FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If the No. 1 area of concern surrounding your football team as it enters its bye week is the lack of production from your fifth receiver, well, that's a pretty encouraging sign about the state of gridiron affairs.
On the heels of a fourth-quarter rally to top the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots fist-pumped their way into their week off, moving back into sole possession of first place in the AFC East with a 5-1 record. The defense has rebounded from an historically bad start with inspired play in consecutive games, while the offense is still putting up otherworldly -- and better-balanced -- numbers.
All without much help from Chad Ochocinco. And this is a matter of contention to some.
Let's start with the basics: The mercurial receiver has nine catches for 136 yards through six games with the Patriots, but the focus has been on the ones that got away (most notably a surefire touchdown in the fourth quarter of the team's lone loss, in Buffalo).
The uncomfortable meter spiked yet again Sunday when the Patriots took the field to start a third-quarter drive and rushed into a five-receiver set that isolated Ochocinco to the left of quarterback Tom Brady.
Brady faked to the right, then locked eyes with Ochocinco. The wide receiver ran a post to the middle of the field as Brady delivered an out, then glared with an "are you kidding me!?" sort of frustration after the pass sailed closer to Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan than his six-time Pro Bowl receiver.
Ochocinco started back toward the huddle, then realized he was being yanked and plodded back to the sideline for a brief chat with offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. He played only one more snap the rest of the game.
Ochocinco, who initially toned his flamboyant act down to conform to the Patriot Way, has kept an even lower profile amidst his head-shaking struggles. After turning down media requests yet again after Sunday's game, some couldn't help but wonder if Ochocinco is a step closer to the Joey Galloway treatment. Galloway signed with the Patriots in 2009, never developed chemistry with Brady, underperformed through three games and was waived soon after.
But if Ochocinco or any of his 2.9 million Twitter followers went to bed concerned, they woke up to hear a unified voice of confidence from teammates and staffers alike. Heck, O'Brien blamed himself for Ochocinco's route gaffe on Monday.
Whether his teammates and coaches actually believe what they are saying is certainly open to debate, but they're giving Ochocinco every chance to make this right. And why not? It's not impeding the ultimate goal of winning games (though that grab in Buffalo might have gone a long way toward making the Patriots 6-0, if you really want to fuss about it).
"Look, he's working hard at it," Brady said while offering his weekly State of Ochocinco update during an appearance on Boston sports radio WEEI on Monday. "We're all working hard at it. I'd say there's definitely a lot of improvement that we've made and that we're going to continue to make. I have a lot of trust and confidence in him. I don't lack for that at all."
Brady's initial reaction after Sunday's route confusion suggests differently. As does the snap totals for Ochocinco, who was on the field for only seven total plays against the Cowboys and has logged a mere 153 offensive snaps on the season (60 of which came in that Week 3 loss in Buffalo in which the team was short on tight ends).
"Ocho is progressing every week," O'Brien said. "He's done a really good job in practice and when he's been in certain parts of games, he's produced. We're happy where Ocho is with things right now."
Or, to be more clear, the Patriots are happy with where the team is -- 5-1 while getting virtually no production from Ochocinco. The overall play of the team affords players and staff the chance to pump Ochocinco's tires rather than focus on the flats that need fixing.
"We're happy with what Chad's done for us," Patriots personnel director Nick Caserio said. "He's probably one of our best practice players. He goes out there, he works hard, practices hard, he's out there on the field, he competes, he has made plays when he has had the opportunity. We're six games in with a long season and we're happy that Chad's on the team."
Don't expect Ochocinco to be anywhere but on this team moving forward. He's due $5.5 million this season and the Patriots aren't about to eat that contract regardless of his struggles. Yes, he's an expensive practice squad member at times. But the team has the luxury of having an overpaid fifth receiver, so it might as well stay the course and hope he eventually figures it out.
The key here is perspective. We're talking about the team's third wide receiver (and fifth passing option behind tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez). Through the first six weeks of the 2010 season, third wide receiver Brandon Tate had played 198 offensive snaps, hauling in 12 catches for 138 yards. Those numbers sound familiar?
Ochocinco is this year's Tate (minus Tate's production in the kick return game).
Ochocinco's contract status (and his status updates) puts him in a brighter spotlight. But it's on him to turn this around. Everyone else is saying the right things, but he's not saying (or doing) anything to make it better.
It actually might be therapeutic for Ochocinco to step up to the microphones this week to thank his teammates and coaches for going to bat for him and offer his own vote of confidence that all will be well.
Ochocinco might be enduring his own private hell on game days, but if you're the 5-1 Patriots and this is your biggest headache -- well, that's heaven for sure.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.