Chad Johnson, recently cut from the Miami Dolphins on national television, is one of the most charismatic and well-publicized players in the National Football League. And he’s done.
While the receiver formerly known as Ochocinco has had some of the most electric play the NFL has seen at his position, his further employment by NFL teams is at risk not just as a result of his off-field troubles, but his on-field production.
The headaches caused by the vibrant personality of Chad Johnson are well-known. Adam Schefter, ESPN insider, believes the Miami Dolphins were the only team to pay Johnson any attention when he hit the free agency market after the New England Patriots released him from his three-year contract.
Within six short months, Johnson had been cut from two separate teams.
This is not only the result of his deteriorating skill, but also any potential drama.
At this point in his career, Chad Johnson is easily replaceable. At New England, he produced 297 yards and one touchdown. In addition to that touchdown, he had one dropped pass. Chad was targeted 32 times for 16 catches, putting him at a career low 50% catch rate—good for the bottom 10% of the league. For this, he received $1.58 million before being cut.
In that production, he joined a less than stellar corps of receivers: Riley Cooper (51.6% catch rate, 315 yards, 1:4 TD-to-dropped pass ratio), Matt Willis (51.4%, 285, 1:3), Dane Sanzenbacher (50.9%. 276, 3:7) and Vincent Brown (50%, 329, 2:2). Brown, Willis and Sanzenbacher received less than $620,000 for their services while Riley Cooper received $1.2 million.
The only other receiver to have put up similar numbers—Mike Williams—was cut.
Not only that, Chad never grabbed more than two receptions a game, shockingly low for the heralded playmaker from Oregon State.
This isn’t due to low snap count, either. He ranked below the top 100 receivers in yards per route run, placing him alongside contemporaries Sanzenbacher and Willis.
There’s reason to believe that this would have continued at Miami and follow him elsewhere.
By now, it’s common knowledge that Johnson had difficulty understanding New England’s offense. This issue isn’t a deal-breaker; New England asks more from its receivers than any other offense in the NFL. With four route options that rotate based on defensive schematics, the New England offense isn’t a litmus test for effective receivers.
What’s a bigger problem is the reason Johnson didn’t develop familiarity with the playbook—his history as a receiver. Throughout his career, he’s lived off of beating individual receivers and moving into open space. This intuition, combined with unique physical talent, made him unpredictable for defenses and hard to cover. Unfortunately, this unpredictability was a double-edged sword.
His quarterback, Carson Palmer, couldn’t always know where 85 was going to be. At the time, it didn’t matter too much. Palmer had quite a few reps with his mercurial teammate and had a good idea of where Chad would end up being, even if it was frustrating.
Tom Brady never had the time to develop that sort of chemistry—Johnson had increased his off-the-book improvisation over the years and needed more chemistry than ever to connect with a QB.
Unless Johnson goes to Oakland—a team with enough big, physical and fast receivers as it is—he won’t find another quarterback who will have the time or inclination to adapt to him. After all, offenses will no longer be designed around him.
While he’s an intelligent person by all accounts, nearly 15 years of relatively rogue route-running has taken its toll. Chad doesn’t have the tools to fully absorb a complex playbook. After that amount of time enjoying wide latitude and narrow responsibilities, his relative inexperience with strict option-routes makes him a difficult receiver to work with or pick up for any quarterback or team.
His documented issues with Miami’s playbook specifically provides cause for concern. During practices and installs, he was often in the wrong place, and was a point of frustration for the quarterbacks. Given that these rumors have followed him, it is unlikely any other team takes a chance on Johnson, largely because many teams have gone a long way into installing the offense. These necessary practices will have advanced by the time another team would pick him up, making it that much more difficult to absorb.
Beyond that, it was clear that Johnson could not use his veteran savvy to beat a young, inconsistent Sean Smith throughout camp, and regularly was blanketed.
While Sean Smith had flashes of greatness in 2010, his 2011 campaign provided quite a few doubts to even his proponents. Regardless of whether or not it’s “the good Sean Smith” or a far more disappointing version, Smith’s regular superiority over Johnson raises eyebrows about Johnson’s viability as an NFL receiver.
This is not just in part due to Smith’s natural talent. Johnson has clear issues with precise footwork and cannot break out of his cuts with nearly the explosiveness that he used to have; this is something viewers saw in Hard Knocks, but something Miami general manager Jeff Ireland could have seen in New England. This deterioration in physical skill was not met by commensurate increases in intellectual ability on the field, making him an ineffectual receiver.
Because Johnson doesn’t provide nearly the same mentorship asset as most other veterans, his pay—$925,000 minimum base salary (along with incentives and risers in the contract)—makes him a liability against potential alternates.
Not only are undisciplined, large receivers available on every team’s practice squad, but nearly 50% of all receivers drafted will average the production he provided in New England. That is, a receiver picked at random in the NFL draft will produce Johnson’s average or better.
Not only does the 33rd pick of the NFL draft carry a similar cap penalty ($979,000) as Johnson, the second round has consistently been the best at producing quality receivers for long periods of time. If a team needs cheap talent, a draft pick that costs just as much money as Johnson will produce reliably more.
The most obvious advantage to a draft pick, however, is that the pick will give you additional value over time as they age, mature and learn more about the NFL. Johnson doesn’t get better with time. Along with the problems he’s already developed, his unforgiving age—34—doesn’t just spell doom for his long- and medium-term prospects, but questions for this year as well. In the last 70 years, fewer than 10 receivers over the age of 34 have pulled in a 1,000 yard performance.
While Chad is an extremely dedicated and hard worker, no amount of effort will allow him to beat back the march of time. He has already shown signs of his age in Miami, and no team will be willing to take a flyer on him when they could develop a camp cut instead. Most of the receivers that put up similar numbers to Johnson are 24 years old or younger. While their production is expected to go up, Johnson’s will go down.
Even though he would be an ineffectual receiver even with doubled production, there are teams that might take a chance on Chad. Teams are in love with upside, and some teams relish the ability to sign veterans as backups in leadership roles.
The problem is that he is a liability off the field, as well. Not only is he facing legal issues over an accusation of domestic battery, he’s bragged about his refusal to adapt to a team’s culture.
While he remained quiet and hardworking with the Patriots, the veteran receiver would assert his personality, even if it was at cross-purposes with the staff, in inappropriate situations in Miami.
This, alongside inevitable negative media attention and a potential distraction for any rookies, will steer teams away. This is the first time Chad has gotten into legal trouble, but it’s no surprise that his nonfootball behavior has overshadowed his performance on the gridiron.
Schefter had talked to an anonymous front office executive when preparing for the story. The executive said that Ochocinco may have already played every game he was going to have played in the NFL. It’s hard to disagree.