Ocho Cinco’s first season still Ocho Cero in TD catches

Published 3:51 am Thursday, September 25, 2008

The first season of Ocho Cinco isn’t going so well.

Eight inconsequential catches for only 88 yards. Zero touchdowns in three games. Back when he was known as Chad Johnson, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Pro Bowl receiver would have better numbers in a game, let alone three.

One other difference: Ocho Cinco isn’t complaining.

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The self-promoting receiver has a history of grousing when he doesn’t get the ball, suggesting the team would start winning when he got more involved in the offense. So far in an 0-3 season, there’s been none of that. He doesn’t have many catches, but he’s been the model of equanimity.

‘‘My time will come,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve had a season like this before — I believe it was ’06, a similar slow start like this. But once I break out, I really break out. So I’m being patient, just doing what I can, and when the opportunities come, I make the most of them.’’

How long will it last? Depends.

Partly, it depends on how long Ocho Cinco winds up being the center of defense’s attention. Teams have been rotating their coverages to keep him from making a big play. T.J. Houshmandzadeh had 12 catches for 146 yards and the Bengals’ only passing touchdown of the season in a 26-23 loss to the Giants in overtime Sunday. Ocho Cinco? Three catches for 29 yards.

‘‘It’ll pick up,’’ he said after practice Wednesday, slipping into a reassuring tone. ‘‘It always does for me. I’m not worried about it. I always start slow, except for last year. This is sort of the norm for me. I might be down just a tad.’’

More than a tad. He’s off to his worst start since 2002, his second season in the NFL. His totals for the first three games of each season since then:

— 18 catches, 303 yards, one touchdown in 2003.

— 16 catches, 243 yards, one touchdown in 2004.

— 19 catches, 307 yards, three touchdowns in 2005.

— 12 catches, 137 yards, one touchdown in 2006.

— 25 catches, 442 yards, three touchdowns in 2007.

— 8 catches, 88 yards, no touchdowns in 2008.

In 2006, there was a reason for the slow start. Quarterback Carson Palmer was coming back from reconstructive knee surgery and hadn’t yet regained his touch. The entire offense was out of whack for those first three games.

This year, some of it can be tied to facing three tough defenses — Baltimore, Tennessee and the Giants — without much of a running game. The Bengals have rushed for only 260 yards in three games — Palmer has 38 of them on six scrambles.

‘‘A majority of the time that he’s getting a bunch of catches is when we’re running the ball successfully and they’ve got to put that safety (near the line of scrimmage) as opposed to just letting them double-team Chad,’’ Palmer said. ‘‘We’ve got to get going in other areas in order to get him going, and that’s always the case.’’

The Bengals are encouraged that the receiver is taking it so well. In the past, he’d be on the verge of an emotional meltdown.

Last season, for instance, he fussed at Palmer on the sideline for several minutes after he ran an incorrect route, resulting in an interception against New England. In the past, Ocho Cinco would throw his head back and hold out his arms when he felt he was open but didn’t get the ball thrown his way.

Against the Giants, he kept his cool.

‘‘That’s probably as well as I’ve seen him handle that kind of situation in a while without getting frustrated,’’ coach Marvin Lewis said. ‘‘He kept playing and playing, and when there were opportunities, he was right where he needed to be.’’

The receiver dislocated his left shoulder in a preseason game, and wore a protective harness that limited his arm motion in the first two regular season games. He went without it against the Giants and had no problems, a sign that he’s getting healthy.

‘‘I was fine,’’ he said. ‘‘I got banged up all over the place. I blocked, got hit, flew up, hit the ground, did the whole nine yards, so I’m good. I probably won’t wear it again the rest of the year.’’

How long his calm demeanor lasts is another intriguing question.

Usually, the receiver would be talking trash and promising a big touchdown celebration in the week leading up to a game against the rival Cleveland Browns. This week, he deflected questions about his slow start and when he might break out or what he might do.

‘‘I’m fine,’’ he said. ‘‘My opportunities are going to be there. They’re always going to be there.’’