Bengals WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh establishes himself
CINCINNATI - T.J. Houshmandzadeh was ready for interviews. The semicircle of cameras and reporters closed around him. A Cincinnati Bengals employees turned down the locker room sound system a few notches as a courtesy.
That got Chad Johnson's attention.
"Hey, I want to listen to my music while I dress," Johnson said, trying his best to act put-out. "T.J. can take his interview outside."
The two receivers dress side-by-side and have been friends since college, so the act was just that -- a chance to needle. It also was unintentionally revealing.
In his seventh season, the receiver with the name that's a mouthful has become a handful to guard. He leads the NFL in catches and has already set a club record with 101. He made the Pro Bowl this week for the first time.
The seventh-round draft pick has become much more than Johnson's sidekick. A lot more than the locker room music revolves around him these days, even if he's reluctant to acknowledge it.
"I don't look at it like that," said Houshmandzadeh, who was Johnson's teammate at Oregon State. "I think that's media talk. It has nothing to do with stepping out of Chad's shadow.
"Chad knows what I can do, and I know what he can do on the field. Actually, I think being on the same team with Chad has benefited me. Chad works so hard in the offseason. He pushes me, and I push him. He wants to be better than me. I want to be better than him."
In some ways, he is.
Houshmandzadeh has become Carson Palmer's most trusted target. Palmer, who was MVP of the last Pro Bowl, has so much faith in Houshmandzadeh's ability to run routes properly and hang onto the ball after taking a hit that he goes to him most often.
Part of it is that the speedy Johnson gets covered by the other team's best defenders, who are wary because he can run past them. Part of it is that Houshmandzadeh is so good in his role as a possession receiver.
"As big of a role as he plays in this offense and has over the last three or four years, you can't ask him to do much more than he's done and make the plays that he's made," Palmer said.
Houshmandzadeh leads the team with 11 touchdowns. He had at least one touchdown catch in each of the first eight games, the longest such streak by a Bengals player in one season.
The 204th overall pick in the 2001 draft, Houshmandzadeh did very little in his first three years that would make anyone think he was capable of such things. He hurt his heel as a rookie, hurt his groin in his second season, then missed most of the third due to a hamstring injury.
When Marvin Lewis arrived as head coach before the 2003 season, one of his most memorable moments was meeting his two receivers.
"The guy with the pony tail?" Lewis said, remembering his first impression.
Lewis liked him enough to keep him around after the injury-shortened '03 season. Since then, he had made a much more lasting second impression.
"He brings a lot of fire, grit and attitude to the football team," Lewis said. "He works his tail off every day he can. That's what I like about him. Sometimes we've got to control the rage a little bit, but you know he's got it in him. He's going to fight them to the end."
Johnson thrives on touchdown celebrations and his look-at-me antics. Houshmandzadeh doesn't need to call attention to himself. Both have a penchant for letting their emotions get the best of them.
Johnson will complain to Palmer and the coaches when he doesn't get enough passes thrown his way. Houshmandzadeh will lose his composure when he thinks the referees aren't calling penalties on defensive backs.
One of his worst games this season came when he lost his cool. Houshmandzadeh had only five catches for 42 yards in a 24-10 loss in Pittsburgh last month that essentially scuttled the Bengals' hopes of a turnaround.
Houshmandzadeh considers it his worst game of the season.
"A lot of times, I get on the referees," he said. "I think I was just worried about not getting a call too much, even though I was being held on every play and they never called it. Once they didn't call it after the first few times, I should have just left it alone. But I just didn't play well."
Cincinnati's 5-9 record took a lot of the joy out of his selection for his first Pro Bowl this week.
"It's kind of bittersweet," he said. "Almost like you're in high school and you're playing in a tournament and you're playing a consolation game. That's what it kind of feels like a little bit."