T.J. Houshmandzadeh has shown all the moves this week why he was one of the most popular fan favorites in Bengals history.
On Monday night, he used his 10 seasons of NFL experience and a lifetime of street savvy to torture Jets rookie Kyle Wilson into a miserable night on the corner with just one catch in the Ravens' 10-9 win in the New Meadowlands in New Jersey.
On Wednesday, he used his reality TV outspokenness to alternately sandbag and needle his old teammates at the end of the conference call with the Cincinnati media.
"Tell J-Joe to let me catch one or two," said Houshmandzadeh of cornerback Johnathan Joseph before zeroing in on safety Chris Crocker.
"Tell Crocker not to hit me illegal. I know how he plays."
Actually, as a former member of the Browns, Crocker is the one guy in the Bengals secondary that has regularly played Houshmandzadeh in games and not just covered him in practice.
"He'll be talking. We have to make sure we don't get caught up in that," Crocker said before Wednesday's practice. "The pressure is really on him. He wants to come in here and play very well and show us up. We're not focused on T.J. We're focused on the Baltimore Ravens."
They better because the Bengals are coming off last Sunday's sifting at the hands of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. And they have no time to get sappy over Houshmandzadeh's return to Paul Brown Stadium, where he became the Bengals' third all-time leading receiver with 507 catches. Even with 80 catches since, he still only has the third most catches on the first team in NFL history to have three receivers with at least 500 career catches.
Trade pickup Anquan Boldin has 593 and the ageless Derrick Mason, the most underrated offensive player of this century, has 865. This is not exactly the trio of Mason-Mark Clayton-Kelley Washington and a Ravens receiver cops that the Bengals held to nine catches for 113 yards and no touchdowns in two games last year.
"That was a totally different year; they have two different receivers," Hall said. "Going to be a different challenge. They got a lot better at the receiver position."
Still, the Housh Factor is as intriguing as his ponytail, his exotic name with the L.A. personality and his rise from the 204th pick in the 2001 draft.
When he talks about Joseph and Hall, the Bengals starting corners in Houshmandzadeh's last two seasons here, he sounds like a Dutch uncle. He says Joseph is one of the top six or seven corners in the league and Hall is in the top 10.
"They're kind of familiar with me, but when I was going against them they're a lot better now," Houshmandzadeh said. "I've always thought J-Joe was one of the best corners in the league and he'll attest to that. I've always told him that and I'll talk to him to this day. It will be fun. I like J-Joe and the attitude and temperament he brings to the game. You can't (call) him out so to speak. You're not going to punk him. And Leon, he's just solid. They say he's a coach's dream."
Hall and Joseph have always said their development accelerated with the daily practices against Houshmandzadeh and the Bengals all-time leading receiver, Chad Ochocinco. Houshmandzadeh agrees and he saw the impact defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer had on them in his first year here, which was Houshmandzadeh's last.
"It's just so much the experience they play with now. They've played against the best, they go against the best in practice every day and that helps within itself," Houshmandzadeh said. "That was the big thing when I was there. They were going against me and Chad. They come in with talent but then you go against good players so obviously it elevates your game. Just the experience they got, the snaps they got and now they've got a hell of a coach in Zim. Zim turned those guys around and made them believe they were the best and now you can see it when they play."
So there will be no surprises. With The Ocho's mouth or motor.
"When I first got here I had a lot to learn. Going up against his type of receiver – crafty, shifty – use your leverage against you," Hall said. "I learned to know that they're looking at what you're doing, to be smarter.
"He has good hands. Uses your leverage against you. Get off of press coverage. Runs good routes and all of that combined."
Houshmandzadeh is closer to Joseph. Hall hasn't talked to him since he left, but Joseph texted him soon after he signed with Baltimore two weeks ago.
"He's going to be T.J. He's going to do his talking. He's going to do his part of playing," Joseph said. "It's always a great competition. Whether it's talking or playing, he's all up for it. We're up to the challenge as well.
"It was always a daily competition. A good learning experience. For a younger guy, seeing those guys and just jumping into it with those guys. It's like any other receiver. I've been with him for a couple of years. But at the same time I'm going to go in there and watch film like I do week in and week out and still pick up things that I can learn. Nothing is going to change my preparation. You just can't go in and say, 'I know this receiver because I played against him.' You still have to prepare like you never played against him before."
Because he just arrived in Baltimore, Houshmandzadeh is the third option. On Monday, he split time with Boldin in the slot and on the outside and even though he had just one catch, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco went to him enough that he drew some key pass interference and holding penalties.
"I can't remember the last time I was not involved in a game," he said. "It was weird for me when we had the ball to stand on the sidelines and wait to be called in. That was different for me. It's something I'm going to have to get used to initially."
Houshmandzadeh, famous for his volcanic temper and pleading for flags to officials with upraised hands, laughed when someone said he got more calls against the Jets than he did in his entire eight seasons in Cincinnati.
