Posted: 5:55 p.m.
John Thornton has settled in Cincinnati, but he figures he's not going to get a tractor like Rich Braham did in his last home game. And T.J. Houshmandzadeh, unsettled at the moment, isn't going to get a motorcycle like the one Tim Krumrie roared out of Riverfront Stadium in his farewell.
For one thing, both very well could return next year, Houshmandzadeh with the franchise tag or a long-term deal and Thornton as a versatile backup. But with both looking at the end of their second contracts, they know the business of the NFL is business.
Yet these guys aren't just footnotes with their combined 196 Bengals games. Houshmandzadeh is the club's third all-time leading receiver, one of the best ever in crunch time, and the team's MVP the last two seasons. Thornton, one of the top defensive tackles on the board at the time, was the first significant free-agent signing under Marvin Lewis in 2003.
And they aren't the only major names at the end of a contract. Shayne Graham, the most accurate kicker in club history and a fixture at community events, is also looking for a new deal. As Grahan knows, anything can happen in business. He was cut five times before he became the Bengals' first Pro Bowl kicker.
Houshmandzadeh, who plays with a blind passion on Sundays, says he compartmentalizes his emotions and he'll do so this Sunday.
"I play with competitive emotion. I'm an emotional player. I get emotional in the game," Houshmandzadeh says. "But I don't have soft emotions."
Still, Houshmandzadeh has felt a connection to the fans ever since he arrived here in 2001 as a seventh-rounder and didn't break into the lineup regularly until 2004 with 73 catches.
"I think they're always for the underdog. A lot of them wanted to see me get in there," he says. "When you look at the game in Cleveland last Sunday, it makes you realize how good the fans are in Cincinnati. I mean, there was nobody there in Cleveland.
"But even though we're losing, the fans still come out, and if they were still coming out a month ago, you figure they're going to be there this Sunday because we've won the last couple. It's crazy. If they had a consistent winner here, can you just imagine what the environment would be?"
He thinks the fans are still with him and he's heard them distinctly the last month when he's dropped back and began receiving punts again.
"I can hear, 'Ho---ooush, Ho---oo-ush,'" he says. "They're looking for me to take one back."
If Houshmandzadeh has one of the most recognizable names and faces in the league, Thornton is your typical anonymous lineman. But through his different forays into cyberspace and annual fundraiser for the Greater Cincinnati Autism Society, as well as other charities, Thornton is probably one of the most well known Bengals in town. And, when he was reading his message boards, one of the most vilified.
"I think fans know me for what I've done off the field with autism more than they know me as a player," says Thornton, who has always politely smiled at the criticism.
Because he always had one of the biggest contracts and is one of best in the locker room when it comes to dealing with the media, Thornton took the biggest shots when the defense failed, more often than not before this season.
But Lewis kept him because, as only he could say, defense is an 11-man game, and because Thornton is a pro that knows how to play, a guy with smarts and the experience of two AFC championship games. Lewis' first priority was to change the culture in the locker room and signing the young, professional Thornton was key. The Bengals had to keep him because up until the last year or so, he was one of the few rocks in an unstable locker room, as well as a durable, reliable player. Note this year his mentoring of rookie Pat Sims, a man he knew was drafted to take his job.
"You need good people as well as good players," says Thornton, who agrees whole-heartedly with Lewis that the 2005 division champs couldn't have survived this season.
"We had some bad people on that team. They didn't show up and work and when we finally got a chance to win, it showed up at crucial moments," Thornton says. "We picked up good players, but they didn't fit because they weren't team guys or knew what it took. I think you need good people and we've got a lot of good guys here. I think they've got the foundation here."
Thornton's wife Allison, a West Virginia native, decided she wants to raise their two children here and this is where they'll stay as Thornton expands his web site development business.
At 32, Thornton would like to keep playing "if it's the right situation," whether it's in Cincinnati or elsewhere. He's proud he's having a good season even though, at his own urging, Sims has replaced him in the starting lineup. With the crush of injuries at end, Thornton has played well moving outside and came up with two sacks last Sunday against the Browns.
No one is talking numbers, but Houshmandzadeh has always let it be known he thinks he's one of the top receivers in the NFL and he's certainly at the top of the receptions list with 204 the last two years.
"We didn't think it was fair at all," says Houshmandzadeh of his conversation with agent Kennard McGuire following the offer. "If that's what they feel your value is, then there is just no use. I know what other guys' stats are. I know how many balls they've been thrown, and how many they've caught and how many they've dropped and I know where I stack up. I know I always have close to the fewest drops. It's not my choice (to leave)."
All signs are that the Bengals are going to keep talking to him and keep trying to sign him. Bengals president Mike Brown didn't rule out using the franchise tag on Houshmandzadeh last month and his biggest proponent is the franchise himself.
"Ask Carson," he says of his quarterback. "I don't want to speak for him. But ask Carson if he wants me back."
And, Houshmandzadeh doesn't seem adverse in getting nearly $10 million for one year.
But the PBS games he remembers are the ones before all the big money, when he and his team were just grinding trying to establish themselves. He remembers a third-down play as a rookie, and it was probably the third-and-six from the Pittsburgh 26 with 1:32 left in the '01 home finale and the Bengals trailing. He caught a 20-yard pass from quarterback Jon Kitna to set up the tying touchdown in a game they won in overtime.
Then on the fourth-and-10 against the Giants in another home finale, a 23-22 win in his breakout year of '04, Houshmandzadeh jumped as high as he ever has to keep the winning drive alive.
"Kit looked at me in the huddle and said, 'I'm coming to you,' " Houshmandzadeh recalls. "He said the same thing to me against Pittsburgh. Against the Giants, he had some pressure and threw it down the field way up there and I went up and got it. He told me, 'See, that's why I go to you.' ''
The next home finale, the Wild Card loss to the Steelers, is his worst memory.
"Carson got hurt, we were still winning, and we couldn't finish it off," he says.
No doubt Houshmandzadeh would like to catch something memorable in yet another home finale that may really be his Bengals finale. After all, Krumrie will be on the other sideline as the Chiefs defensive line coach. Sans bike.
"I'm going to do what I always do and try to play my best and have fun," Houshmandzadeh says on a day the next year looks to be a jump ball.