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Chad Johnson: Bengals hero kept at arm’s length

We look back at one of the best Bengals players in franchise history, as his NFL career was chronicled on NFL Network’s “A Football Life”.

Marvin Lewis

What comes to mind when you hear the name “Chad Johnson”?

Most who are outside of the Cincinnati Bengals’ fan base think of spectacular catches and egotistical celebrations. Those who are intimate with the club, though, know that there is so much more to No. 85 than most realize. On Friday night, the NFL Network aired “A Football Life: Chad Johnson”, which gave the nation a closer look into Johnson’s tumultuous 12-year NFL career.

Because of his production and theatrics while in Cincinnati, most forget that Johnson played his final pro season with the Patriots and his final offseason with the Dolphins. And, for those who are on the younger end of the NFL fan spectrum, they remember the disgraced wide receiver who Miami cast off before the season began because of a domestic dispute with his now-ex-wife.

An hour-long special and two printed biographies still don’t tell the entire tale of one of the most productive and enigmatic Bengals players in franchise history. Some view Johnson as a major part of the phoenix-like rise of Cincinnati’s pro football team under Marvin Lewis, while other view “Ochocinco” as a cartoon-like caricature of more lost opportunities for Bengals championship potential.

Chad Johnson, the Football Player from 2001-2005:

Credit Johnson, who endured his two initial professional years on terrible Bengals teams. When Lewis arrived though, Johnson knew there was going to be a change in The Queen City. And while their relationship had its speed bumps, it’s still apparent that the two of them have a personal connection, even if it isn’t the same as it was when the current head coach arrived 14 years ago.

Most who follow football have seen the infamous clip where Johnson talks to Lewis in their 2003 training camp, saying, “I want to be one of the greatest to ever play this game. I want to be better than (Jerry) Rice. Y’all gotta help me,” he told his then-new head coach. While he didn’t ever reach Rice’s status, he did become Hall of Fame eligible this offseason with the help of his franchise record-holding marks in receptions, yards and touchdowns.

Both Carson Palmer and Johnson, two players who fans soured on as the 2010s came, teamed with Lewis to raise the Bengals franchise from the ashes of the 1990s, AKA “The Lost Decade”. From 2003-2005, Johnson made three Pro Bowls, was named as an All-Pro twice and was on his way to superstardom. In those three years, Johnson averaged 94 catches, 1,354 receiving yards and over nine touchdowns. Not coincidentally, the Bengals had a 25-21 record in the span.

“I always called him eighty-five. He had this thing about him, man. He just had this confidence about him,” future Hall of Fame linebacker and constant division foe Ray Lewis said of Johnson. “Me, personally, I loved it.”

In the time, Johnson not only gave fans great football highlights, but he also showed the fun side of the game. Whether it was a checklist of defensive backs who would be his supposed victims, sending Pepto-Bismol to the Cleveland Browns’ secondary or flashy end zone celebrations, Johnson brought national attention to a team that hadn’t received it since the days of Boomer Esiason and Sam Wyche.

But, as the Bengals failed in the postseason and games passed where Johnson didn’t get as many looks as he would like, a bubbling animosity brewed within him. Seemingly believing that a small market team who couldn’t break the playoff barrier was holding him down from more national attention that other receivers of lesser or equal talent were receiving, the latter years of Johnson’s Bengal career were not amicable.

“Ochocinco” is born:

Sometime between 2006-2007, Chad Johnson decided to play off of his jersey number and tap into his love of international “futbol”, in an effort to began going by the moniker of Chad “Ochocinco”. At first it played into the fun-loving nature from the enigmatic receiver who had an infectious smile and penchant for big plays.

Interestingly enough, Johnson noted that it was actually Palmer’s suggestion for him to consider the name-change. The former Bengals’ franchise signal-caller corroborated the story on the NFL Network special on Johnson, which might be a surprise to some. Regardless, “Ochocinco” played off of his previous stardom, while known as Johnson, and parlayed it into a new marketing phenomenon.

Even though the Bengals went 15-17 in those two initial Ochocinco years, the star-crossed wide receiver made two Pro Bowls because of his on-field performance. However, contract issues and Johnson’s problems with the Bengals failing to see their potential led to his request for a trade and missing team activities before the 2008 season. That season was one of the worst in Lewis’ tenure, yet Ochocinco stuck around for two more years until Lewis and Mike Brown re-hauled the roster in the 2011 offseason.

Oddly enough, the man who helped craft Johnson into a Hall of Fame caliber wideout, Santa Monica College football coach, Charles Collins, noted that his strong relationship with Johnson dissipated when he decided to go with the “Ochocinco” persona. Aside from calling the raw Johnson “a turd” when he first set foot in Los Angeles looking to be coached up, Collins harnessed his talent to help make him one of the best players in Bengals history. Still, he didn’t like the new level of showmanship.

“We didn’t speak,” Collins recalled on the episode. “I wouldn’t accept his calls until he changed his name (back to Johnson) because that’s not who I taught how to play the position. I taught Chad Johnson—I thought Chad Ochocinco was a clown”.

Some who are against the “No Fun League”, loved the Ochocinco alias, wanting everyone to embrace a guy who wanted to bring a different spin to the NFL. Others, especially those who were close to Johnson, weren’t fans of the celebrations and both staff members and fans thought the player from his first four years in the league was the one he should continue to emulate.

Lewis, the Bengals head coach and another man Johnson initially looked up to as a positive influence along with Collins, felt as if some of those acts of showmanship were not only a detriment to Johnson’s play and also subsequently hurt the team.

