AFC North: Great Debate
September, 7, 2010
Receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens are known as much for their boisterous personalities as they are for their immense talent. But this high-profile tandem has never played together on the same team -- until now.
The Cincinnati Bengals signed Owens before training camp, sparking questions and sending shockwaves through the NFL. Can this pair coexist in Cincinnati? Is Owens the missing ingredient in the Bengals' struggling passing game?
ESPN.com AFC North blogger James Walker and The Football Scientist, KC Joyner, debate whether this duo will work well together in 2010.
James Walker: KC, let me start right away by presenting the facts. This pair has combined for 1,690 receptions, 24,903 yards, 206 touchdowns and 12 Pro Bowls. There cannot be questions about their production on the field, because Ochocinco and Owens are among the most consistently productive receivers of the past decade.
Owens gets a bum rap for his 2009 totals. Let's not forget who the quarterbacks were for the Buffalo Bills. I don't know if any receiver could make the Pro Bowl with Ryan Fitzpatrick starting a majority of the season. Trent Edwards began the year, and he’s nothing to write home about, either. Still, Owens stayed quiet and played football, recording 55 receptions for 829 yards (15.1 yards per catch average) and five touchdowns. Even if the Bengals get that same production this year from Owens, Cincinnati could be playoff bound, because Ochocinco will do the heavy lifting as the Bengals' No. 1 receiver for quarterback Carson Palmer.
AP Photo/Al BehrmanTerrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco are good friends off the field, but can they maintain that relationship on it?
I'm sure we will touch on the personality and locker room concerns later. But I wanted to point out right away that there's no reason to believe this tandem won't be dangerous on the field.
KC Joyner: James, not to be a buzzkill, but using Owens and Ochocinco's historical numbers really isn't relevant here. Marvin Harrison is one of the most productive receivers over the past decade as well and yet no team is counting on him to lead its receiving corps.
The issue with Owens isn't that the Buffalo offense crushed his numbers. His totals have been on a slide for three years now, as his receptions have steadily dropped (81 to 69 to 55) along with his yardage (1,355 to 1,052 to 829) and touchdowns (15 to 10 to five).
The Dallas Cowboys let him go because offensive coordinator Jason Garrett found out the only way to get Owens open on a consistent basis anymore was to use picks, bunch/stack formations and motion tricks. Buffalo didn't use those subterfuges last year and history says Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski won't do that either.
JW: I think you're making two major oversights, KC. First, Owens didn't have another perennial Pro Bowl receiver on the opposite end in Dallas or Buffalo to take the pressure off as Ochocinco will. Those two will help each other. You can't double-team both players and each will win against single coverage. That's the sign of a great tandem.
Second, the Bengals are not making T.O. the focal point of their offense as the Cowboys and Bills did. So I think some of those comparisons don't add up. Owens is now a complementary piece to Cincinnati's passing game that already has a Pro Bowl receiver (Ochocinco) and a strong running game. Owens as a No. 2 receiver is a great role for him at this stage of his career.
But enough talk about Ochocinco and Owens on the field. I'm sure you have questions about these two coexisting in the same locker room, correct?
KC: There is ample statistical evidence that Owens would have a lot of trouble against his cornerback matchups all season even if he had Jerry Rice in his prime opposite him, but you hit the nail on the head with the real reason adding Owens is a bad idea. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis sometimes seems to approach his job less like he is coaching a football team and more like he is running the Lewis school for wayward players.
It is as I wrote in Scientific Football 2007, "Lewis strikes me as a man who has a soft spot for being a father figure to players. I also believe that Lewis subscribes to the philosophy that people are generally good. The combination of these two traits means that he enjoys mentoring younger players and wants to believe that, with help and support, any player can be turned around. Because of this, Lewis tends to gravitate toward players other people would view as risks. If Lewis' heart is in the right place, his approach to these players could be creating something of a vicious cycle. If you are a parent, you can relate to this. You want your kids to behave and do what they are supposed to do. They want to keep you happy but when they behave, you don't pay them as much attention as you do when they aren't behaving. They quickly figure out that the way to get your attention all the time is to act up all of the time. Some of Lewis' players may have a similar mindset. I think they know that the best way to get his attention is to appeal to his mentoring side, so they end up doing things that they shouldn't in order to get his father-figure side to come out."
AP Photo/Al BehrmanMarvin Lewis has a history of coaching "high maintenance" players such as Chad Ochocinco.
That would explain why the Bengals would pick up an aging veteran on the downside of his career who has a history of being a divisive locker-room presence. Lewis thinks he can turn around Owens but, in my estimation, Owens has absolutely no interest in whatever personality fixes Lewis is proposing. It's a no-win situation for Cincinnati unless Owens turns around his subpar on-field performance, and that isn't a likely scenario.
JW: I cover the Bengals, KC, and I can tell you Cincinnati taking in character risks and providing multiple chances is much more a creation of owner Mike Brown than it is Lewis. But that's a story for another day.
With Owens you get the player and the persona, and although I wouldn't venture to say he's a fit for all 32 NFL teams, there are plenty of reasons why he will mesh well in Cincinnati.
For starters, Ochocinco and Palmer lobbied to get Owens. That gives T.O. instant credibility in Cincinnati's locker room when its most well-known players are backing Owens from Day 1. Also, Ochocinco and Owens are great friends. They’re happy to be together for the first time in their careers, which means these two will not bicker over who's the top receiver. Don't forget Owens is playing on a one-year deal and will be on his best behavior.
Finally, if any team knows how to handle Owens, it's the Bengals. They've had plenty of practice over the years with Ochocinco, and six Pro Bowls later, I think that has worked out pretty well for Cincinnati. Why can't Owens?
KC: For all of the success that Brown and/or Lewis have had with players, they've had plenty of failures as well. The successes also almost always stem from players who have elite skills. Owens used to possess talents of that level, but some metrics from last year show that is no longer the case.
The marker for top-of-the-line cornerback play is to allow a yards per attempt (YPA) total of less than 7 yards. That will typically place a cornerback in the upper third of the league in that category. When Owens faced corners of that caliber last year, he gained only 3.9 YPA. That ranked tied for 77th among wide receivers last year. To put it another way, there were only eight wideouts who fared worse in that metric. Owens is slated to face seven cornerbacks of that caliber this year, so there is a good chance he will do next to nothing in nearly half of the Bengals' contests.
As to the idea that being paired with Ochocinco will help Owens here, think again. Ochocinco was one of the players who tied Owens at 77th in that red-rated CB YPA total. Because he has six red cornerbacks on his schedule, he will be hard-pressed to do anything to assist Owens.
Maybe the best way to close this out is to imagine what would happen if the matchups cause both of these guys to have subpar seasons. If one prima donna can fracture a locker room, imagine the damage two could do. It's the kind of thing that could take a great turnaround story like the 2009 Bengals and turn it into a cautionary tale about taking on too many personnel personality risks.