- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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In a celebratory New England Patriots locker room following the team's AFC East-clinching victory over the Denver Broncos in December, coach Bill Belichick called wide receiver Chad Ochocinco over to him.
"CJ, good job, buddy. That's how to go, man. Nice job," Belichick said, referring to the receiver by his pre-Ochocinco initials before pulling him closer and patting him on the back.
The moment, captured on the team-produced "Patriots All Access" television program which had cameras in the locker room that day, reinforced the Belichick/Ochocinco connection. Belichick has long liked Ochocinco, once referring to their partnership as an "odd couple." In turn, Ochocinco has admired Belichick since their time together at the Pro Bowl following the 2006 season.
It's no stretch to say this connection was key to what unfolded in recent weeks, as Ochocinco agreed to tweak his contract and take a $2 million pay cut in 2012.
The reduction was an egoless gesture by Ochocinco, showing his commitment to Belichick and the Patriots after his disappointing 2011 season (15 catches). Give Ochocinco credit for that. He had said all along that he was thrilled to be in New England after 10 years with the Bengals because all he wants to do is win. His latest actions back those words.
The easier route would have been to back out after a year and accept it as an experiment gone bad, but instead he gave back $2 million to ensure another shot to prove himself. It's hard not to respect a humbled player who takes that approach.
As for Belichick, he has cut more productive players than Ochocinco in the past, so why give him a second chance?
Perhaps it goes back to that connection, or maybe Belichick simply sees some type of hope that Ochocinco -- with the benefit of a full offseason in the team's program to assimilate to the offense -- could become closer to the difference-maker he envisioned he'd be when the team initially acquired him.
No, Belichick obviously wasn't willing to go there if Ochocinco's salary remained at $3 million, which is the coach's acknowledgement that the trade hasn't worked out and economics come into play (the Patriots paid Ochocinco $6 million last season between signing bonus and salary). But once Ochocinco showed he was willing to sacrifice significant dollars to hopefully stick around, it had to make it easier for Belichick to open the 2012 door for him.
However it unfolds, Ochocinco and the wide receiver spot figure to be watched closely when the Patriots hit the field in late July for 2012 training camp.
Assuming good health and contract harmony with franchise-tagged receiver Wes Welker, it's Welker and Brandon Lloyd as the locks. And if special-teams captain Matthew Slater is included in the mix, that's three receivers who aren't going anywhere.
After that, it's a competition between Deion Branch, Donte' Stallworth, Ochocinco, Julian Edelman and Anthony Gonzalez -- and, to a lesser degree, Tiquan Underwood and Britt Davis -- for what could be three spots. A high draft pick in late April could add another layer at the position, so Ochocinco still faces some significant odds to earn a roster spot. But if Belichick didn't think there was a chance, he wouldn't have the veteran back, and we all remember how he lauded Ochocinco two years ago.
"I like Chad. I like him as a player. I like him as a person," Belichick said before the season opener against the Bengals. "I like his enthusiasm and the fun he has with football, and I like how he competes on the football field. I have a lot of respect for that."
If not for Ochocinco's strong connection to Belichick, this probably doesn't unfold this way.
In the end, maybe the receiver's $2 million pay cut will just delay the inevitable, and he'll be cut at the end of the preseason. Maybe not.
The competition will dictate, and from this view, what's not to like about a player who gives up two-thirds of his salary to be part of the mix? Respect for Ochocinco grows a bit more after his contract adjustment.
22hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo