A new media personality has burst onto the sports horizon in the person of Chad Johnson, the Bengals' publicity-addicted wide receiver. We should be so lucky. The Bengals evidently have one of these dynamite star pass catchers, and we didn't even have to wait for a playoff appearance before finding out about it.
Accounts are mixed, and even those who know him reportedly aren't together about whether Johnson was a brat two weeks ago against the Dallas Cowboys. He added none of that foolishness to his portfolio Nov. 14, when he caught six passes in a 17-10 win against the Washington Redskins. But game day couldn't pass without a different kind of silliness, that lame Thimblizer skit on ESPN's pregame show.
Over here, Johnson is one of the most dedicated performers on the team. Over there, he runs these sideshows, which aren't especially entertaining. Is he just being Chad, or is he putting his name ahead of his game by mixing up this garbage?
It's not ours to question Chad Johnson's motives when he sends bottles of Pepto Bismol to the Cleveland Browns defensive backs, then lays an egg in the game.
But we can talk about how it comes off. So here's our message of love for Chad Johnson:
How are we going to make this work? How are we going to be the NFL's top wide receiver, a multimedia pop star, the Master of the Universe?
Well, here's the key to athletic fame. The stage. It all happens on the stage in sports. If it doesn't happen on the athletic stage, then it looks flat on the media stage.
It can't be just any athletic stage, though. It has to be the big stage. The playoffs. The games everyone sees, the games that make real stars in this league, players who make the difference between winning and losing when all the teams are winners.
That's the stage. It has to happen there first. Prove it there. Help your team make it to that stage, then make it happen there. That's how to become a star in the NFL.
Wannabe: An athlete who tries to become an entertainer when his team is in a fight just for a winning record. Right now, Johnson has an act, but no stage.
Terrell Owens is the state of play now in a recent tradition of show biz wide receivers that probably goes back to Michael Irvin, the original self-described Play Maker, then runs through the likes of Randy Moss and Joe Horn. Now Johnson is trying to join the fun. Of that group, Moss is the exception who proves the Stage Rule.
Moss came into the league as a story of great interest, since the rest of the NFL left him undrafted until the Minnesota Vikings took him with the 21st pick in the 1998 draft. The rest of the league figured his behavior would be a risk, despite the obvious skill he demonstrated at Marshall. So the Moss story has struck the big talent vs. character theme since before he entered the league.
Whatever else can be said of Irvin and Owens, their extra antics can't be condoned. But at least they backed it up in the postseason before turning to stagecraft.
In many aspects, the emergence of the show biz wide receiver is an unintended consequence of the NFL's emphasis on the passing game in the past 35 years. The rules are jogged to open the game for passing so it might be more telegenic. Inevitably, a wide receiver here and there will work up an exagerated sense of his graudeur.
This year, the league took away some of the limited contact allowed between defenders and receivers 5 yards past the line of scrimmage in response to New England's tough marking of Indianapolis wide receivers in last year's AFC Championship Game. Wide receivers can call themselves play makers, but they're nothing without the rule makers.
Beyond that, wide receivers generally go to battle with physical advantages against cornerbacks, who often are 4 to 6 inches shorter, considerably lighter and often not as fast. When we start seeing athletes like Randy Moss at cornerback, the game will change, and so will the rules. Along with competitive advantages built into the rules and genetics, the wide receiver knows the play, unlike the guy covering him.
We see this happen all the time in the NFL. A wide receiver runs his pattern knowing the play, being bigger and faster than the guy covering him and additionally cashing in rules written to his advantage. He's open!
By the time our hero catches his touchdown pass, the rule makers have helped get him open, five to seven other players have thrown blocks so the quarterback can throw the ball, two to four others have run patterns to distract defensive help and the quarterback has thrown a nearly perfect pass under conditions of impending physical danger, finding the open man amid complete chaos and often taking a fierce body blow after the release.
But it's the wide receiver pulling out a Sharpie and autographing the ball or pulling some stunt with a cell phone to tell the world about his great achievement. Everyone else worked for this touchdown and, indeed, the quarterback under pressure is the true hero of the long pass play. But the wide receiver soaks up the credit.
That's why the the wide receiver's self-glorification rings so hollow, particularly when he hasn't even been on the stage, let alone conquered it. Are the receiver's intentions good? Maybe. Either way, it looks selfish, which is unappetizing in the context of a team game.
If everyone playing football works equally hard, the wide receiver will prevail. The game is designed for it. For a receiver to catch a touchdown pass in an NFL game is not among the barely conceivable achievements in sports, though it's got to be a barrel of fun.
If Chad Johnson is just having fun, then he's just having fun and that's never all bad. Lots of people have lots of different fun with football. While some do it with gambling and others have their fantasy teams, the backbone of fun in the NFL is fans following their winning teams.
It all starts there, and the Bengals need to get there before the Chad Johnson Show can expect critical praise and high ratings. To that end, we have good news. The Bengals, once the NFL's worst team, now have won two in a row against teams that are worse, Dallas and Washington.
We know Philadephia and New England are good and Pittsburgh, with seven straight wins, is hot. Otherwise, we're still shaking out the NFL season. The New York Jets started 5-0, then lost three of four. The Minnesota Vikings were 5-1 and now are 5-4. The standings change. Maybe the Bengals can still break into the picture.
With seven games left, the Bengals are two games out of the last wild card spot, but they have only three teams to pass. A winning record is back in sight, though games remain against New England and Philadelphia.
Here's hoping the rest of the season is about winning, with Johnson making more plays and fewer waves. It's the only way to make the Chad Johnson Show fun.