“I’m going to be a little quiet. You won’t get the same Chad you’re used to. …” – Chad Ochocinco on July 30, 2011.
Chad Ochocinco uttered those words exactly a month ago today in his introductory press conference as a Patriot, the one he ended with a group hug. Yet, it is the Patriot Way, the austere, individuality-snuffing code of conduct in Fort Foxborough, that is squeezing the football life out of the flamboyant and free-spirited wide receiver.
Thus, Ochocinco’s words now ring true now for all the wrong reasons.
He hasn’t been the same Chad, on or off the field.
Ochocinco has looked out of synch and out of sorts in a Patriot uniform. He has appeared unnatural in interviews, like an actor using a British accent just for affectation. He has looked as lost on the field as he got in his Prius trying to navigate the serpentine and byzantine roads of the Greater Boston-area without the aid of GPS.
He has been thrown to eight times this preseason and has just two catches for 14 yards and a touchdown against Tampa Bay that was the football equivalent of an uncontested layup. Saturday night in Detroit he was catchless.
Quite simply, Ochocinco hasn’t been himself, and it might be because he’s not being allowed to be himself. His personality has been muted and so has his performance. It’s time for the Patriots to stop forcing Ochocinco to do it the Patriot Way and let him do it his way, the one that made him one of the game’s most entertaining characters and most productive receivers.
Ochocinco has been such a standout during his career because he has enjoyed standing out – after touchdowns, on reality TV shows, in interviews, on Twitter.
One might not be possible without the other. If you want the Pro Bowl performer you have to make room on your team for the inveterate showman and self-promoter.
Something is clearly amiss with Ochocinco, who has been in too many camera shots this preseason where he has a sullen, far-away look on his face, like he’s being held captive.
There are of course technical, football reasons the 33-year-old wideout is struggling. He spent the previous 10 years of his career in Cincinnati in a system where routes were assigned by rote, numbers corresponding to the desired pass pattern, a sort of paint-by-numbers approach to offense.
The Patriots are more like contemporary art. Each play is open to interpretation. The offense administers routes with phrases, sight adjustments, and a lot of improvisation.
“I’m able to go out right now and react as soon as I hear Tommy call something. I’m good, I’m set," Ochocinco told reporters today. “But I’m still not set in that comfort zone to where I can just be me and somewhat exhale and it’s just, ‘Oh, it’s on. Let’s play.’ I think it’s only my third week. Let’s be realistic this is the highest level of football, and it’s not easy.”
If you watch Ochocinco play you can practically hear the gears grinding. He is processing instead of playing, fighting his instincts to fit in.
“I think that he’s been frustrated because he feels like he’s not being himself because he’s still thinking a lot about what he needs to do rather than react," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on his weekly appearance on WEEI-AM (850).
“And we all do that – we’re all doing that at this time of year, coming off the long layoff from football. We’re all trying to overthink ourselves a little bit instead of going out there and being instinctive and reacting.”
Ochocinco’s new quarterback then added a public pep talk, saying he had a lot of confidence in Ochocinco and he had no doubt he was going to be an exciting player for the Patriots.
It’s too early to panic, but it’s not too early to be mildly concerned. The receivers from the outside who have succeeded in the Patriots system usually pick it up pretty quickly and build an instant rapport with TB12.
That was the case for Jabar Gaffney and Randy Moss and Wes Welker. It wasn’t for Donald Hayes and Joey Galloway.
The longer Ochocinco’s breaking-in period extends the more concerning it becomes.
However, more important than feeling comfortable with the offense for Ochocinco is feeling comfortable in his own skin again.
Ochocinco isn’t just trying to adjust to a new playbook with new nomenclature. He is trying to adjust to the business-like, buttoned-up culture that goes with it. Both are completely foreign to Ochocinco, a player as lauded for his post-touchdown productions and peculiar last name as his actual production during his career – seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
Combine the difficult task of trying to learn a new way of playing with the requisite Patriots personality lobotomy and you don’t need Freud to figure out that Ochocinco is a repressed receiver.
If Belichick is as close to Ochocinco as we’ve been led to believe then he above all people should understand what makes him tick – the need for individuality, adulation and attention.
He should also understand that in order for Ochocinco to be the player the Patriots’ need he needs to be allowed to be himself -- the old Ochocinco, the one that received passes and publicity in equal measure.
“I’ll always be me,” Ochocinco said a month ago. “But there’s a certain way the Patriots do it, and I’ve always been a chameleon, and I’m going to do it the Patriot Way, which is win.”
Ochocinco isn’t a chameleon because that animal survives by blending into it’s background, being inconspicuous. He is the exact opposite of that. He thrives on being conspicuous. He craves the limelight, the headlines, and the attention. He needs it like a plant needs sunshine and water to not wilt and shrivel up.
Asked about his past antics at that inaugural press conference, Ochocinco said they had to go.
“There is no need for some of the stuff I did before. There’s no need for it,” he said on July 30.
A month later, there may be more need for that “stuff” than he or the Patriots ever realized.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.