Chad looks to score after four more years

Posted: 11 p.m.

Really good practice today on both sides of the ball. We had Popeyes for snack after practice, best 2 piece I had in a while. - *Wed Jan. 6, 3:07 p.m.

The Ocho says he hasn't changed. But the next tweet didn't come for more than six hours. There hasn't been one since. Maybe there hasn't been a more telling silence since the last Tiger Woods press release.

Ochocinco said he would back off the tweets this week. More business-like he said. It is, after all the NFL playoffs.

Hey, the only Ocho-like boast coming of out of the camps Wednesday came from the other head coach when the Jets' Rex Ryan said his team should be favored to win the Super Bowl. 

"I think Chad's growth and maturity has helped allow this team to become a better team and make a playoff run," says John Thornton, a former teammate of Chad Ochocinco when he was Chad Johnson. "And throw in that he's really been their most consistently reliable receiver."

But long before Twitter, the Bengals and Chad Johnson Ochocinco were defined in a much different way in the devastating Wild Card loss to the Steelers four years ago, their lone playoff appearance until another Wild affair at Paul Brown Stadium this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. against Ryan's Jets.

It was Stephen King horror and Shakespearean tragedy. The franchise, Carson Palmer, was lost for the game with the worst of knee injuries when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament on just the second snap hurtling a 66-yard javelin into the heart of Steelers nation.

Then at halftime, with the Bengals winning, 17-14, Johnson exploded in rage. Stunned by Palmer lying on the training table and frustrated by his lack of catches, he flailed at coaches and himself screaming as an I.V. tore from his arm and splattered the glass training room doors with blood.

OK. A little Sam Peckinpah cinematography thrown in.

The final was 31-17, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati's image was set in stone.

Star-crossed.

Silly putty at the first whiff of adversity.

One of the Bengals' best players, indeed their most high-profile player, so selfish that his catches came even before a halftime lead in a playoff game. He could get all the Pro Bowls he wanted, but if he couldn't control his emotions or ego, he was only a celebrity and not a player.

Some have argued it took the Bengals locker room this long to get over the trauma of that day.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to Facebook.

The Bengals junked the '05 pass-first offense, The Ocho discarded the '08 trade demands and they swept the '09 division and are back in the Wild Card. Yes, naturally, on The Ocho's 32nd birthday.

"I'm the same. Same (jerk)," The Ocho says this week, entertaining a postseason media session spiced by the presence of New York. "I'm not old. I don't age. That was a long time ago, Hoss. I'm emotional. It doesn't go away with age."

Maybe.

But the only NFL wide receiver to ever lead his conference in receiving four straight seasons and come through on his vow to outrun a race horse, stands in front of his locker this week and nods to next door neighbor and running back Cedric Benson's locker and says, "This offense starts with No. 32." 

The Ocho just finished a year averaging slightly more than four catches and only 67 yards per game without a nuclear incident. Which in the 21st century with Pro Bowl receivers is how war is waged.

"I think he's definitely a different guy," says left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who arrived the next season in 2006. "A lot of people would say Chad would never play on a run-first team. He's been nothing but great all year for us and playing on a team that runs predominantly. He's done nothing but do his job."

That atmosphere around here as changed as I must change with it and understand thee importance of the post season-BE GREAT 85 -* Tue Jan. 5, 12:56 p.m.

"This is my first playoff," he says. "I can't even remember the other one because it was so short. Carson went out on the first play of the game."

He remembers coming in at halftime and seeing Palmer lying on the training table and starting to lose it.

"Yeah, that pissed me off," he says admitting he let it get to him. "Yeah, too much, too much."

After leaving his wake of madness, The Ocho went out and dropped a first-down pass on the first series of the second half and finished with just four catches for 59 yards.

His coaches were furious. When offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski saw him on TV 48 hours after the game deny that any incident took place, the usually mild-mannered and cerebral Brat went off and ripped into Ochocinco's voice mail questioning his commitment to his team and mates.

After practice Wednesday two days shy of four years, Bratkowski admits, "Time has passed."

"I think he's honest when he says that," says Bratkowski of The Ocho's insistence he doesn't care about the stats. "It was the true test. OK, you've said all along if we were winning, I don't care. Now we're winning. Let's see if it holds true. It has. He's done a good job."

