Thursday, March 27, 2008

"Ocho Cinco" is "Loco Cinco"

Cincinnati Bengals' wide receiver Chad Johnson--the self-styled "Ocho Cinco"--enjoyed a free pass from the national media for quite some time; for whatever reason, the media preferred to blast Terrell Owens, who has been a productive player and helped three different franchises make it to the playoffs. ESPN's Skip Bayless loves to call Owens "Team Obliterator," but the reality is that Owens' teams have performed well in no small part due to his excellence; the teams that got rid of him are the ones that have been "obliterated" and are still trying to find a player to take his place. Meanwhile, Johnson has played in exactly one playoff game during his career.

I have pointed out on several occasions that Johnson's conduct has had a negative effect on the Bengals. For instance, here is what I wrote after the Patriots beat the Bengals 27-13 last season:

Everybody loves Bengals receiver Chad Johnson. Tony Kornheiser tells us repeatedly that Johnson's antics are not mean spirited and that they do not detract from his team's focus and Mike Wilbon and others echo those sentiments, all the while portraying Owens as essentially the devil incarnate. Anyone who watched the Patriots-Bengals game knows that Carson Palmer threw an interception just before halftime. The pass was intended for Johnson and it was immediately apparent that there was a serious miscommunication between the two players. Johnson jawed at Palmer all the way back to the bench and gave him an earful on the sideline before walking away. As the players headed to the locker room at halftime, Johnson was in Palmer's ear again. ESPN reported that at least part of his message to Palmer was that he knew what route he was supposed to run and that he did the right thing. After the game, Palmer took the high road and said that the miscue was his fault, though ESPN analyst (and Hall of Fame quarterback) Steve Young insisted that the replay showed that Johnson had made a bad read and that he also should have made a better effort to prevent the pass from being intercepted.

In the locker room, Cincinnati Coach Marvin Lewis screamed so loudly at his players that his tirade was easily audible through the walls to the reporters outside: "If you don't want to be on this team, please don't show up! You don't call the offense, you don't call the plays. You just play. Nowhere in the NFL do guys act like this. We've got to figure this out." He couldn't have been referring, at least in part, to media darling Chad Johnson, could he? Of course, since everyone at ESPN loves Johnson, his conduct and the detrimental effect that it had on his team was almost completely ignored. A couple times, Mike Tirico made comments to the effect that Palmer and Johnson need to work things out because the game is going forward, time is running out and the Patriots are dominating. Kornheiser had nothing to say on the subject. Imagine what his reaction would be if Owens were to have a similar confrontation with Romo. The point here is not whether Johnson or Palmer is right about this particular play and I realize that sideline confrontations happen all the time in the NFL. The important issue here is how the media anoints favorite sons and then accords them nothing but positive coverage while at the same time deeming certain people to be villains and giving those people largely negative coverage. The reality is that sometimes a heated confrontation between two players can clear the air and ultimately be a positive thing and sometimes a heated confrontation is a symptom of a team that is dysfunctional. Without taking the time to really research what happened it is impossible to know the truth--but that does not stop many media members from reflexively bashing certain players while praising others. Coach Lewis' locker room rant and the fact that he has had to admonish Johnson on previous occasions for being disruptive are two strong indicators that Johnson's confrontation with Palmer was not a positive thing.

Three weeks later, I discussed Johnson's interview with Keyshawn Johnson:

It was surreal to see the guy who once said "Just Give Me the Damn Ball!" attempting to be a voice of reason. The sad thing is that, as Keyshawn said afterwards, Chad simply does not get it. Yeah, Chad has put up some numbers in recent years but his team has not accomplished anything and his relentless self-promotion has become a major distraction. Chad's friends in the media tried for a while to act like he was cute but Terrell Owens and Randy Moss were bad guys but that nonsense simply could only be spouted for so long. Owens played a major role on a Super Bowl team and has had several signature playoff games (Green Bay, New York Giants and the Super Bowl versus the Patriots). Moss has also played on very successful teams and had big playoff performances. All Johnson has done is rack up a lot of regular season yardage. Meanwhile, the word out of Cincinnati is that the Bengals believe that they cannot even try to rein in Johnson's act because they fear that his response would be to completely shut himself down. In general, I prefer the Jim Brown/Jerry Rice/Barry Sanders school of act like you've been in the endzone before but what I've never understood is people who blast Owens or Moss but praise Chad Johnson (yes, I mean you, Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon--but you are not the only guys by far). I don't find any of those guys' dances/acts more or less entertaining than the others'. My criticism of Moss, prior to this season, is that he left the field once before a game was over and that he said that nobody else on his team cared about how badly the team was playing so why should he. Moss did not seem to have the same work ethic or focus that Owens does. What we are finding out this year is that when Moss has the right support system around him he can still be a very, very good player; Owens has always been a productive player, even in the midst of various controversies.

There are more examples, but you get the idea. What is interesting to see now is that some members of the national media slowly seem to be catching on to what I have been saying all along about Johnson, who skipped the start of the Bengals' offseason workouts and has vowed to play in the Arena League if the Bengals don't trade him. Do you believe for one second that Johnson is going to give up NFL money to play in a minor league? Johnson is an attention-seeking missile who has been "obliterating" his team for years now. His touchdown "celebrations" may be harmless to the team but his other antics are a major distraction. Speaking of touchdowns, Johnson has just 49 receiving touchdowns in 108 career games, well off the pace set by Owens (129 TDs in 173 games) and Moss (124 TDs in 154 games). Owens is a sensitive player who needs constant praise from his coaches and Moss is a player who requires a solid support structure around him to stay focused but they both have proven that they can be impact players on playoff teams. Johnson is a prima donna who puts up good numbers for bad teams and complains that he is underappreciated. Yet, for several seasons the national media has done its best to turn him into some sort of quirky folk hero while simultaneously demonizing Owens and Moss.

It is funny that thus far the Bengals have been reluctant to part with Johnson but that a few years ago they shipped off "malcontent" running back Corey Dillon, who immediately helped New England to win the Super Bowl. Apparently the Cincinnati organization cannot tell the difference between a player who is frustrated because his team is losing and a player whose frustrating actions are one of the reasons why his team is losing. In Bruce Coslet's last game as Bengals coach, Dillon ran for nine yards on 12 carries behind poor blocking and a bad offensive scheme; Dillon became so frustrated by the team's ineptitude that he removed himself from the game, drawing a lot of criticism from the media. A few weeks later, with Dick LeBeau as the coach, Dillon rushed for 278 yards, then an NFL single-game record. Anyone who understands football--or sports in general--should have been able to see that Dillon was frustrated because the Bengals were a second rate, losing operation, not because he is a bad teammate. Perhaps Chad Johnson will thrive in a new situation and help that team to win--but I'll believe that when I see it.

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