Shutdown Corner

Option anxiety was Chad Ochocinco’s real problem in New England

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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This did not work out as expected. (Getty Images)

It's no secret that the New England Patriots have one of the most complex and intricate passing games in the NFL. Even when they're running things that look pretty standard, like three-vertical schemes and 2-TE sets (which they obviously do better than anybody else). Tom Brady is master and commander of an offense that has a dizzying array of option routes. Brady has to be in perfect sync with his receivers as a result, and those receivers must be aware of every permutation in the "if this/then that" aspects of the passing game.

If you don't get it, you won't get the ball -- Brady will shut you out after a few mistakes. It's why Joey Galloway became the target equivalent of a petrified tree after a few screw-ups, and why Brady wanted Deion Branch back on the team so badly. It's not always about specific talent, per se -- although talent is nice, as well -- as much as it's about buying in fully to the plan.

(Of course, when you have ridiculous talent AND an ability to get the playbook together, you wind up with Randy Moss in 2007 and Rob Gronkowski in 2011. But we digress).

One of the reasons Chad Ochocinco simply didn't become a factor in New England, according to several sources, is that he could never stick and stay with the complexities of the option route concept. Not that Chad's unintelligent by any means, but he wasn't asked to do such things at any level of football -- not at Santa Monica (Community) College, not at Oregon State, and not with the Cincinnati Bengals. With the Bengals, the oeuvre of the game plan went a little more like this: "Let Chad beat his double-cover with pure speed and Gumby-like flexibility."

When last year's trade from Cincinnati to New England happened, it was thought that Chad could use his legitimate football smarts to grasp what the Pats were doing and give them the deep threat they so desperately needed. But after a Super Bowl XLVI loss to the New York Giants in which Chad caught one pass and the G-men cheated their safeties up through the game, the truth started to come out.

"The more people I talk to about Ochocinco, the more convinced I am that it's never going to work for him in this offense," Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe wrote in late February. "It just seems like he'll never get it. But depending on the other moves, he could be back under a restructured contract, then subject to a release. The team and players loved having him around. He was a terrific teammate, just not even close to being effective."

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And that's the sad part of the divorce. It appeared that Chad really wanted to be a part of this -- he seemed to work hard, didn't complain when the ball didn't come his way, and from all reports, did everything possible to be a good teammate. This isn't T.O., putting up bricks and whining when he isn't allowed to put up more. This was just a case of a player with a little bit left in the tank being traded to the wrong environment. With Chad, it seems that you either have to let him freelance, or put him in a very defined, restrictive role. The Patriots do neither of these things with their receivers.

"At times, there are four decisions that a receiver needs to make after the snap the way our offense is,'' receivers coach Chad O'Shea told Bedard. "That's one of the advantages of our offense, that we give players a lot of flexibility within the system to take what the defense gives us. And that's definitely something that's unique about our offense."

And though some would say that Chad deserved another year to get the hang of it, those in the know were less convinced. From Bedard:

The truth is, it was probably never going to work. What the Patriots didn't realize watching Ochocinco on film while with the Bengals was, according to several league sources, he ran the routes he wanted to there and it drove quarterback Carson Palmer nuts -- especially later in his Bengals career. But Palmer was smart enough to realize that no matter where Ochocinco was running, he was probably going to get open because his feet are that good down the field. And after so many reps together, Palmer had a good feel for where Ochocinco would end up.

Brady didn't have those reps, and he wasn't going to put his offense on hold until it happened. The Patriots acquired Brandon Lloyd in March, and they'll go forward hoping that another veteran receiver gives them what they want.

"I have to trust in Deion [Branch] and Wes [Welker] and all those guys out there to be in the right spot so I can play fast and anticipate what they're doing," Brady told the media last week, right around the time that Chad got his walking papers. "If everyone is not on the same page, it doesn't work. A lot of what these practices are about is everybody getting on the same page. You have a lot of new guys from other teams, rookies. The faster we can get up to speed and get better as a unit, the better we're going to be."

Personally, I blame the Patriots' front office for this more than I blame Chad. The player was in 2011 what he had always been before -- a maddeningly inconsistent player prone to lapses in concentration, who would make up for those lapses with bouts of sheer physical dominance. Either the Pats got caught up in the "we can change him" mantra, or they just didn't scout him well enough.

And that's how schematic misfits happen -- no matter how much player and team seem like a great fit on the surface.

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