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Next generation

Andre Caldwell

Even though Chad Ochocinco won't be there to watch Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson try to take the next step, they'll have plenty of big brother-types watching them in Sunday's 1 p.m. finale in Baltimore against an elite defense that should be revealing.

For one, Caldwell's big brother, Reche Caldwell, who has eight more NFL touchdowns than Andre, is rooting for him to cut into the lead. For another, Ravens wide receiver T. J. Houshmandzadeh is an interested observer since Simpson and Caldwell broke into the ranks in the 2008 season that turned into Houshmandzadeh's last in Cincinnati.

"It's going to be 50 degrees, so I won't be sitting on the heated benches. I'll be watching their offense," Houshmandzadeh said Thursday night from Baltimore. "I want to see what Bubba and Jerome have got."

It's an intriguing mix of past, present and future for the Bengals receiver position. The Ocho and Houshmandzadeh formed the most prolific duo in Bengals history and Houshmandzadeh is disappointed that The Ocho's ankle bone spurs have knocked him out of this one, which is being sold as Johnson/Ochocinco's last game for the Bengals. Which would have been nice symmetry with No. 84 on the other side.

With no one expecting the Bengals to exercise a $6 million option, Houshmandzadeh has seen this scenario before.

"It reminds me of Corey Dillon rooting for Rudi Johnson to do well at the end of the season so he could take his place," said Houshmandzadeh of the Bengals running back position in 2003. "I'm not saying that Jerome is going to be as good as Rudi, but who knows? The thing he has to do is do it every day in practice and games consistently. He can jump and go over people and he's got the big hands of a person that should be bigger. But he has to do it consistently."

Which is exactly what Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is saying. The Ravens are going to give Simpson things he hasn't seen in his two games of extensive work. One of the reasons he hasn't played until now is because the coaches didn't feel like they could trust him to do the right things against a complex defense like the Ravens employ.

"But he's a lot more prepared than he was at the beginning of the season," Bratkowski said after Thursday's practice. "We get to see how far he has come along. They've got a different style of defense. A little more complicated. A little more pressure. A little more coverage variation. We'll find out."

Reche Caldwell found out a lot about Andre this season. Andre played enough last year that he caught 51 balls and two last-second touchdowns against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, but he fell off the end of the earth in the spring when the Bengals signed Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens,  and drafted Shipley to play his slot position. Now with Owens (knee) on injured reserve, Caldwell is starting at flanker and believes the last two games are proof he can play outside.

"I told him to sit back and watch and learn," said Reche, 31, who caught 152 passes and 11 touchdowns for three teams from 2002-2007. "He's always bragging on Chad about how good he is, how smooth he is coming out his breaks. And I don't know if this is known, but T.O. was his idol growing up. He was a huge fan. You know, he was big and strong, physical, so he kept telling me how great it was to be on the same team with T.O. He was disappointed, but he really wanted to learn from those guys. I told him to be patient and just to be ready when he was called. And I think he's playing well. He's made some plays with his speed. I think that's his biggest asset."

Two weeks ago, the 6-0, 190-pound Caldwell, 25, sped for 53 yards on a screen. Last week he caught a 44-yarder over-the-shoulder behind the secondary. He's got career highs the last two weeks with 89 and 87 yards.

"The one thing about my little brother," Reche Caldwell said, "is once he comes home for the offseason, all he's dedicated to is playing football and working out. I was a high school quarterback, so I can throw to him, and he worked hard on his ball security. Those two fumbles (late last season) stayed with him for a long time."

Houshmandzadeh was more productive earlier in his career. Simpson has been derailed by his Division II experience, but Bratkowski says it's more a physical thing than a learning curve.

"It's the speed of the game and who you play," Bratkowski said. "I'm pretty sure most of the time Jerome was the best athlete on the field." 

