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Disappearing act: Ochocinco has all but vanished from Patriots offense

by | CBSSports.com National NFL Insider
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The Patriots insist Tom Brady trusts Ochocinco, but the numbers say otherwise. (Getty Images)  
The Patriots insist Tom Brady trusts Ochocinco, but the numbers say otherwise. (Getty Images)  

There was one curious facet about New England's utter destruction of the Broncos in the divisional round that went largely unnoticed. In a 35-point blowout, a receiver once among the best in his day played only one snap.

Chad Ochocinco ... one snap in a playoff game. One.

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It continued a pattern for Ochocinco since he joined the Patriots. He's all but disappeared from the NFL while still being in it. He's a non-factor except on Twitter.

I'm not mocking of Ochocinco as much as wondering about his predicament, his current station in life. Ochocinco has 15 catches and one score this entire season. There was a time when he could put up those numbers in a single game. If you don't count Ochocinco's rookie season, his previous low for catches in a season was 53 in 2008. Only five years ago this receiver had 93 catches for 1,440 yards.

One of the greatest guessing games in the NFL has been why, and trust me: many league observers from opposing players to coaches and team executives all have watched Ochocinco's season with almost a sense of incredulity and disbelief (and some glee). Excluding that rookie year and this season, Ochocinco has averaged 80 catches a season throughout his career. He's 65 catches under that number now.

Why? That's the magic question. There are four theories floating around football, though only one is likely accurate.

Theory one: Tom Brady distrusts Ochocinco. I've checked on this with several Patriots sources. While each insists this is not the case, I think there's something to it. Just a little. And it might be better phrased that Brady doesn't trust Ochocinco as much as Brady trusts other targets more. If you had a choice between Ochocinco and Wes Welker or Rob Gronkowski, who would you chose?

Theory two: Belichick distrusts Ochocinco. See Theory One.

Theory three: He's not trying. "I don't think he gives a [expletive] anymore," one scout said. This has been discussed a lot around football, though it betrays what we know about Ochocinco. Despite his on-field antics he has always been a relentless worker. I don't think that has changed. I think he still cares deeply.

Theory four: His skills have eroded.

We have a winner.

What's amazing about some older veteran receivers like, say, Green Bay's Donald Driver, is that the reduction in physical skills is not obvious. Driver isn't the same player he was a decade ago, but he's still highly effective.

Ochocinco's aging is completely different. Everything that made Ochocinco great -- the burst, the sharp cuts, the movement in the hips -- is all but gone.

Some scouts who have watched Ochocinco run routes when he does get into the game claim they have rarely seen a star player have such a precipitous drop in skills so quickly.

"I watch Driver and I basically see Driver," the scout said. "I watch Chad and I see a different guy almost."

There are indeed moments when Ochocinco is almost unrecognizable. I've watched him closely his entire career and I barely recognize him.

To Ochocinco's credit, he's complained publicly very little during his struggles. He's barely quoted by Boston and national media. He's a strong presence on Twitter (the Patriots have two of the best athlete tweeters in Ochocinco and Welker -- each displays a tremendous sense of humor) but there have been no public complaints from Ochocinco. No demands for the football.

By all accounts, he has been a good soldier. He also offered some rare insights into Brady's mind. He told Yahoo, speaking of the argument Brady engaged in with his former offensive coordinator earlier in the season: "That stuff happens every day. Every ... single ... day. That's what it's like around here. Everybody is pushing for perfection and they're pushing hard. I've never seen anything like it in my whole career. You understand why this team is where it is. ... Tom is on you about the littlest things, that you were a step off where you should be or the angle is wrong or whatever it is. Really, he has me walking on eggshells and I haven't done that since I was a rookie."

A lot has happened to Ochocinco since that rookie season. He became one of the most feared wide receivers of his time. But now he's an afterthought for the most feared offense in football.

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