FOXBORO, Mass. – These are emotional times in New England. So much so that wide receiver Chad Ochocinco(notes) actually hugged a reporter on Wednesday night after practice and yelled, "I'm in heaven."
Ochocinco later made an obvious reference to his 10 years with the Cincinnati Bengals: "I'm serious, you don't understand. After what I've been through, this is heaven."
On another part of the field, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes) was similarly overjoyed, beaming as he signed autographs and talked about what it was like to be in New England after two lost years with the Washington Redskins.
"The expectations here, the way things are run, this is how it's supposed to be," said Haynesworth, who clashed with Redskins coach Mike Shanahan on a daily basis last season. "The way things were going [in Washington], I almost lost faith in myself, in my ability to play. The environment was so negative. It was just such a down place."
While the Philadelphia Eagles are in the midst of putting together a "Dream Team," the New England Patriots are trying to improve their hopes for another Super Bowl title by reviving the dreams of two of the league's most talented players. By acquiring Ochocinco and Haynesworth in relatively cheap trades, head coach Bill Belichick is banking on his history of salvaging players whose careers have gone sideways.
While it's early, the situation couldn't be scripted any better. On Wednesday night, Ochocinco put on a show. By his own admission, he practiced harder than he has in at least four years ("No doubt," he said, without hesitation). The challenge of pleasing his new coach and quarterback is evident. The greater issue is that Ochocinco is finally with a team where winning is an expectation, not a foreign concept.
"It's everything," Ochocinco said, "not just what you see on the field, it's how we work in meetings. Every little thing has to be right or you're getting ripped. Everybody gets ripped, even Tom [Brady], me, everybody. In Cincinnati, nobody ever said anything to Carson [Palmer]. Not here, because that's the expectation. I love it. They expect perfection. You don't hear the coaches saying, 'Good play.' That's what you're supposed to do."
Haynesworth echoed that:
"I've been around some really good teams, like that year  we were 10-0 in Tennessee. But this is another 20 percent above that in terms of what everybody expects. We had a great coach in [former Titans coach] Jeff Fisher, but Belichick is beyond even that. He doesn't let anything slip through the cracks. Not one little thing. It all has to be right."
The question is whether that impression will last. Will the joy of coming to the Patriots lead Ochocinco and Haynesworth to some renaissance of their careers? More important, will that help the Patriots get to a Super Bowl, as it did when the team took on the likes of Corey Dillon or Randy Moss(notes)?
With this team, the emotions on display aren't always so happy these days. New England owner Robert Kraft is doing the best he can, but is clearly suffering as he deals with the loss of his wife Myra, who died July 20 after a long battle with cancer.
Sitting in an otherwise empty cafeteria hall beneath Gillette Stadium, the 70-year-old Kraft tears up at one point as he recounted their first date when he was 20 and she was 19.
He has copies of front-page newspaper stories about Myra. The usually confrontational Boston Herald ran the front-page headline "Heart of Gold" over her picture. The Boston Globe's headline called her a "paragon of giving." She earned that place in New England society for her charity and class. She was a person of great dignity.
Moreover, she helped bring expectation to the Patriots. The Krafts laid the foundation for how the Patriots do business. While there are sometimes disagreements, there is always a level of respect. Consider this: Former Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss, who the Patriots traded in the midst of last season, traveled from West Virginia to attend shiva (the Jewish period of mourning) at Kraft's home after Myra died.
"You have to respect everyone in your business and everyone you do business with," said Kraft, gesturing toward a woman who pushed a cart through the cafeteria. "From this woman doing that job all the way up to the players, you have to respect them."
Right now, football is a salve for Kraft and his family. The trades for Haynesworth and Ochocinco provide a happy distraction. The first person each of them met after they arrived was Kraft. He laid out his expectations for how they were supposed to conduct themselves and what it is to be a Patriot.
In other organizations, players are often lucky to see the owner once a year. Haynesworth and Ochocinco each got 30-minute sit-downs. Kraft's impression of Haynesworth is decidedly counter to public perception.
"When I sat and talked with him, I never would have believed it was the guy I had read about," Kraft said. "He's bright, he's engaging."
While that could be discounted as part of the euphoria that goes with getting any potentially great player at a bargain price (the Patriots gave up a fifth-round pick in 2013 for Haynesworth), even members of the media have been pleasantly surprised by Haynesworth. After a group interview Tuesday, one reporter called him "affable."
This is the same guy who is facing a misdemeanor sexual assault charge (a waitress in Washington claims Haynesworth touched her breast while paying his bill) from last February, went through a season in which he was accused by many of quitting on the Redskins even after the team gave him a $100 million contract in 2009, was investigated and sued for a reckless driving incident that resulted in an accident that left a man injured, and came to infamy by stomping on the head of Dallas center Andre Gurode(notes) in 2006.
