The news that New England Patriots receiver Chad Ochocinco will be inactive in today's game against the Philadelphia Eagles should be causing more consternation than it is. But Ocho's season going as it has been, the general response has been whether anyone will know the difference. Since he was acquired from the Cincinnati Bengals in late July and restructured his contract to be a part of what was supposed to be a far more explosive offense than it has been, Ochocinco has been virtually off the map. The hamstring injury that will keep him out against the Eagles is at least an understandable impediment to his progress. More curious is the fact that Ochocinco has been targeted just 21 times by Tom Brady, and this will be the first game he's actually missed all season.
The obvious answer is that New England's offense is a high-performance, high-discipline attack, and if you're not on the same page with Brady, you'll be excluded and forgotten. That's what has happened to Joey Galloway and other receivers who didn't get with the plan through Brady's time with the team; it's why Bill Belichick didn't worry about losing Randy Moss, and it's why Brady was so happy about getting Deion Branch back after a number of years in Seattle. Brady has his guys, and if you aren't one of them, you're out.
The perception is that after years of freelancing in Cincinnati, Ochocinco was unprepared for the sheer amount of regimentation required by the Patriots' passing game, and that's why he has as many targets as Danny Woodhead, with just 11 catches for 201 yards, no touchdowns, and no catches on four of the Patriots' last five games. That's not what was expected, and the Pats' offense is struggling for it. More and more, teams are realizing that although tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (two second-year players who are completely on board with the Brady Plan) are excelling, defenses can plat press coverage against Brady's receivers and disrupt their timing on shorter routes, because there's nobody on the team who can force the safeties to play back.
Though he's been seen having more than one animated conversation with Ocho on the sidelines this season, Brady recently repeated and emphasized his previous comments — things are coming along, and the two will eventually connect.
"We make improvements every week. It's just a matter of us ultimately getting it done in the game," Brady recently said. "Every week there's more confidence in what we're doing with him, and with him and me. It's just a matter of us getting out there and doing it on the field. Believe me, no one's more frustrated than us. We talked after the game about what we need to do to get better. And we're just going to keep doing it. We really don't know any other way."
What appears to be Brady throwing to covered targets instead of the more open Ochocinco may be that at times, but it's also Brady trying to throw with timing and anticipation to receivers who understand his tempo. It's an underrated and misunderstood aspect of the game — NFL defenses play so quickly these days, then open receiver is actually the one who hasn't even hit his spot yet.
"We're missing it by thismuch," Ochocinco told the Boston Herald, holding two fingers close together. "That's it. That's what [Brady] was saying [on the sideline], 'Just keep working.'"
"Yeah, he is [in the right spots on the field]. He certainly is," Brady told Boston radio station WEEI earlier this week. "There's a lot of things that go into our offense, the timing of our offense. He and I have only played eight games together. And that was really with an abbreviated offseason. Like I said, we talk to each other after the game. It's frustrating coming off the field and we're not making the plays that we're capable of making. I know that, and I'm trying to get him the ball and I'm trying to make him a part of the offense. That's just what my role is."
This week, Brady's role is to drive that offense without Ochocinco as a factor. The good news is that he's more than used to it.