But Houshmadzadeh can relate to how Simpson and Caldwell have waited their turn. In his first two seasons, Houshmandzadeh caught 62 balls and returned 36 punts before playing just two games in 2003 and nearly getting cut. Then Carson Palmer became the quarterback in 2004 and they took off together with Houshmandzadeh coming out of nowhere with 73 catches that left him 22 yards shy of 1,000.

Houshmandzadeh had a much shorter trip from oblivion than Simpson. Before Simpson caught two balls for 30 yards two weeks ago against the Browns and then 124 yards on six balls against the Chargers, he had exactly one catch for one yard in three seasons.  

"I earned Carson's trust," Houshmandzadeh said. "I worked at it. He knew where I was going to be and it became better as we went.

"You look at Jerome and he scored on that (59-yarder) on a blown coverage (last week). But he caught the ball. Can he make plays that other guys can't make? Jerome can go up and get the ball. He can leap no question. He's got a lot of skills."

No one thinks the Bengals have a pure No. 1 receiver yet in the trio of Caldwell, Simpson and rookie Jordan Shipley. It depends on Simpson's development, but asked if he thinks the Bengals can win with those three and rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham, Houshmandzadeh thinks they can. But only if they're going to be with Palmer.

"The media is banging Carson, but he's the real deal," Houshmandzadeh said. "Ask me if I think he's still a top quarterback."

Is he still a top quarterback?

"Does a bear crap in the woods?" Houshmandzadeh asked. "You're looking at a guy who had pretty much all new receivers. You'd see him lead guys to the spot and it would get intercepted. Who is going to get blamed? They weren't on the same page. T.O. was new. Shipley was a rookie. Chad freelances. Then you press and force it. But the guy can still sling it."

Houshmandzadeh has fond memories of Palmer and The Ocho. Naturally, the first one that comes to mind is a game in Baltimore. The 2004 game, when Palmer uncorked 200 yards in a 24-point fourth quarter  in which he threw a touchdown to Houshmandzadeh and two to The Ocho while Houshmandzadeh finished with 171 yards and The Ocho 161.

Houshmandzadeh knows that The Ocho's freelancing was a problem, but "you have to take the good with the bad," he said. Houshmandzadeh also knows that Ochocinco's outside activities began competing for his attentions later in his career.

"When he was at minicamp or practicing, or whatever, he worked hard and was focused," he said. "But when he first came in, it was all football, nothing else. Then there were other things."

But No. 84 would still take No. 85, reality TV and all.

"I remember when he caught about 800 yards (really 573) in three games," he said of Ocho's run in 2006. "I'm telling you, Chad can still play. Name a defensive coordinator that wants him to play one-on-one. You can't. If the Bengals play him next year, they won't play him one-on-one."

But Houshmandzadeh is anxious to see how Caldwell plays, too. He doesn't think he's shifty enough to play in the slot and thinks he's better suited for the outside.

"He's got great speed and he can get off the line," Houshmandzadeh said.

As for Houshmandzadeh, 33, he jokes he's getting his two catches a game with 28 for the season. But it's for 13.5 per catch, a number he never had in Cincinnati, and he's coming off a big TD catch last week in the 20-10 win over the Browns. He wants one badly Sunday, a game the Ravens are playing like they need to win it even though they are in the playoffs.

Houshmandzadeh thinks he should be appearing in more than his second postseason next month.

"Thanks to 'Sugar Foot.' We should have made it that year," he said.

That is, of course, a reference to Shayne Graham's missed 39-yard field goal against Pittsburgh in the last seconds of the 2006 season.

But now the Ravens are in and the Bengals are not and Baltimore needs a win to have shot at a bye.   

"From what I understand," said Houshmandzadeh, who had no catches here in the second game of the season, "we're playing to win. I've been looking forward to this game for a long time. Ever since I did nothing up there. The Bengals are good. It will be a good game. The difference is they won the close games last year and lost them this year."

You'll be able to see him Sunday. He'll standing up watching Palmer and his young guns.

"I won't need to sit," he said.   

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