Bengal Nation on behalf of myself and my teammates we apologize for last night's game, we will bounce back. Cincy be great! - Mon Jan. 4, 11:05 a.m.

Bratkowski and Thornton think it's a myth that game and halftime fouled up the Bengals for years. So does Palmer.

"I wouldn't say the reason we haven't been to the playoffs since that year is because of that game," Palmer says this week. "There are a number of other circumstances that have made that be the outcome. It was a tough loss. It's tough to lose and then watch the team that you lost to go to the Super Bowl and win it. I don't think that has been an issue or something that has been in the back of anybody's mind."

All Thornton has to do is look at 2006. The Bengals won their first three games, the last one against the defending Super Bowl champions in Pittsburgh without Rich Braham, David Pollack, Tab Perry and Dexter Jackson.

"That was hard to do. But we were rolling and that was a big win," Thornton says. "But that team couldn't handle adversity. We didn't respond and I don't think our personnel were as good as we thought it was. But that's what separates the team this year. They've been able to pretty much handle everything thrown at them. And you get in a game late, and they've been very good. We had trouble getting to the fourth quarter."

Bratkowski agrees about '06. It had nothing to do with '05. That's the year the Bengals missed the playoffs by a game.

That's the year they lost a game in Tampa when Justin Smith's game-ending sack was ruled roughing the passer. That's the year they couldn't hold a 28-7 halftime lead at home against San Diego. That's the year a botched snap on an extra point with 40 seconds left in Denver cost them overtime. That's the year a missed 39-yard field goal with 12 seconds left in regulation led to an overtime loss at home to Pittsburgh.

The team that has been magical late in '09 was simply late in '06.

"It's long gone now. We screwed it up," Bratkowski said. "The extra point. The missed field goal. Look at the Denver game. We left a lot of points on the field. We had a (75-yard) touchdown pass to Chris Henry called back because Chad didn't get his feet set. T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) dropped a touchdown pass. Rudi (Johnson) fumbled.

"That set us back. Had we made the playoffs that year, there would have been a lot of confidence and we let it slip through the hands."

If the Bengals had any of those plays in any of those four games go their way, this would have been their third playoff appearance in five seasons, joining in the AFC Indianapolis (5), New England (4), San Diego (4), Pittsburgh (3) and Baltimore (3).

They didn't, and one of the reasons Bratkowski knows is the club's big-play receiver came up empty in those last three games of '06 when they needed just one win. He ended up with 10 catches for 122 yards and no touchdowns.

But The Ocho has been huge in this season he has been Palmer's first and only consistent target even though most of the time he's doubled. Not only did he personally secure the AFC North two weeks ago with a stone-cold clutch backward leaner on third down with 2:05 left, but:

» He got them off the deck against Detroit with a sliding 36-yard touchdown catch that put the Bengals ahead for good.

» In the last drive in Baltimore he drew two penalties for 20 yards and first downs.

» In Cleveland at the two-minute warning on fourth and an absolutely must two for a tying a TD, he ran around the end zone giving a scrambling Palmer time to find him in the back.

"The catch in Kansas City was big," Bratkowski said. "Because many times I told him great receivers, sometimes in big games when you're winning, great receivers, it's not the quantity of catches, but the quality of catches. Great receivers make that quality catch for you that gets that critical first down or critical touchdown. Those are the signs of good players when they come up big."

There are other signs. Defensive tackle Shaun Smith played here in '05 and just re-signed last month. In fact, he got called on the carpet a few years ago when he was playing for the Browns and was caught detailing The Ocho's locker room blowup.

It shows how much Smith has grown up, too, when he politely declines to discuss it this week. But he does discuss The Ocho.

"I think he's figured out a lot of things," Smith says. "Life in general. Being a good dad, being a good teammate. Everything. You can only do so much of the old stuff. You live and learn from your mistakes. That's what makes you a better person."

Backup quarterback Jordan Palmer watched the '05 season as a fan. He's watched this one as a fellow pro.

"The bottom line is always the same. He really, really, really wants to win," Jordan Palmer says. "He wants balls, he wants yards, he wants Pro Bowls. But he really wants to win. He's really mature now and handles himself better each year. The proof of that is we are a run-first offense and you don't hear him say a peep because we're winning."

10 years ago I had a dream-I'm living it now-even after people said I wouldn't make it-and they still doubt me-be great 85 - *Thu Dec. 31, 12:46 p.m.

Four years and tweeting.

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