Posted: 4:40 p.m.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the second-day pick with first-round swagger is putting up franchise numbers in this seventh season of a seventh-rounder.
His NFL-leading 58 catches in seven games has put him on pace for the NFL's second-most prolific season of all-time and has his junior college coach reminiscing how he ran like Barney Rubble but still had Road Runner speed.
"He didn't look fast, but only one guy on campus could beat him," says Frank Mazzotta, still the coach at Cerritos College. "He was so danged competitive that he'd make sure he'd beat you even if he had to trip you."
Now 58 catches is beating everyone on campus. It's one more than tight end Pat McInally had in his entire decade with the Bengals and nine more balls than the incomparable Isaac Curtis had in his best season. His nine touchdown catches are already halfway to Carl Pickens' franchise-record 17.
"That's a long way to go there," Houshmandzadeh says. "I'm not going sit here and lie to you. You do well individually, it's cool. To be honest with you, at the end of the day, we're still losing, so you're not doing enough. Michael Jordan and Kobe can score 35, but it doesn't matter if you're not winning games. I would rather have (fewer) catches and touchdowns and be 5-2 and have a better chance at the playoffs."
Nine touchdowns in seven games?
Steve Kreider, the first Super Bowl team's third receiver, had nine touchdown catches during his seven-year career in Cincinnati. So did Kelley Washington (2003-06), running back Stanford Jennings (1984-90) and a backup tight end for seven seasons named Bruce Coslet.
Three more catches gives the 204th pick in the 2001 draft a total of 364 career catches. That's one more than Eddie Brown, the 13th pick in the 1985 draft and fifth on the club's all-time list.
"I understand football," says Houshmandzadeh, but he bristles at the notion that he is a savvy (read slow) route runner with a nose for the end zone.
He may lead the NFL in catches, but he'll glare if you suggest that means he's a possession receiver.
"I have to bring in the newspapers from when I was in junior college and you can look at my 100 meter times," he says.
This is why we bring you Mazzotta, in his 30th season at Cerritos. Better yet, we bring you Houshmandzadeh's track coach at Cerritos, Doug Wells.
Houshmandzadeh calls Wells "the first white dude to break 10 seconds" in the 100 meters, but while Wells thanks him for the compliment he says his best was 10.48 and he didn't do that until his mid-30s.
"He only ran for me one year, his sophomore year before he went up to Oregon State," Wells says. "He had never run track before, but I told him to come out and I'd work with him on his speed to get him ready."
Houshmandzadeh did more than that. Despite learning how to get out of the blocks, he made the 4 by 100 relay team that ended up winning the state title in the fast lane of California.
"He had to leave to go to Oregon before we went to states," Wells says. "But we won it with a guy that was slower than he was. And he really wanted to make that 4 by 100 team. He was going to do anything to make it. He stayed after practice. He did extra. He's just so competitive. If I had him two years, I think he could have been timed in 10.4 electronically."
Mazzotta didn't get fooled by what he calls Houshmandzadeh's deceptive running style.
"People have misconceptions because he's got that funny gait," Mazzotta says. "He's got that long upper torso and short legs and he looks like Barney Rubble out there. But people don't realize how fast he is. They must now. He's leading the league. And it was the same here. You put him out there and he ran past the fastest corner."
But speed didn't convert the nine-yard pass from Carson Palmer into a touchdown Sunday against the Steelers.
"I wasn't supposed to do what I did," he says. "I was just supposed to keep running. But I saw somebody in my way, so I stopped."
That somebody was Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu and Houshmandzadeh took his signature hit before leaning in for the score.
But he doesn't see so many catches in the future. He still thinks wide receiver Antonio Chatman is the fastest guy on the team and will be a factor once he knocks the rust off his injury-plagued game. And Houshmandzadeh figures Chris Henry's return Nov. 11 in Baltimore will stop the 132-catch pace, and he's glad it will.
"If I don't catch 130 balls and we get to the playoffs or have an opportunity like last year to win a game and get in the playoffs, that's cool," Houshmandzadeh says. "If we win I'm cool with it. If we lose, I'm not cool with it."