[Related: Albert Haynesworth's golden opportunity]
Truth is, Haynesworth is an exceptionally bright guy who has inexplicably done one seemingly dumb thing after another. Friends and associates are constantly confounded by him. With his speed boat, yacht and array of other toys, he gives the impression of a guy who prefers the trappings of the NFL to the grind it takes to get them. He is a walking contradiction, a rare athlete who can almost single-handedly destroy an offense when he likes and be downright lethargic at other times.
Likewise, Ochocinco is an incredibly driven person despite the fact he has sometimes played the role of clown prince during his days in Cincinnati. For all the goofiness, Ochocinco has just wanted to win, but was stuck in an organization that has no clue how to do it.
Since Kraft bought the Patriots in 1994, the team has compiled the best record in the league, won three Super Bowls and appeared in five. By contrast, the Bengals, despite being run by the son of NFL Hall of Famer Paul Brown, have amassed one of the worst records in the league over that time and made the playoffs only twice (losing the first game each time).
"The difference is everything," Ochocinco said. "It's not just what you see on the field. I saw it in the first meeting. I was like, 'Yeah, this is how a team is supposed to be run. Finally, I get to really be part of that.' "
Of course, the ringmaster to all of this is Belichick, a Zen master of both football strategy and personnel management. Over the years, Belichick has worked with an array of extraordinarily talented people who also have trying personalities. From Lawrence Taylor to Ty Law(notes) to Dillon to Moss and now the Haynesworth-Ochocinco duo, Belichick could be a guest lecturer on management at the Harvard Business School.
While Belichick has taken a passing interest in psychology, talking to friends like Alabama coach Nick Saban or former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson, his best tools for dealing with players are simply from doing the job.
"I'd say probably the most useful thing is experience," Belichick said. "I've coached how many thousands of players? I think that's probably more important for me. Not that we don't talk to other people and other sources about people, but you really go by your own experiences."
He practically scoffed at the idea that Haynesworth could be his greatest coaching challenge.
"I'm telling you, we've had some guys," said Belichick, his voice trailing off to emphasize the point. "Now, I know it's only been a few days, but I would definitely say, so far, so good. I would say there were other players I have coached that within 24 hours … it started. You knew it wasn't going to work."
From a pure football perspective, Haynesworth and fellow defensive lineman Vince Wilfork(notes) could combine for a hellacious duo. On Wednesday night, the pair worked on different techniques and stunts that figure to create havoc … if Haynesworth buys in.
Really, the Patriots need him to do that. While Haynesworth is not a great individual pass rusher (his career high is 8½ in 2008 and he has 31 in nine seasons), he's the type of lineman who creates opportunities for others. In four seasons playing next to Haynesworth, former Tennessee defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch(notes) had two seasons with at least 12 sacks and had 35½ overall.
Last season, New England finished tied for 14th in the league in sacks with 36. While that's not bad, it's not great when you consider the Patriots led the league in scoring. Their offense alone should have put more pressure on teams to throw and fall prey to more sacks. The problem is that the Patriots don't have guys who can create those opportunites.
Enter Haynesworth. "If you're a smart guy who understands football and you get paired with Bill, it should work," Kraft said.
Really, if it doesn't work, that means there must be something seriously wrong with the player.
As for the 33-year-old Ochocinco, his sense of relief is constant. He talked about the morning last week when agent Drew Rosenhaus texted him, "Emergency, call ASAP."
"I'm thinking, 'Yeah, what could this be?' " Ochocinco said, sarcastically. "I called Drew and he said, '[Bengals owner] Mike [Brown] has agreed to trade you to New England.' I just dropped the phone and started crying. I was just bawling. You know how it is on draft day when you finally get selected. It was like draft day all over again."
Driven by that emotion, Ochocinco is doing everything right. He stayed after practice with Wes Welker(notes) to catch extra passes from Brady and didn't leave the field until talking to Belichick (the two became oddly close during the Pro Bowl in 2007). On Wednesday night, he already looked in sync with Brady on some important plays.
On an out pattern midway through practice, Ochocinco made a precise cut, turned his head at just the right time and snagged the pass right along the sideline, tapping his feet before running out of bounds. At the other end, Brady was decidedly geeked up about the play, showing a rare bit of excitement on an otherwise mundane night.
When Ochocinco got back to the huddle, Brady gave him an enthusiastic high-five.
Even in practice, there's plenty of emotion to go around.
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- Robert Kraft
- Bill Belichick