BY WILL GRAVES
The Associated Press
Jerricho Cotchery spent seven years playing for the New York Jets, the equivalent of a lifetime – and then some – in other NFL cities.
The receiver ranks ninth in Jets history in career receptions and remains in the top 20 in yards receiving and touchdowns, though his contributions on the field might have been overshadowed by what he did off it as the steadying presence in the locker room for a franchise that yo-yo’d from respectability to misery and back again between 2004-2010.
Yet ask Cotchery if Sunday will serve as a homecoming of sorts when he and the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers (0-4) play at the Meadowlands on Sunday and Cotchery just shakes his head.
“I’ve been adopted by the Steelers man,” he said. “From Day 1, they embraced me and they made me feel like I’m a part of this family. I’m a Steeler.”
One with plenty of life left in his 31-year-old legs.
Lost amid Pittsburgh’s winless start is the solid play of a guy who figured to see his role diminished after the Steelers took Markus Wheaton in the third round of the NFL Draft. If anything, the opposite has happened.
At an age when most receivers – even well-established ones – are starting to eye the finish line, Cotchery is enjoying a rebirth. Through four games, Cotchery already has more yards receiving (248) than he did in each of his first two years with the Steelers. Even more stunning is his 16.5 yards per reception, a full four yards above his career average.
Not bad for a guy considered a possession receiver, though Cotchery brushes off the notion he still needs to prove himself after a decade in the league.
“I don’t need anything else to motivate me,” Cotchery said. “I’m just hungry to get a championship and that’s been my approach.”
Even if the approach hasn’t exactly worked for Cotchery or his teammates. Pittsburgh is off to its worst start in 45 years, leading to a sense of unease in the locker room. Not with Cotchery, who is one of the few Steelers who knows what it’s like to endure a rough patch.
Cotchery was coming into his own in 2007 when the Jets, fresh off a Wild Card berth, limped out of the gate 1-8 on their way to a 4-12 mark. Mediocrity is tough to stomach on any team. In New York, however, it can be exponentially worse. Cotchery tied a career high with 82 receptions that season and set a career high with 1,130 yards receiving.
It did little to take the sting out of the situation. He doesn’t get that same sense with the Steelers.
“It wasn’t a very talented team you know,” Cotchery said. “You really didn’t see any hints of that thing turning around. That’s just the reality of it.”
New York rebounded to go 9-7 in 2008, though it wasn’t enough for Eric Mangini to keep his job. Rex Ryan took over in 2009 and Cotchery’s role diminished. He caught 57 passes during Ryan’s first season on the job, a number that dropped to 41 in 2010.
The Jets ended up releasing Cotchery early in training camp in 2011. Looking back, he’s OK with the decision.
“I feel like I didn’t have any bitterness when I left,” he said. “Things change in life. Things happen where you just have to move on. That was just another case.”
He landed in Pittsburgh, which was looking for some veteran hands to play alongside youngsters Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. He caught just 33 passes combined in 2011 and 2012, hardly the kind of numbers that suggest a renaissance.
One has happened anyway, though it’s not necessarily by design. The Steelers have spent much of the season playing from behind, forcing them to pass late in games in hopes of mounting a comeback. That’s given Cotchery more opportunities to get involved, though he credits quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for continuing to look for him when things break down.
“I’ve always felt like I had a good rapport with him,” Cotchery said. “It still feels the same way. He does a lot of things, creates a lot of space for his guys.”
At this point, however, Cotchery would gladly exchange better numbers on the stat sheet for ones on the scoreboard that have the Steelers in front at the final whistle. In the final year of his contract, Cotchery knows time is running out.
“We feel like we’ve made a lot of strides even in the losses,” he said. “We’ve taken the good out of it and we’ve eliminated the bad completely. We’ll do that and we’ll turn it around.”
NOTES: The Steelers re-signed S Will Allen on Thursday and waived CB Damon Cromartie-Smith. ... Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said it’s still too early to say if newly acquired Levi Brown or Kelvin Beachum will start at LT against the Jets. ... Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said CB William Gay may supplant Cortez Allen as a starter, with Allen moving to more of a nickel position.
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