“His pranks and his dances that he did, by doing those other stunts, it put so much pressure on himself, that if the game didn’t break his way right away, he’d get totally frustrated. And then it would almost do the opposite and take him out of his game. There came a point where Chad became different from the Chad that was first on the scene when I came here and football didn’t become as important as it once was to him.”

Whether it was his high level of interest in international soccer, the elaborate celebrations or the team’s overall drop in play, No. 85 was a scapegoat—especially with the contract issues that became public. Johnson claimed in the documentary that his erratic behavior toward the end of the decade was due to the Bengals’ losing ways, but it’s a stigma, right or wrong, that lasts with No. 85 to this day.

Ocho’s Legacy:

What do you remember about eighty-five’s tenure in Cincinnati? Is it his rise to prominence that coincided with Lewis’ takeover and the team’s first playoff appearance in 15 years with the 2005 AFC North division crown? Or was it the player who soured on the team towards the end of his Bengals career and was known more for making the spectacular grabs instead of some more clutch routine ones?

“He had some of the quickest feet I’ve ever seen,” future Hall of Fame receiver and former teammate Terrell Owens said. “This is why he’d tell people to ‘kiss the baby’.

It was that asset along with crisp route-running that made him one of the most dangerous receivers in the 2000s. In fact, in a special preceding the documentary on Johnson, the NFL Network labeled him as the No. 7 receiver of the 2000s on one of their patented top-10 lists, which basically included a glut of Hall of Fame players.

“His quickness was a major problem. I didn’t really want to be in man coverage, no matter who we had on him,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said on the special. Palmer corroborated the notion, talking about Johnson’s ability to separate from defensive backs as one of the best he’s ever played with. Oh, and the former Bengals’ franchise quarterback currently throws passes to Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona, by the way.

“Man, he was the most dominant receiver for, I don’t know how many years,” Palmer added on the documentary. “I could see at the line of scrimmage, you look across the ball and there were guys who were scared to death that Ocho was out there”.

It’s a pretty telling statement from another Bengals player who has fallen out of favor with Cincinnati. There were rumors of Johnson’s me-first antics as part of the reason for Palmer’s request for a trade from Cincinnati, though those were never substantiated. Regardless, both players needed each other to reach Pro Bowl status and bring Cincinnati out of their playoff drought.

“If Chad was in a phone booth with two defensive backs, he’d pick up the phone and tell you, ‘hey I’m still open,” Owens said on the documentary.

It’s just part of the lovable, yet frustrating nature that came with Johnson’s football career. When he got the ball, it was must-see television and he usually came through for Palmer, Lewis and the Bengals. When he didn’t, all parties heard about it.

Even though he may rank as “really good” instead of “dominant” by Canton standards, Johnson’s talent was universally recognized, as evidenced by “A Football Life”. Whether it was Palmer, the Lewis’ of both Ray and Marvin, Hue Jackson or others, many corroborated his abilities on the football field.

“You have to have some type of selfishness to you in anything that you will be successful at,” Johnson said to the NFLN cameras. “Sometimes that selfishness is mistaken for arrogance or cockiness, but ain’t nobody humble out here because humble ain’t getting you nowhere. You can’t be humble and be great. You have to have a certain drive and tenacity about you to get the damn job done.”

And, ironically, that statement accurately sums up No. 85’s football career. Sometimes, it was hard to discern whether or not it was purely a self-serving mantra Johnson embodied. But, probably like Palmer and his wanting to leave Cincinnati in the same offseason Johnson was traded, it all came down to winning on the football field.

Personally speaking, and I assume as it was the same for many who followed the Bengals and rooted for Johnson, it was hard to be on his side with the offseason workout vacancies and his vocal desire to leave the team he helped build into a winner. It’s especially hard to side with some of Johnson’s antics when you see the uber-talented, anti-Chad in current Bengals star receiver, A.J. Green.

If you’re of the coach-centered, old-school mindset, maybe you’d agree with Lewis who coached him in The Queen City for eight years.

“It was all against everything coaches stand for, you know, particularly myself,” the current Bengals coach said on the documentary. “We don’t need to bring attention to ourselves. But, that’s what got him up and excited to go play”.

Back in 2011 after he was traded to the Patriots, I wrote a semi-scathing op-ed on him as he was on his on his way to almost gaining his first championship ring. Emotional scars and jealousy reigned at the time, but as many other disgruntled Bengals free agents also learned the hard way, Johnson saw that the grass wasn’t necessarily greener on the other side.

NFL Network’s documentary re-lived some of the great plays he made for the Bengals and coupled with time passing, eliminated any personal sour grapes that remained. He might not have been the the physical freak that Owens and Randy Moss were in the same era, based on size and strength, but he helped bring one of the worst franchises in pro sports into prominence because of his play and crazy celebrations.

“They fine you because that’s what they think you cherish the most, the money,” Johnson said. “And, obviously, it’s really great to be at a certain level and be paid great for it, but that’s why I’m not &*$%#! here. Which is why I never stopped doing it (the celebrations), because I’m not here for the money. This is how I feel the game is supposed to be played—it’s about entertainment, it’s about having fun. People pay a $75 ticket. You mean to tell me I’m not going to give them a show? I’m giving you you’re money’s worth.”

So, was Chad a misunderstood character in Bengals lore who seemed to be an immature kid at times? Or was he simply a guy who loved football, wanted to entertain an audience and broke the strict rules of an uptight professional league?

“Chad made Cincinnati cool again,” current Bengals radio play-by-play announcer Dan Hoard said. And, really that’s the crux of what Chad Johnson brought to the Cincinnati Bengals.

How do you stop eighty-five?

Thanks for the memories, Chad—just don’t expect me to call you Ochocinco. Oh, and maybe lay off the McDonald’s as you approach your 40’s, for your health’s sake.