In the wings of The Stage

INDIANAPOLIS — Chad Ochocinco has been watching.

A.J. Green. Andy Dalton. Jerome Simpson.

"I saw everything y'all done," he says.

The Ocho never thought when he got to a Super Bowl he would do it with 15 catches. Or that he would be sharing a media table with someone named Tiquan Underwood and not a podium-crowd with Tom Brady.

So if the Bengals all-time leading receiver seemed a bit confused Wednesday, who can really blame him? It's been 11 years this week since he wowed Bob Bratkowski at the Senior Bowl and he's still trying to figure out if Real Chad or Subdued Chad is best and how he can fit Real Chad into what he calls "The Patriot Way."

But he's not confused about those first 10 seasons in Cincinnati. Ochocinco may have wanted out, but he knows he wouldn't have been in without the Bengals.

Bratkowski stood on the table for him in the second round in the 2001 draft. Bengals president Mike Brown went to the table twice in three years to re-sign him to two major deals. Head coach Marvin Lewis stood by him at the table even as it began to tip.  

On Wednesday, The Ocho compared the Bengals to the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson*. *He waxed nostalgically about those golden days when his old quarterback, Carson Palmer, could close his eyes, drop back, and find him. He said Brown, Lewis and Bratkowski "gave me life" itself before they granted his wish on the eve of this season and traded him for fifth- and sixth-round draft picks.

"I mean, it's the NFL; anything is possible," The Ocho said of the Bengals playoff run from the ashes. "All success is due to Coach Lewis and that staff. The defense was phenomenal. Coach (Mike) Zimmer did a hell of a job. The coaches did their thing, but the credit really goes to the payers. They're the ones that have to go out and execute."

Ochocinco said he followed the Bengals receivers and that it was no surprise to him that Green, his successor as the No. 1 receiver, was Pro Bowl good as a rookie.

"Surprised? No. No reason to be surprised that somebody I've watched, somebody that I've studied, knowing what he's done in college and knowing what he's capable of doing in the league," said The Ocho, who went to the first of his six Pro Bowls in his third season. "What he did this year was no surprise.

"He's really good. He's still raw. That's the scary part. He's still raw, but he's a great talent, and he's only going to get better. Especially the tools he has, he's only going to get better as time goes on. You don't drop off."

Simpson, who took the No. 2 job this season as The Ocho's understudy for three years at the X receiver, had some of the flamboyance rub off. He likes to practice in the garish orange body suit at times, but The Ocho never did what Simpson did back in December when he went viral with his somersault TD flip that will be nominated Saturday night for Play of the Year.

"It's nice," Ochocinco said. "He's probably the most athletic receiver in the NFL."

On Dalton: "He was good for a rookie. Very good. Very solid. I wasn't there every day and you can only see so much on TV, but very solid."

There will always be some confusion with The Ocho. He's emotional and mercurial, equal parts charming and maddening.

He was apparently telling some people here this week that he's mad at Lewis and he pleaded with Brown publicly in '08 to trade him. But he praised both men Wednesday.

"If they haven't mentioned it, I sent everyone a letter, a thank you note," he said of the Bengals. "I think that's the best I can do. Everybody who had anything to do with me being there, I hope they have it framed."

At times, the Bengals may feel like they were framed, but on a break from his NFL Network assignment here this week, Lewis offered Ochocinco a bouquet of roses after last offseason's pail of public thorns.

"I'm happy he's having an opportunity to experience this week," Lewis said. "I think this is the one thing every player should be able to experience, to see the whole production on Sunday. I think to get this opportunity as a young player it really motivates you to do everything in your power to get back here. If you get this like Chad, it still helps complete the career.

"He's a talented guy. It's an unfortunate part of the NFL. You don't always end up with the team you started with."

There are those that may suggest Ochocinco wrote a thank you note because the Bengals traded him. But the Bengals gave him what the Patriots haven't: comfort with the offense.

At 34, Ochocinco says he wants to play 10 more years. Brett Favre without the pictures, he says. Although no one thinks it has any chance of happening, The Ocho says he wants to come back to New England.

The Tories have a better shot.

"Why not? I need time. Everybody needs time," he said. "The first year in every marriage is rough. (Those) two or three months I would have had time to learn the system, to earn the trust of Brady, getting the offense down. So many people think it's Chad. Just go out there and run routes and just get open. It's not that easy. I wish it was that easy. It doesn't work that way. It's a system. It's the way things are done. It's the Patriot Way.

"Until I can get it that right way consistently, nine times out of 10, that's when everything comes into the flow, it's feeling like water ... I need to be on that page with Brady. It doesn't happen like that. Everybody wants to rush it. It ain't that easy. That's why I didn't say anything. There's no reason to fuss and complain. Take a back seat. Become a sponge. Learn as much as possible. Try to go as fast as possible."

But since this is The Ocho, it's never black and white. Its more Bengals orange and black or Patriots blue and white. He says he's at his best doing the unPatriotic things of trash-talking, calling for the ball, and creating a chip on his shoulder. In the next breath he says he can flourish in Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's no tolerance program, a man he calls a friend.

Even though he's 60 minutes away from the ultimate team achievement, Ochocinco is burdened with the individual disappointment. On Tuesday, he said a Super Bowl win wouldn't wipe it away.

On Wednesday, he said his memory is short.

"All I can remember is you're only good as your last game, or your last 16 games. It's a little phrase we use when we play Madden," he said. "So, I don't know. You're only as good as your last game. That's all I can say."

Then it was time to go. He saw a familiar face from Cincinnati.

"Let's do Starbucks some time," he said.

And that's what isn't confusing.

You like him enough, you hope he smells the coffee.

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