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Why Chad Ochocinco still matters

12.18.11 at 11:22 pm ET
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Chad Ochocinco caught his first touchdown of the season on Sunday. (AP)

Chad Ochocinco caught his first touchdown of the season on Sunday. (AP)

And on his 143rd day as a New England Patriot, Chad Ochocinco found the end zone.

A lot has happened in the world since Bill Belichick sent fifth- and sixth-round picks to Cincinnati and Ochocinco arrived in “heaven” (who knew there was a Five Guys and Red Robin near the Pearly Gates?) on July 29. The end of Tito and Theo (and Herman Cain, come to think of it); Kim and Kris were married and divorced; Tim Tebow went from backup to whatever it is that Tim Tebow is today; “The Paul Reiser Show” replaced “Caveman” as the go-to horrible sitcom for lazy writers looking for a cheap laugh; and Joe Paterno took a 50,000-foot drop from lovable but out of touch legend to one of the true monsters in the history of American sport.

But Chad Ochocinco has managed to stay consistent in an inconsistent world. He was disappointing in the preseason, terrible in September, clueless in October, invisible in November and nowhere in December.

But in the first quarter on Sunday, it appeared that Ochocinco was finally ready to step and up and assume a speaking role in the ongoing play that is the 2011 New England Patriots season. He beat Andre Goodman on a straight route and hauled in a Tom Brady pass (slightly underthrown) for a 33-yard TD that evened the score at 7-7 in the first quarter. No penalties against the Patriots, no drop by Ochocinco, no crossed wires with Brady — nothing but a wide receiver doing his job.

It actually happened. Instead of screaming at him with anger that’s really meant for whoever stuck him with a buffet of underachievers and scrap-heapers at the third wideout spot, Brady was charging at Ochocinco with fists flying in celebration. And with Deion Branch not in uniform and the smell of a shootout in the air, it seemed the breakout game — eight catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns kind of effort — might be upon us.

Well, not so much.

The rest of the game saw Chad Ochocinco do a flawless impression of the Chad Ochocinco we’ve seen for nearly five months: Confused (two incorrect routes), humbled (Brady ripped him a new one — he must have about 300 of ‘em by now — after Miscommunication No. 2) and basically a non-factor for the final 52:30 of what was another somewhat troubling but ultimately satisfying win for the AFC East champions.

This season is now 14 games old. We pretty much know what this Patriots team is from a Big Picture perspective. It’s been defined for weeks. They’ll go as far as Brady takes them, the defense is hugely flawed (and now even more so with their best player this year — Andre Carter — now apparently out for the season), if everything goes right they could win the Super Bowl but another home playoff wipeout is at least as likely, all that stuff.

But, despite limited production and limited snaps, Ochocinco remains an unknown. And that’s the intrigue, isn’t it? With the TD on Sunday as the latest example, there have been just enough teases to allow the possibility that he could emerge as a postseason game-changer. People still believe that there might be more than what we’ve seen, or that there has to be more than what we’ve seen. Sure, he’s 33 years old and his skills were already clearly diminishing when he arrived in Foxboro in July, but shouldn’t Ochocinco be a better option than Tiquan Underwood?

As great as Wes Welker is, as historic a season as Rob Gronkowski has authored, as terrific as Aaron Hernandez has played over the last month, there is still a void in this offense: No legitimate deep threat. And Ochocinco — while maybe miscast in that part — has been the one guy on this team that has at least shown an ability to stretch the field. We saw it against the Bills (clear separation on what was an eye-opening drop), the Jets on Sunday night (if Brady hits him in stride that would have been TD No. 1) and again on Sunday.

Ochocinco can still redeem what has been an almost incomprehensibly inept season. Think about it: Would the Patriots have a better record than 11-3 if Ochocinco had been a regular contributor to this team? Probably not. He could pull a couple more zippo supremo acts over the next two weeks and this team will still finish 13-3. Assuming he’s on the field for playoff games — and he hasn’t been a healthy scratch yet –there is still plenty of time for redemption. And I don’t think anyone is asking for Jerry Rice circa 1985, either: Five catches for 65 yards and a TD in a playoff win and all would be forgiven.

The truth is that the fans — for the most part — have given this guy a pass, though the cheers after his rare catches at Gillette suggest that he’s closing in on punch-line status and that there’s almost pity. They see he’s trying — he’s the anti-Haynesworth in that regard — and that does mean something. There’s been no ego, no diva act, he’s kept his head down (140 characters at a time) and tried his best to be just another guy (hasn’t talked to the media in months).

There’s too much talent around him and not enough talent left in his body to expect Chad Ochocinco to be anything more than a supporting player the rest of the way for this team. He’ll never take targets away from Gronkowski, Welker or Hernandez. He’s not as good as those guys, and Brady just doesn’t have that trust in him.

But there is still room for him to matter. Will he make that happen?

Or will his touchdown on Sunday — 143 days in the making — be remembered as the highlight of a lost season?

Read More: Chad Ochocinco, Patriots, Tom Brady,
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