T.J. Houshmandzadeh returned as a coach Monday at Paul Brown Stadium.
Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has made no bones this offseason about looking to extend his unit's mean streak and has been looking to light some competitive fires along the way.
He decided to bring in a guest lecturer for the next two weeks to help deliver his point home when T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the always fiery self-made Pro Bowl wide receiver for the last-decade Bengals, signed up for one of the club's four Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowships.
Houshmandzadeh, 37, insisting, of course, that he can still play, is taking a hiatus from helping his daughter's 12-year-old nationally-ranked AAU softball team in Los Angeles and began working Monday when the Bengals opened their final week of voluntary practices.
He'll also work next week's June 16-18 mandatory minicamp under Jackson, the man that helped steer him to his break-through seasons as Bengals receivers coach from 2004-2006 before Houshmandzadeh led the NFL with a Bengals-record 112 catches in 2007. Chad Johnson may have been the five-time Pro Bowler receiver, but Houshmandzadeh became quarterback Carson Palmer's fire-proof security blanket draped over the middle and down the seam.
"T.J. was a guy that could run all day, catch all day, fight all day and he was never going to back down," Jackson said after Monday's practice. "I'm not saying our guys do. But I think that's who he is. I know that's what he'll bring. I would like every guy on our offensive football team to play like that because he played with a chip on his shoulder and he enjoyed the game and loved the game and there were times I think he'd be going the other way and he'd just say, 'Coach, leave me alone for a second so I can calm down.' And it worked."
Houshmandzadeh has more irons in the fire than American Pharoah. While he proudly says he's been told daughter Kennedi's team pops up first when you Google his name, he's also heading into his second season as an offensive assistant coach for national high school power Long Beach Poly in Long Beach, Calif. Not only that, he's sitting down with NFL Network next month to talk about an announcing gig. He thinks he can do it and they love him, but he's trying to balance TV and coaching with his four children.
"You can only coach your kids once. Two of them can get college (softball) scholarships," he said of the 15- and 12-year-old daughters, his oldest.
It was the ticking clock that sent Houshmandzadeh to three other clubs after leaving the Bengals following a 92-catch season in 2008 left him as the club's third all-time leading receiver, his last stop a half-year stint with Jackson in Oakland in 2011. Houshmandzadeh was supposed to be too small (6-1, 197), too slow (4.6), and too raw (he played one year of high school) to make it in the NFL slot. A seventh-round pick in 2001 out of Oregon State, Houshmandzadeh caught 62 balls in his first three seasons before Jackson arrived and worked Houshmandzadeh into an offense where he had 72 catches in 2004 and joined with Pro Bowler Chad Johnson to give the Bengals one of the most lethal 1-2 combos in the NFL.
Houshmandzadeh has always said his self-made blueprint was drawn more in his head than his hands and that's the message he's brought east.
"Everybody can play, but everybody is not able to play, think, to process before the ball is snapped and during the play," Houshmandzadeh said. "I probably would have stayed in the league without it, but I wouldn't have played as long or as been successful. I don't know where it came from, but it didn't come overnight."
Houshmandzadeh spent his first day back in Paul Brown Stadium since he came back as a Raven and had no catches in a 2010 game like he spent many of his others. Saying interesting things.
He said he visited with Bengals president Mike Brown before practice and told him he found the grass wasn't greener when he left in free agency. He immediately counted left tackle Andrew Whitworth, nose tackle Domata Peko, cornerback Leon Hall, and defensive tackle Pat Sims as the only players left from his day and he said he could already tell the culture of the locker room had changed for the better. He says four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green is one of the best in the league and he says it's eerie how similar he is to Johnson in some segments of his routes.
And Houshmandzadeh's first piece of advice to the receivers came straight from his arsenal of 507 Bengals catches.
"I told a few of them today you don't have to go all out and run your best route all the time," Houshmandzadeh said. "See what the defense is giving you. You know where the defense is going to sit. You know what they're going to play, so you automatically know what they have to do. Make it easy on yourself."
Houshmandzadeh can only coach like he played. Jackson calls him one of the toughest, most competitive players he's ever coached and Houshmandzadeh hopes he can leave some of that.
"There is somebody that always wants to play behind you," Houshmandzadeh said. "I don't think they have that fear or that threat that somebody can take their spot. To me, Hue wants me to help them with the physical, the mental, whatever it may be. I think I can help, but you don't know until they ask."
You don't even have to ask Houshmandzadeh about leaving. He's been pretty much saying it since he took a four-year deal in Seattle in 2009 that was a little better in guaranteed money than the Bengals' offer but lousy in football. They cut him after one season, a season they barely looked his way after he joined up with Palmer for 204 catches in his final two years in Cincinnati.
"I tell players and coaches. I told Carson and Chad after I left," Houshmandzadeh said. "As bad as you think it is in Cincinnati, and I thought it was bad and everybody on the outside when we were here thought it was bad, you go some other place and you realize it wasn't that bad.
"It's like when you have a woman and you leave her and you say I'm going to find somebody better. You think the grass is greener on the other side and you realize, wow, it wasn't and you realize it's not as bad as people think and it's damn sure wasn't as bad as I thought (after) you go to other places."
Houshmandzadeh had to give the message to one of his daughter's teachers. For the last two years twice a month the guy had been wearing Houshmandzadeh's Seahawks jersey to school. Finally his daughter said, "You know, my dad doesn't like the Seahawks." The guy was stunned. Then Houshmandzadeh gave him the No. 84 Bengals jersey on the last day of school.
"Yeah, that's my team,' he said. "It's where you first made your name. That's your team."
Houshmandzadeh loves these receivers. He says Green is one of the best, Marvin Jones "can be really good if he stays healthy," and Mohamed Sanu "is a little bigger than me and can do a little more with the Wildcat in and out of the backfield, stuff we weren't doing when I was here."
Houshmandzadeh says it's a bigger, faster club than back in his day, not to mention more grounded in the locker room than the Wild, Wild West days. After one day, he could already tell.
"It's a different culture," Houshmandzadeh said. "These guys have come into a winner. When I came in, we were trying to become winners. The guys that were older than me, they were worse than me outside football. I get the impression the guys that are coming in now, they're coming into guys that are more serious. It's just a different culture. You can see it. You can talk to certain guys and see what they're like outside football. Winning breeds a different environment. Winning solves a lot."
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In the last game Houshmandzadeh played for the Bengals on Dec. 14, 2008, Chris Henry was the leading receiver and of their first four draft picks that season in the first three rounds, only one started (Sims), one was inactive (wide receiver Jerome Simpson), one had only one catch for four yards (Andre Caldwell) and one was on IR (Keith Rivers).
It might as well have been 1908 as Houshmandzadeh on Monday reflected on a new expanded locker room and weight room and soon to open new cafeteria.
"It looks different. It looks better," Houshmandzadeh said. "Look at the draft this year. They get a top five pick (Texas A&M left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi) at the end of the first round because he's hurt. They got another possible first-round pick in the second round (Oregon left tackle Jake Fisher). Now you've got five offensive linemen (with the starting interior of center Russell Bodine and guards Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler) under the age of (26) and they'll probably start for the next 10 years. They'll be good for a long time because they have the guys up front."
Like the old days, he plans to help make it better in the next week. Jackson thinks he has the passion to coach. Houshmandzadeh agrees. He just needs to figure out the time commitment, Until then, the Bengals, he feels, are a good use of his time.
"All I know is football, sports. I like it," he said. "I know a lot, so why not share it?"