Posted: 6:35 a.m.
The Old Chad may be as close as the Bengals all-time receiving record.
He needs six catches Sunday against Tennessee to top the list with 531 balls, a day that his mentor believes Cincinnati and the rest of the NFL will see the return of the chippier, livelier and bouncier Chad Johnson that has gone to the last four Pro Bowls.
"You'll see it," says Charles Collins, one of his junior college coaches and closest friends. "We've talked about how he can't worry about what's written and said about him. He has to be who he is. He has to be careful about who he is, but he has to be who he is and he hasn't been doing that and it may have affected his production."
Johnson, arguably the most outgoing and quotable players in sports, has been neither the last month as he closes in on one of the franchise's marquee records two months since he became the Bengals all-time receiving yardage leader.
Ever since he drew a storm of criticism that followed an on-field blowup with quarterback Carson Palmer that culminated with a bogus trade story, Johnson has shut down the media in a consecutive days streak that reached 29 Wednesday.
With defenses following suit and shutting him down, there are those watching his body language and numbers wondering if he is pouting and if it is affecting his performance.
Teammates, coaches and Collins say no.
"Same old Chad to me," says wide receiver Chris Henry.
His feelings have been hurt, some say, but he's still practicing and playing with his signature red-hot intensity.
"Sometimes when you get frustrated, you try a little too hard."
Since head coach Marvin Lewis denied the trade story the day after his 102-yard effort against the Jets Oct. 21, Johnson has gone four straight games without a 100-yarder, hasn't had a catch longer than 25 yards, and has extended his scoring drought to eight games. He's also battled a frightening neck injury and some knee and ankle problems without missing a game.
Before then, he was on an 1,800-yard pace. In the last month the Steelers held him to 51 yards, he dropped what would have been a game-winning catch in Buffalo in the fourth quarter and last Sunday against Arizona he made two killing mistakes in the red zone on a false start and a fumble.
Still, he's fourth in the NFL in receiving yards with 938, just 114 behind leader Randy Moss. On a day he'll become the club's all-time leader, Johnson should also notch his sixth 1,000-yard season.
"He's still been pretty productive," Collins says. "Believe me, he's not pouting. He's trying to figure out how to help this team get to the playoffs. That's all he cares about and it's tough when you're not winning. (The criticism) hurt his feelings. I told him, 'I want you to stop worrying about what's written and said and go out and just have fun and play for the same reasons you played when you were playing for me.' "
Johnson says he's not talking and boasting because he doesn't want to be a distraction. Defensive tackle John Thornton thinks that's the criticism that hurt most.
"Because that's the last thing he wanted to be," Thornton says. "He never put the team in a bad situation. Chad's not sensitive, but I think the trade story really hurt him. He wants to be here. The same people that built him up, they loved him and all the things he did, and the same people turned around and called him a distraction. I just think he said, 'I'm not going to put myself out there.' "
"He's never been a distraction to us. Everybody knows him and knows how he is and that's the way he's just trying to prepare himself," Thornton says. "It didn't put any pressure on us. Everybody likes him and if there's a blowup, it's like family. You forget about it in two minutes."
Palmer, his quarterback and other captain, agrees that the criticism has stung Johnson.
"He's gone through some things. I don't think he's ever had anybody bad-mouth him in the media before in his career," Palmer says. "It's tough to go through. It's something that everybody's first time going through that, it takes an adjustment. Production-wise, aside from the touchdowns, he's still had a bunch of catches. They didn't cover him last week."
Bratkowski talked to Johnson about the fumble at the Arizona 9 on Sunday, which came on a play he was trying to beat two defenders into the end zone after making a catch at the line of scrimmage. But he carried it like he was using it to hail a cab.
"He went in there flying with every ounce of energy," Bratkowski says. "He did everything he could to get the ball into the end zone. He just happened to be carrying it a little sloppily. Had he not been carrying it sloppy, I don't think anybody would have had an issue with it."
The boiling point had to be Sunday when Johnson watched Moss and Terrell Owens each score four touchdowns. And his teammate, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, has 11 touchdowns while he's still trying to get into the end zone.
Bratkowski says the foe is rolling coverages toward him and that the slot receiver, Houshmandzadeh, usually gets the most favorable red-zone matchups.
What is missing is the long ball. Johnson's longest touchdown came on the first score of Opening Night, a 39-yarder. Johnson, always among the league leaders in catches of 40 yards or more, has only one this season, a 56-yarder.
"But for the most part, he's catching short, underneath routes, and we just need to be patient. I need to be more patient and keep taking those short, underneath routes because at some point, you've got to come up and stop them. As a defense, you've got to try to take those away. And when they do, we'll attack them over their heads."
Even before he shut down the media, Johnson said he wanted the ball more and he wanted it deep. And after watching Moss and Owens run wild, the question is, "How do they get open?" The Patriots and Cowboys move those guys around while the Bengals believe Johnson is more comfortable and effective in one position rather than putting him in motion or putting him in the slot.
"Sometimes it's like a dog on a leash when he sees a cat," Collins says. "When you line up against a guy that you know can't cover you, it's just frustrating for him. I think the bottom line for him is that he has to relax."
Johnson started by flying to Miami for his day off on Tuesday. Collins thinks the rest will be history when Johnson makes history Sunday.
Palmer has already said he likes the Old Chad. And right tackle Willie Anderson advised Johnson if he needs to talk to score touchdowns, then start talking.
"I guarantee you you're going to see the Old Chad again and I think it's going to be this week," Collins says. "I think he understands that in the end it doesn't matter what other people say about him, he has to do what he has to do."