Of all the humble pie Chad Ochocinco was force-fed since he joined the New England Patriots, the largest piece was served at Super Bowl XLVI Media Day.
For a sizeable portion of the hour-long session Tuesday morning, Ochocinco was peppered with questions about his lack of production and whether he will even play Sunday against the New York Giants. The words “disappointing,” “frustrating” and “bittersweet” were cast by waves of surrounding reporters fishing for an outburst.
To his credit, Ochocinco never swallowed the bait. Despite some anxious moments and tense exchanges, he remained content chewing on a slice of the Patriots’ homemade specialty, baked specifically for players whose egos need checking.
And after the first couple of bites, it didn’t taste so bad.
“I don’t want to be a problem. I don’t want to be a distraction,” said Ochocinco, who was sometimes both during his previous 10 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. “I’ve blended in with everyone else. That’s it.
“It’s a funny thing how God works. You humble yourself. No celebrating, no s***-talking, no antics, and I’m in the big dance. It’s like, ‘Which one do you want?’ ”
Ochocinco swears it’s the latter even though he admits the 2011 campaign “wasn’t the way I or anyone else expected.” Ochocinco had averaged 75 catches for 1,078 yards and seven touchdowns the previous nine years in Cincinnati.
His output since he joined the Patriots via trade in July at a one-year cost of roughly $6 million: 15 receptions for 276 yards and one score. Ochocinco also didn’t dress for the AFC Championship Game victory over Baltimore. That likely stems from a combination of declining play and a brief departure to attend his father’s funeral.
The reasons for Ochocinco’s on-field decline are much clearer. Although a workout warrior, the 34-year-old Ochocinco isn’t the same elite athlete who frequently flummoxed cornerbacks earlier in his career. The NFL lockout also prevented New England from acquiring him earlier in the offseason to build chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady — a stickler for the precision routes that were never Ochocinco’s forte.
Ochocinco has admittedly struggled learning New England’s scheme after spending a decade in the same Cincinnati system.
“It’s like having a girlfriend for 10 years and she’s always one way,” said Ochocinco, who didn’t qualify academically for Division I football coming out of Miami Beach High School.
“You meet somebody new and have to adjust to her because you have no idea so you learn her on the run. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, I’m still here, you know what I mean?”
Ochocinco knows that wouldn’t be the case if he didn’t keep the self-described “crazy Chad” — the one who once promised to attend Media Day dressed only in a towel if he ever played in a Super Bowl — muzzled in an internal basement.
There were no “look at me” moments in 2011 even when Ochocinco did snag a pass. No war of words with opposing players before games. He was accountable and at the very least accepted by teammates who received expensive headphones as a pre-Super Bowl gift. Ochocinco shied from trouble away from team headquarters like throughout his NFL career — unless extolling IHOP employees to open exactly at 6 a.m. for breakfast is a crime.
Ochocinco avoided talking to Patriots media this season, which was wise considering the foot-in-mouth potential that would infuriate head coach Bill Belichick. He continued reaching out to fans through a Twitter account with more than 3 million followers, but that is now on a self-imposed hiatus until after the Super Bowl.
Rather than clown as a journalist, like at previous Media Days, Ochocinco “sold” the rights to his OCNN network to Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Ochocinco even declined to speak in Spanish when requested by numerous Mexican media outlets.
“I keep my mouth shut and do what I’m told,” Ochocinco said. “I could have done it the other way and said, ‘This is what I want,’ and I could have been at home watching (the Super Bowl).”
Although he will likely be a non-factor against the Giants, Ochocinco’s ongoing media popularity was reflected by the fact he received more attention than most of the Patriots placed at individual podiums around Lucas Oil Stadium. The only X’s and O’s question about the Giants that I heard came after almost 55 minutes of grilling about everything else but the Super Bowl itself.
“Everybody continues to look at it from an individual standpoint,” Ochocinco said in a testy exchange with an ESPN reporter that reflected his ongoing feud with the network. “But if I were to become an individual, you’d kill me for that. If I try it the other way, you kill me for that. There’s really no happy medium there.”
When it comes to personal happiness, Ochocinco admitted that even having a big game in Super Bowl XLVI wouldn’t completely compensate for all his football frustrations in the past season. Ochocinco also wouldn’t speak to what will probably be his last game in a Patriots uniform considering his 2012 salary ($3.1 million).
If it is, Ochocinco will leave New England with no regrets — and a newfound respect for the franchise’s culinary trademark.
“It’s been worth it,” he said. “It’s been a great learning experience. . . . I achieved what I wanted to achieve.