Ochocinco (Bengals photo)
Updated: 5:30 p.m.
An afternoon in mid June and all is well in Bengaldom.
Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco not only was glimpsed with his arm around head coach Marvin Lewis after practice, but during Thursday's workout he was seen actually throwing a rare block on a wide receiver screen to Antonio Chatman.
"Happy days are here again," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and when it was suggested everyone break into "Kumbaya" he countered with, "You lead, I'll follow."
Such is life with The Ocho. All offseason Bratkowski had been trying to cell phone him and text him and he never heard anything back until Tuesday when Ochocinco showed up and apologized for not returning the messages.
"Let's just say he is and has been and always will be an interesting human being," Bratkowski said. "Time tells on everything. How he reacts over time, which we're talking from now until the end of next season that will tell."
And as even The Ocho said after Thursday's practice, "It's only Day 2, baby."
It may be only Day 2, but he was acting like it was the rest of his life as he begins his ninth NFL season trying to erase the worst year of his career that included just 53 catches, 540 yards, a separated shoulder, and a suspension.
After getting through the obligatory preamble Thursday after practice in his first media availability (he's never been a distraction, he's never been a problem, and he didn't want to join his teammates until he was in good enough shape), the Ocho sounded like he finally likes this team after two years of questioning it.
"Definitely, definitely," said The Ocho when asked if he thought the Bengals were in better position this year than the last couple. "The defense is nice ... could be the offense (most improved), too. The O-line looks nice. It starts with them. It's too early. We're in shorts."
Now the question is if the team feels the same way about its all-time leading receiver and five-time Pro Bowler. On Thursday, Lewis, Bratkowski and quarterback Carson Palmer were welcoming him.
"He was one of the top receivers in the league for a number of years. If he's in the right frame of mind and in physical shape, I would think that he could get back to that level," Bratkowski said. "We're kind of bringing him along slowly because half the stuff he doesn't know what we're doing because a lot of it is new. Some things are different, but it's just a matter of him getting caught up. Hearing it. Seeing it. He's fine."
Bratkowski says he'll find a way to get The Ocho, Chris Henry, Laveranues Coles and Andre Caldwell all in the mix. Palmer thinks the talent is there, but they need the repetition of the new parts of the offense.
"We're all new to the offense," said Palmer of The Ocho's adjustments. "It's not a question of talent. We've got enough guys at enough positions. It just comes down to getting better every day, getting better every practice. We're on pace so far, but that's not saying much. We've got a long way to go.
"We've got the players. We've got a good scheme. If we stay healthy and don't get beat up and run into the ground at the end of the year, we'll be fine."
To The Ocho's credit, his surprise early arrival before next weekend's mandatory minicamp nipped in the bud a looming media circus to rival last year's mandatory mini. Defensive tackle Tank Johnson had plenty of front-row seats during the long-running Terrell Owens Show under the Dallas Big Top.
"A circus, whatever you want to call it, it's all media driven," Johnson said. "We don't call it a circus; we call it every day life. You can only deal with people the way they are. T.O. is a great player and the media loves him. Chad's the same way. Chad's a great player and the media loves him. You take it as such.
"I've known him for awhile. I'm just glad he's back and doing his thing. Doing what he loves to do. As long as he's happy doing what he loves, I'm happy. You can only be happy when you're around a good team."
Bratkowski knows things are all right with Ochocinco when he hears him during practice "chirping" in his ear to put him in with the third group.
As of Thursday afternoon, consider The Ocho in a good frame of mind, not to mention the physical form he had when he went to those five Pro Bowls. The verdict is he's in a totally different place than last year at this time, when he missed all the voluntary sessions in an offseason he admittedly didn't train as hard as he had in the past.
"He's in a lot better shape; you can look at him and see it," said second-year wide receiver Andre Caldwell, who only saw Ochocinco play in his dismal '08 season. "He's looking a lot quicker, faster. He looks like the Ocho I've seen on TV and the highlights."
Ochocinco said he decided to come back this week for two voluntary on-field sessions instead of waiting for next weekend's mandatory minicamp that will have five workouts so he could get started on picking up a renovated playbook. He figures three full days should do it.
"There are a lot of wrinkles I'm not familiar with,' he said. "I don't feel comfortable running with the ones at this point. I came back under perfect timing. I'll get (two) practices under my belt and be ready for minicamp and get up to speed as far as practice.
"I can train as hard as I want in the offseason like I've done, but there's no substitute for the speed in an NFL game. Second day, I'm on point. I'm not where I need to be. That's why I came in early."
The group that took the first snap of practice consisted of Coles and Henry split wide and Caldwell in the slot.
Lewis approved of Ochocinco's shape and said it's a matter of getting into football shape.
"He practiced OK. He's in good shape. He's in good condition," Lewis said. "Now he's just got to get back to football. He's in a lot better shape. He worked at it. He came into work. Now he's got to get back on the same page with the quarterback."
That quarterback, Palmer, couldn't help notice. Asked about The Ocho's admission he didn't train as hard as he had last year, Palmer shrugged.
"I knew," he said. "It's obvious that he's hungry. It's obvious that he's embarrassed about last year and wants to make a change. It started the offseason the right way. Hopefully he'll continue to work out and train in the offseason and training camp."
The Ocho also revealed he'll continue his boxing regimen under the eye of Ricardo Williams Sr., in Mount Auburn, the father of former U.S. Olympic boxer Ricardo Williams Jr. And that next offseason he'll get in the ring in a real fight for chairty. Asked if he thought boxing was a violation of his contact, he paused and said, "It probably is."
He continued to insist that he's not a distraction to the the team, and that last year's suspension on the eve of the Steelers game in Pittsburgh was merely because he fell alseep "by accident," and was late for a team meeting.
"That's grounds for suspension here," he said.
Told that former center Eric Ghiaciuc indicated The Ocho was a distraction, he fired back, "Ghiaciuc's play was a distraction. Of all people to call me that."
Not clear Thursday were his alleged three new tattoos on his face. It was hard to see them and asked if they were real, he said, "I had a good practice today."
But he did say the weekly checklist of cornerbacks is going to be posted in his locker again this year.
"It's going to be in Spanish," he said.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» After the club's last workout before the June 18-20 mandatory minicamp, Bratkowski said No. 1 pick Andre Smith is ahead of the learning curve for most NFL rookies, but that he must continue to work to transform his "body type" and keep the weight down with work in the weight room. "He's in shape to play," but it's about being able to play over the long haul.
» Third-round pick Chase Coffman, the former Missouri tight end, was cleared to practice this week but he only worked in individuals and drills with the quarterback as he rehabs the broken foot he suffered on the last play of the season. He said the plan is to be full go for minicamp but "they're playing it by ear."
» Palmer's advice to fantasy leaguers: "Draft Cedric Benson."
» After the minicamp, The Ocho said he'll hook up with Palmer out in California and throw in July, which he says they haven't done before training camp since '05.