ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - If this is Chad Ochocinco’s idea of heaven, then I’d hate to see how he pictures Hades. Off the field, his fun-loving personality has been muzzled. On the field, he appears puzzled by the intricacies of the Patriots offense.
A heavenly existence? Hardly.
With tight end Aaron Hernandez out with a sprained medial collateral ligament and an unaccomplished group of Buffalo corners, Sunday was the day for Ochocinco to rebuff his critics and silence his doubters. He could have made a statement. Instead, he remained quiet during the Patriots’ 34-31 loss - two catches for 28 yards - and partially so after it, initially declining to talk when approached by reporters and then later speaking privately with beat writers from the Globe and Herald.
Upon his trade to the Patriots, the flamboyant wide receiver pronounced Patriot Place as a celestial address. But there has been nothing blessed so far about the receiver’s union with the team, and the Patriots can’t wait an eternity for Ochocinco to grasp the playbook or the football.
The latter was an issue Sunday, as a wide-open Ochocinco flat-out dropped what would have been a 41-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady in the fourth quarter on third down. “It got away from me,’’ Ochocinco told beat reporters. “I got to come up with everything that comes my way.’’
He was bailed out when Wes Welker, who had a team-record-tying 16 catches for a franchise-record 217 receiving yards, caught a 5-yard pass on fourth down to keep the drive alive and then capped it with the tying 6-yard touchdown.
It was all for naught, though, as the Bills won Super Bowl XLVI at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Oh, wait, that was just a regular-season game? Even Ochocinco would have been chagrined by the over-the-top celebrating by Bills fans after their team beat Team Belichick for the first time since 2003. The goal posts were taken down as a precaution and “Sweet Caroline’’ was part of the postgame playlist.
Ochocinco is veering closer and closer to Joey Galloway territory. If you recall, it was in Galloway’s third game as a Patriot in 2009 that he was profanely thrust outside of Brady’s circle of trust. “It’s not that bleepin’ hard,’’ TB12 barked as Galloway booted away yet another pass against the Falcons.
After that, Galloway was a healthy scratch for three straight games before being given his walking papers. That probably won’t happen to Ochocinco. The Patriots have too much invested to eighty-six No. 85.
Still, as a receiver, if you lose Brady’s trust you might as well be a cadaver with a helmet on because you’re dead to him. His receivers know they must gain and retain Brady’s confidence.
“He expects you to keep working, keep working. You got to keep working for it. Everybody does,’’ said Matthew Slater. “Guys who have played with him for 10 years and guys who have played with him for 10 weeks. We all got to keep working to gain his trust. He is our leader, and what we do runs through him. We’re with him no matter what. We got to show him that every day.’’
No matter what Brady says publicly, Ochocinco, who has five catches for 87 yards in three games, has to be testing his faith and his patience.
The six-time Pro Bowler has had eight weeks to get up to speed, and it’s just not happening. Yes, going from Cincinnati’s simple numbers-based system to New England’s sight-adjustment passing game is like going from pre-algebra to advanced calculus. But at some point Ochocinco has to make the grade, or passes in his direction will keep failing.
Ochocinco claimed he felt more comfortable in the Patriots’ offense. “It was good. Mentally, it was really good,’’ he said. “I knew all my [stuff.] That felt good. That’s Step 1. It’s just got to come quicker.’’
Coming off an encouraging performance against San Diego after being blasted by former Patriot Tedy Bruschi on the local airwaves, Ochocinco was targeted four times and had those two receptions for 28 yards. The other two occasions Brady threw him the ball were the egregious drop and a Leodis McKelvin interception in the third quarter that led to a Buffalo score.
As the once gregarious wideout packed up his belongings, protruding from his suitcase was a big blue binder with a Patriots logo on it. Ochocinco has heeded the advice of Bruschi. He has cut back on his Twitter activities and turned his playbook into his new plaything.
No one can say the eminently likable Ochocinco isn’t trying. But that’s the disconcerting part. This is not Randy Moss staging a wildcat strike. Ochocinco wants this more than any Patriots fan, player, or coach. He lobbied and angled to be here for years with his buddy Bill Belichick. He finally got the call, but now he’s like a performer who reaches Rockefeller Center and then forgets the words.
Truthfully, Ochocinco was the least of the Patriots’ issues Sunday. Brady’s first four-interception game since 2006, a slew of penalties, and a defense that allowed more than 440 yards of offense for the third straight week and was exposed as more broken than bend-but-don’t-break are what undid Belichick’s crew. The Patriots can win without Ochocinco right now, but they can’t win with a defense that is leakier than a vegetable strainer.
Looking at the big picture, though, Ochocinco matters, and it’s a matter of concern that he is still a remedial receiver at this stage because while Welker can shred the Bills corners, he’ll face more resistance against the state of New York’s other AFC East entry.
The J-E-T-S are part of the reason the Patriots opened the pearly gates of Fort Foxborough to Ochocinco in the first place.
Ochocinco and the Patriots were supposed to be a match made in heaven.
Instead, it’s fair to start wondering if they’re a match at all.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.