Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ocho Cinco Makes a Stinko

Well, Bengals fans had to see this coming. Chad Johnson went on 'Mike and Mike' Friday, and complained that he has been made a scapegoat by the Bengals for their poor showing this season, and he made his preference clear for taking his "distractions" to another NFL city for next season and beyond. In fairness to Chad, it has seemed to me that he has taken more than his share of the heat for the team's troubles. Without having insight into the inner goings on in the Bengals locker room, it would be hard to make a case that Chad Johnson's play falls too far on the probem side of the performance ledger for the perennially underachieving Bengals. That said, his play has been spottier than his record yardage numbers suggest, and he has seemed to be invisible in too many clutch situations.

As far as the showmanship issue goes, I genuinely enjoy Chad's nutty, but good-natured persona. His heart-on-his-sleeve exhuberance is a welcome contrast to the bristling stoicism that too often appears to be the preferred ethos of the football world. And, I like having a big time player drawing the attention of the sporting world to the orange and black week-in and week-out. But the showy celebrations are not the behavior that draws the worst fire to Chad. The twin fuels for the anti-Johnson crowd's (such as it is) fire, have been the mental lapses like stepping out of bounds untouched short of the marker on a fourth down play while trailing at the end of the Steelers game, and the emotional flare ups like the blow up at the end of the first half in the Patriots game.

So, the 'Chad is a distraction' voices have had plenty to talk about this season, and it is hard to conclude that they are entirely wrong. Chad's current trade-seeking campaign can only serve to cement that view. First of all, having seen the way both the Bengals' ownership and fans mostly rallied around Johnson when the trade rumors first surfaced earlier this season, it is hard to entirely accept his sense of injury. Instead, it seems to me that Johnson's pro-trade sentiment arises more from self interest, than righteous indignation. Johnson's TV ubiquity over the past half decade has simultaneously elevated and dwarfed the media profile of the decidedly podunk Bengals, and it is tempting to believe that his real motivation, now, is that he covets an opportunity to run his one man show from the larger stage of a major media market. It's hard to blame him for that desire, but after repeated re-negotiations of his contract over the years, the whole mixed bag that Johnson presents doesn't seem to constitute the kind of performance that the team can afford to reward either with another contract do over, or even lavish ego stroking.

The problem, then, for the Bengals is that it seems difficult for them to do the things that Johnson would need to have done to appease is injured sense of pride, but they also can ill afford to let him go. He may let them down, but he draws constant double coverage, which opens up opprotunities both for tandem mate (and Johnson pal) T. J. Houshmanzadeh, and for the running game -- which in a sign of where the worst problems really were for the Bengals this season, still managed to average under 4 yards per carry even with mismatches Johnson creates. Worse, still, apparently under the confusing terms of the NFL salary cap, the Bengals would apparently take a major cap hit along with the hit to their offense if they were forced to move Johnson.

Lastly, many Bengals observers have suggested that Houshmanzadeh's emergence as a Pro Bowl receiver -- he led the league in receptions this year -- means that the Bengals don't need to put up with Johnson's distractions any more. There are two big problems with this analysis, though. First, as already mentioned, Housh benefits mightily from opposing defenses' preoccupation with stopping Johnson. Second, having been together since their time at Oregon State, Johnson and Houshmanzadeh are so close as teammates, that I would not be at all surprised if, if the Bengals let Chad get away this year, the team that lands Chad ends up also luring T. J. away from the Bengals within a season or two.

Hopefully, Chad is bluffing, and will come back into the fold when he realizes that a trade is not in the cards for this season, which I think has to be the ultimate outcome, but I'm not betting on an easy off season for the cats this year. That can't be a good thing looking forward to a year where the Bengals really need to get their act together if they hope to return to playoff contention, after two years of slumping performance.

1 comment:

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