Chad Ochocinco made the news four times in the last several days. One was in regards to being spotted in Miami while filming for a new reality television show with his fiancé; another was for an open letter he sent to the commissioner which included his suggestions on how the NFL should market the game; and a third was about dealing with the trauma of losing his Starbucks card.
The fourth news story was that on the first day of OTAs he managed to be the one and only player that found a way to have to run a lap after lining up incorrectly for a play and being whistled for an illegal procedure penalty.
Now normally I would be extremely reticent to jump to conclusions from one play – even more so when that one play happens in the first day of OTAs, over three months away from the first real game of the year. But considering a 2011 season that would have to be classified as a massive disappointment and underachievement from a personal perspective, this is a rather inauspicious start for the Patriot wide receiver.
When the Patriots acquired Ochocinco from Cincinnati the initial reaction of most fans in New England was gleeful exuberance; here was a six-time Pro Bowler, two-time First Team All Pro receiver with seven 1,000+ yards on his resume who in the previous two years had 139 receptions for 1,878 yards and 13 touchdowns. At the bare minimum his presence would open up the middle of the field for Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Personally I found the trade to be a bit of a head-scratcher. While on the surface trading away a 5th round pick in the following year’s draft and a 6th round pick two year’s down the road seemed like nothing, the contract was bothersome. From my perspective the Bengals were most likely going to cut him, and he probably could have been signed as a free agent to a more cap-friendly deal – without sacrificing draft picks that could later be used to maneuver for an earlier slot in next year’s draft.
The other aspect was why pay so much for someone that would likely only get a limited amount of snaps. The Pats standard formation had become two tight ends, one running back and two wide receivers. I’m not fan of an empty backfield because it telegraphs the play call, and also because it leaves the quarterback totally unprotected from the pass rush. Given their productivity I preferred Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez be on the field as much as possible. That left one position open, which was then currently occupied by Deion Branch.
While Branch had an injury history and did seem to wear down a bit at the end of the 2010 season, he did have 48 receptions for 706 yards in just 11 games with the Pats after being traded from Seattle. What was the plan for Ochocinco, to replace Branch? If so, how much more production would he deliver? If he was going to split reps with Branch or be there in case of injury, he was awfully expensive insurance: in 2011 the Pats paid him $6 million total between bonuses and salary. Why so much being spent for a player that was likely going to see a limited amount of reps when it was the other side of the ball, the Pats defense, that was leaking like a sieve and screaming for an upgrade?
Of course how limited Ochocinco turned out to be was beyond anyone’s wildest imagination – or should I say nightmare. Fifteen receptions (that’s $400,000 per catch) for 276 yards and one touchdown. Somebody named Dane Sanzenbacher tied Ochocinco for 154th place in the 2011 rankings of most receiving yards.
Before someone says the numbers were low because he wasn’t given a chance, spare me. Early on the Patriots gave Ochocinco every opportunity to take over the starter’s role, but they finally had to move on. They gave him every opportunity to split time with Branch, but even though they would have much preferred to have kept Branch fresh for the stretch run, they couldn’t justify playing him.
Ochocinco did indeed end up being on the field for 26.3% of the offensive snaps, but those numbers are deceiving. Take away two games where the Pats were pretty much forced to play him due to injuries (60 snaps versus Buffalo with Hernandez out and 54 versus Denver with Branch sidelined), and Ochocinco’s participation level plummets (23 snaps in three playoff games). Incredibly the coaching staff had often become more comfortable with inserting Tiquan Underwood or Matthew Slater into the lineup than Ochocinco.
Now here it is the beginning of the 2012 season; time for a fresh start – and on the very first day we read that he still can’t line up correctly. The apologists have accurately pointed out that there was a lockout last denying players of access to working with the coaching staff during the off-season, but let’s not make that more than what it is; OTAs consist of a grand total of just ten days. Nate Solder didn’t have the benefit of OTAs and the rookie was able to fill in at left tackle, right tackle and tight end last year – and not only not embarrass himself, but play well. How is it that he managed to do that, but this veteran of ten previous seasons in the NFL could not?
My guess – and this is pure speculation on my part – is that throughout his life Ochocinco has been able to excel in athletics due to genetics and physical effort. From all reports he is well liked by his teammates and coaches. He puts forth maximum physical effort in games and in practices. Perhaps he has reached a point in his career where that is not enough – but fails to grasp that extra physical effort is not what is holding him back.
The biggest knock on Ochocinco is that he has not been able to comprehend the playbook and what the Patriots expect him to do on offense. In the Pats offensive scheme when a defense shows this formation, he’s expected to do that; but when they do something else, he’s supposed to respond accordingly. If he can’t even line up correctly, how can he possibly be expected to make those adjustments?
Here’s an analogy. Lets say you get hired to work for a company that sells information technology products. You have really good sales and marketing skills, but compared to your colleagues your technical expertise is lacking; that would be the area that you would spend as much time working on, correct? And conversely if another person was technically gifted but didn’t have very good presentation skills, that would be an area for him to focus on.
Ochocinco didn’t have an adequate grasp of the playbook or the Patriots’ offense last year. Nobody questioned his strength or ability to run fast. Like the two examples above, it was obvious where improvement was needed, and where his focus should be.
So what do we get since then, 8 hours a day learning that playbook? No. We get time spent making a reality television show, updates to his website, marketing his brand name via who knows how much time it takes to send 36,597 tweets, along with several vacation trips and lots of time at Starbucks.
All of that is perfectly fine if you can line up where you are expected to be and run the pass route so you are where your quarterback is going to throw the ball. But just like the guy at that IT company who fails to learn the products he’s selling, if you can’t get that – especially if you don’t appear to make an effort to do so – you’re deservedly out of a job, replaced by somebody else who can and will make the effort to improve his craft, and contribute to bettering the overall performance of his employer.
The time is fast approaching for the Patriots to make a decision on Ochocinco. If he doesn’t dedicate himself to learning and understanding this offense with such absolute conviction that he doesn’t have to think about what he is doing, then he’s going to make that decision any easy one for Bill Belichick and the coaching staff. Thus far I don’t see any reason to believe that there is a valid reason for him to be on the roster in September.
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