agreed with Marvin Lewis that it was as good a game a Bengals safety has played since Lewis arrived in 2003.

That was the year the Browns drafted Crocker out of Marshall and the Bengals Opening Day safeties were Marquand Manuel and Mark Roman.

They've gone through a bunch since. Arena ball refugee Kevin Kaesviharn was solid but not a hitter. Free agent Dexter Jackson has been mired in injury. Second-rounder Madieu Williams never regained his rookie form after a shoulder injury and he was let go to free agency. Second-year guys Marvin White and Chinedum Ndukwe have yet to reach their potential. Although with White (ACL) on injured reserve, Ndukwe hopes to return this week to play a team he has terrorized for three interceptions in the last two games.

"It hasn't been a strong point to be honest with you," Coyle said after practice Wednesday. "We've had some good players that have played (well) on and off but we've never had a guy that's truly been a game-changing impact guy. I'm not putting Chris in that category at this point. But he's been very productive and we've been very pleased in how much he's brought."

He's brought so much that Crocker says defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has given him the most freedom in his six seasons and he feels like it has revealed the strengths in his game that three other NFL stops failed to tap. Including last year's stint with Zimmer in Atlanta.

With the Falcons, Crocker did a lot of coverage and deep middle work while Lawyer Milloy blitzed and roamed the box. As the strong safety in Cleveland, he played a lot in the box and closer to the line of scrimmage. Here he's doing a little bit of everything under Lewis' concept of interchangeable safeties.

"I appreciate Zimmer from the standpoint that this is his defense and it's one of the reasons I'm here," Crocker said. "There's been a lot of blitzes, and a lot of covering and playing in the middle of the field. I've done all of it."

Crocker said he was crushed when Miami cut him back in mid-October with no reason. Even though Savage didn't give him a detailed list, he could read the writing on the wall with kids Sean Jones and Brodney Pool behind him. Not so with the Dolphins.

"That was very frustrating," he said. "I wanted to go where I could play and (show) it was not because I was a bad guy in the locker room or because I couldn't play. That was my mindset. This is important. I didn't want my career to end there."

He's been so good in the locker room and the DB room that Coyle is hoping Ndukwe and White are watching so they pick up some of his traits. Ndukwe jokes that Crocker is "The Golden Child."

Even an offensive player like Chad Ocho Cinco, the man that sent Crocker and the rest of the Browns secondary a bottle of Pepto-Bismol before the 2004 game in Cleveland, thinks Crocker has lifted the play on both sides of the ball.

"I got some licks on him," Crocker recalled. "We always got jacked up to play him, but it wasn't personal. The guy is a great player."

So he's got all kinds of experience.

"He's been around in different systems and he can look at film and decipher what teams are trying to do and he processes the information quickly and transfers it to his on-field play," Coyle said. "A lot of times guys can study it, try to learn it, but putting it into practical use, he can do that. That's what he can show these guys. Hey, know your stuff. Then you can apply it."

Coyle says Crocker's strength is being so decisive in his decision-making that it allows him "to play at a 100 miles per hour" because he can understand the formation, or what the motion man means, or seeing the play develop.

"You can be there two steps quicker and that's what he is," Coyle said. "He's showing up at the point rather than after the fact. I think with these young guys there's a tendency to try to be sure of what you're doing before you go."

Of course, Coyle and Crocker do the typical dance between player and coach. Coyle wants him to rely on his instincts but at the same time not to go freelance. For his part, Crocker assures him after a blitz or flying up to make the hit on the run that he has first checked on all the possibilities for a reverse or draw or screen.

The team loves those instincts. On Wednesday, Coyle talked more about one of the 14 hits Crocker didn't make when he had Redskins receiver Santana Moss in an extremely vulnerable midair position and he backed off. But Crocker didn't back off his concussion shot of Steelers receivers Santonio Holmes last month, the Bengals answer to Keith Rivers, and then he didn't hesitate calling the other Steelers wide receiver, Hines Ward, a dirty player.

Crocker is just as open about returning to the Bengals next year even though he's working on a one-year deal. He has yet to hear from the club, but with Jackson heading into the last year of his deal on IR, no one would be surprised with a safety rotation of Ndukwe, White and Crocker.

Coyle not only likes Crocker's demeanor around the kids (which this secondary has rarely had since Coyle arrived in '01), but his versatility at being able to cover receivers one-on-one in nickel situations.

"If they have as much confidence in me to be a voice in the DB room and helping the young guys, why wouldn't I come back?" Crocker said. "This is a great opportunity, especially with the kind of team we have. Beyond the injuries, we have players who can play. This record doesn't indicate what type of team we have. I'd be a fool to say I didn't want to come back."

Crocker has been impressed with the play of rookie defensive tackle Pat Sims and how the coaches have stayed on him to get better. And, this is how briefly Crocker has been here: He never got a chance to play with Rivers, but he also likes the amount of plays made by his backup at WILL linebacker, Brandon Johnson. He thinks the two starting cornerbacks, Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, hasn't taken their first-round status lightly and are willing to learn.

Of course, he would like to impress some people of his own Sunday on his return. He knows Savage is going to have a good seat and he talks often with his best friend on the team, linebacker Andra Davis. They spoke just Tuesday night.

"I don't know what the reaction will be like," he said. "I don't know if they're going to love me or hate me but I'm going to have fun."  

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