"We know what kind of guys we're playing," Crocker said. "Boldin is a yards-after-catch guy. He's very hard to bring down. He's very, very physical. Mason is quick. He's a big play guy that can stop on a dime … T.J. is just very savvy. He knows how to use his body between the DB and the ball. He lulls you to sleep. You see he can still take you deep and get over the top of the coverage. He looked just like the old T.J. They didn't throw it to him as much but when they did throw him the ball, he made plays on it."
Crocker thinks that's why the Jets got so many penalties in the secondary Monday night. They bought into the talk that those three receivers are purely possession receivers and sat on the underneath routes and put themselves woefully out of position any time the Ravens went vertical.
But ask Hall if the Ravens like to go deep with Flacco. In the 2008 PBS game, Mason caught a 32-yard touchdown pass from Clayton on some dipsy-doodle and then Clayton caught a 70-yard touchdown bomb on a perfectly thrown ball with Hall draped on him down the sidelines.
"They take their shots," Zimmer said.
Houshmandzadeh was supposed to be the possession receiver in Cincinnati next to The Ocho. But he beat the Ravens late in the 2006 PBS game on a 40-yard touchdown catch to give the Bengals a 13-7 win.
And that was just one of his big days against Baltimore. When Palmer uncorked a 24-point fourth quarter in 2004 in Baltimore for a walkoff win, Houshmandzadeh ended up with a career-high 171 yards. His second-best game (147) is also against the Ravens. Four of his 13 100-yard games in Cincinnati came against Baltimore.
"I like playing teams that think they're going to intimidate you. I love that because I'm not going to be intimidated by anybody," Houshmandzadeh said. "So when you would play the Baltimores and the Pittsburghs when I was in Cincinnati I loved it because they thought they were going to intimidate you. That wasn't happening with me, so I always looked forward to playing those guys because of the defense, because of the attitude they played with on defense. I like that. Just like I said, you're not going to (intimidate) J-Joe and you're not going to (intimidate) me."
When Houshmandzadeh signed in Baltimore, he gave out a quote talking about how it was nice to be on a team that gave the Bengals so much stress and fears trying to protect the passer. But on Wednesday he admitted that Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has been solid protecting Palmer against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, two of the NFL perennial sack leaders.
"Brat does a good job of calling plays; obviously, I know from playing Baltimore," Houshmandzadeh said. "They give everybody fits, but when they went against Cincinnati, we would put up points against them and move the ball well.
"That's one thing I will say about Cincinnati and that you learn when you go to another team. Man, you think the coaches are this and that, but they're not as bad as you thought they were. They're actually pretty good."
That has to give the Bengals locker room a smile. While Houshmandzadeh got a rep for stirring up the locker room in Seattle, Crocker thought he was the toughest on coaches here.
"He's a guy that knows a lot about the game," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who succeeded Houshmandzadeh as the Bengals NFL Players Association rep and considers him a close friend. "And there's a hard mixture of knowing the game and maybe being a little too critical. Realizing if you're in that position, it's a lot tougher than not being in that position. He's one of those guys that teeters the line a little bit. Maybe over-stepping sometimes.
"But he's only giving his true, honest opinion. That's why he's got a temper and he's not afraid to give his opinion. He cares so much. He's not meaning to hurt anybody. That's just him. He cares. He wants to voice his opinion. We have a tight bond. I've always thought a lot about him as a player and as a teammate."
Houshmandzadeh didn't see himself as a locker room lawyer, but as go-between with the coaches.
"Guys on the team would say, 'Please T.J., can you talk to Marvin (Lewis) about this?' because they're scared to go to Marvin half the time," he said. "I can take the stuff from Marvin. 'What am I doing and what do I want?' I'll deal with that.
"Whether it's wrong or right, it has to do with the team. And the team is the reason why you win or lose games. It's never really always about what is good for T.J. Now, when it comes to playing football, do I want the ball? Yeah, of course I do. And I think that's what rubbed people the wrong way. If you throw me the ball and I'm not getting it done, then you can talk crap about me because I'm going to talk crap about myself. Other than that, I just want to win, period. I want to see guys do well. If we win the game, I'm fine with that."
Houshmandzadeh says he has, but he hasn't, thought about his reception on Sunday from the fans. He's not sure. But Palmer is.
"He'll get a great reception. He had a great career. The fans know that," Palmer said. "He didn't want to go. He wanted to stay."
Listen closely and it sounds like he still wants to stay. Miffed that the Bengals weren't more aggressive in signing him before free agency, he pretty much made up his mind to leave before the Bengals basically matched Seattle's offer.
"I let a lot of things get in the way of what should have been the real focus," Houshmandzadeh said. "That it is a business and they're going to run it like a business and I should have approached it like a business and when you let other things interfere, I just didn't think it through as thoroughly as I should have. I tell people now if you have a chance to stay with your team and the offers are anywhere close, stay."
He's staying for just four quarters Sunday, and he is naturally pulling no punches about what he'd like to hear from Bengaldom.
"Expect the worst, hope for the best," he said.