For most of his career, Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson was the living, breathing, football-catching antibody to the No Fun League.
The receiver, who rose to Pro Bowl prominence with the Bengals, brought a creative flair to his touchdown celebrations, invoking the wrath of commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL's corporate Park Avenue offices. Johnson lost thousands of dollars in fines for his many and varied post-scoring dramatic adventures, which ran the gamut from donning a mustard-colored faux Hall of Fame jacket to rocking "Riverdance" routines in the end zone.
Johnson's personal Kabuki dance with Goodell made for great off-the-field theatre as well, with the flamboyant wideout begging for mercy at times and not afraid to fire off a barb or two at others. His running feud with The Man sometimes felt like a script right out of professional wrestling, with Goodell alternating between The Heel and The Face. And while surely there was a "Hey, ma, look at me!" element to it all and Johnson adored the attention while becoming a giant at the onset of this social-media age, it all seemed fairly harmless and comical to me -- then and now -- with Johnson not vengeful or overly taunting in his actions and gestures.
And as it turns out, he was a man ahead of his time.
In his running match of wits with Goodell, Johnson actually got the last laugh. As now, five full seasons after Johnson's last NFL reception, the league office is seeing things more his way, withand allow players to engage in more full-throttled celebrations.
Johnson was the first person many thought of when the relaxed rules were adopted at the NFL meeting in Chicago this week. What you probably didn't know was that the man who once legally changed his last name to Ochocinco actually had a voice in the matter.
I couldn't help but picture Johnson puffing on one of the Cuban cigars he loves so much to celebrate this recent turn of events, but he maintains that he took the good news in stride.
"Well, I didn't puff a cigar, but I knew the rule change was coming," Johnson told me during an in-depth interview on the latest "B-More Opinionated" podcast. "I had talked to Roger [Goodell] a couple of times at length, maybe two or three times, before the rule change came out. And he asked my advice on what he could do to be able to loosen the reins on the celebration rules, but at the same time maintain the respect and integrity of the game.
"And I said, 'It's a fine line, and you have to find a way to find a balance between letting the players have fun and be themselves, without losing the integrity of the game as well.' And honestly, I told him, 'You only have to worry about who is celebrating and actually making the headlines, and that would be your top players who consistently score all the time.'"
Current NFL superstars and diva receivers, Mr. Johnson is speaking to you. And he's right -- there is a small core of players who get into the end zone frequently enough to really cause a stir the way Johnson and one-time teammate Terrell Owens did back in the day. Let's face it, this is mostly about the guys who catch the ball. Besides "The Ickey Shuffle" (which the NFL quickly clamped down on), you don't tend to think too much about running backs doing this stuff. And besides Cam Newton, probably not many current quarterbacks, either.
So, Odell Beckham, Antonio Brown, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, etc., Chad will be watching closely, and as you now know, he does have the commissioner's ear. Johnson said an evolution to a more lenient NFL was natural and a long time coming. And given all the headlines about Nielsen ratings a year ago, he hardly seems surprised that the time for change is now.
"I think we as former players, we don't really have to say anything," Johnson said during a wildly entertaining 20-minute interview that touched on other topics as well. "I think they can see it in the ratings, with ratings being down. And If I'm not mistaken, last year the ratings were some of the lowest as far as views are concerned from a TV standpoint. It's obvious. It's obvious. This is a game of entertainment. Back in the days where gladiators used to fight it was for entertainment purposes; that's what sports are -- entertainment. And when you take that part of the game away, what are you watching? You're watching a bunch of robots. It's like watching a video game."
The man has a point.
And have I mentioned yet that I miss seeing this guy go to wild lengths to do his thing on Sundays? It might have become slightly played out in the end, but you cannot argue that Johnson didn't try to give fans a spectacle while trying to elevate what could be some awfully mundane Bengals-Browns games back in the day, for instance. Perhaps it was selfish, but it was never mean-spirited.
"Nothing I did was ever in a malicious manner," Johnson said. "It was all about entertaining folks and it got the point where the people I was playing that week wanted to know what I was doing week in and week out. That's how you knew it was never malicious. … It was all in fun."
Players can now try to duplicate some of Johnson's greatest hits without threat of harm to their paycheck. They can use the football as a prop (Johnson once pretended to give a ball CPR and used a goal-line pylon to "putt" a football after another score), celebrate en masse and generally be more creative and free in their jubilation (Johnson also took over a behind-the-end zone television camera once after scoring and fake proposed to a cheerleader, too).
Of course, anything deemed violent or taunting is still banned, as is twerking and(so while Johnson has been liberated, my buddy and former colleague, Tony Gonzalez, still would be in NFL purgatory for his celebration of choice).
"I don't think anyone is going to be that overboard about it, and that creative with it," Johnson said, assured that his title as Celebrator Supreme is safe. "I was way ahead of my time when it came to the things that I did. I doubt that anyone goes that far."
According to Johnson, his conversations with Goodell continue to this day, and not always about football or rule changes or the state of the game. He has had Goodell's cell phone on speed dial since his playing days, and they chat at least every few weeks. "We talk on the regular," Johnson said of the embattled commissioner.
The NFL declined to comment on Johnson or any other player's involvement in the process and does not intend to discuss those interactions publicly.
Johnson also doesn't go more than a few weeks without chatting with his former longtime coach, Marvin Lewis, a member of the league's Competition Committee who came out strongly against altering the celebration rules. (Johnson said he speaks to Browns coach Hue Jackson, with whom he goes way back, at least once a week as well, and he's still trying to convince Jackson to give him a training camp invite for August.)
Johnson began to chuckle immediately when asked about Lewis' declaration this week that allowing players more time and space to celebrate individually or as a groupOnce again, the two men, who share a deep affinity for one another, do not see eye to eye.
"Listen, if it was a team game," Johnson explained, "which it is, because there are 11 people on the field -- but then all 11 players should be paid equally, the same. Let's stop that, you know? There are different contracts and different levels of money, and people earn different salaries based on their individual performance."
It was not uncommon to learn, every Friday when the league would confirm fines for the previous week, that Johnson had been docked $30,000 for some violation or $20,000 for another. He once threatened to more or less live tweet a game (thereby kick starting the NFL's fledgling social media policy). Johnson said he has no idea what the gross figure came to for all of his celebration fines -- my educated guess would be several hundred thousand dollars, at least -- but I suggested he might reach out to the NFL Players Association, which probably has such records.
At this point, I say give the man a refund. And, while the NFL is at it, maybe make him The Minister of Fun and allow him to work for the league office and help decide if certain celebrations did in fact cross the line. There would be no better liaison on the planet to mediate an issue like this with the current players.
"I should get something back," Johnson concurred. "Over a decade long, 11 years, of celebrations, they gotta give me something back."
Good thing for him he already has Goodell's number.