|The perception of Chad Ochocinco has changed through the years, from his time in Cincy to New England to Miami.|
The Miami Dolphins begin training camp July 26, with both veterans and rookies expected to show up at the team's facility. They will do so along with HBO and its cameras, as it begins the process of collecting footage for its annual behind-the-scenes show "Hard Knocks."
At that point, all eyes will be on Chad Ochocinco. The Dolphins signed the lightning rod receiver to a minimum salary for one season, provided he makes the team. He has already made headlines.
He married his reality show star bride Evelyn, live-tweeting down the aisle. He joined her in a reality show set to air on VH1. And he spoke to Dolphins media members for two minutes in camp, seeking "Brokeback Mountain chemistry" in the locker room.
Welcome to life with Ochocinco, where his own reality show does not equal reality. No player in the NFL requires a roadmap to cover him like the man formerly known as Chad Johnson. No other player makes fans read a How-To book before processing what he is delivering. No one else forces an observer to buy Rosetta Stone to understand his language.
I've been there. I spent last season covering Ochocinco in New England, a failed and futile stay that resulted in his release June 7. There were highs and lows. Confounding moments and successful breakthroughs. Moments where I delivered insight into his acclimation process and moments where I failed to see through the fireworks display to spot the dud.
With that in mind, allow me to offer some tips for how to judge Ochocinco's appearance at Dolphins training camp as he tries to earn the right to play his 12th season in the NFL.
Learn to compartmentalize
Ochocinco is one of the most likable and charismatic athletes in recent years. Talk to him for two minutes and you'll want to hang out with him. No shame in that. That's why advertisers pick players like him to represent their products. But don't view his bravado as gospel. Don't alter your view just because he tweets at Roger Goodell that he'll be back to celebrating scores.
Use your eyes and shut off your ears. Listen to former Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban. He counts among his favorite sayings, "Ignore the noise."
Ochocinco can say what he wants, and people will eat it up. But separate that from the product he's putting on the field. When he dropped more balls than any other receiver in camp last year, I overlooked it. I believed it when he said, "I'm human. Balls are going to be dropped."
That's what he said Aug. 9. Who doesn't drop passes? The answer: Everyone else. Wes Welker didn't. Neither did Deion Branch. Randy Moss, whose practice habits can be criticized, never dropped anything in New England.
Ochocinco's concentration might improve in Miami. But if he's replicating his case of the dropsies, it supersedes his words.
Ochocinco The Brand is not Ochocinco The Person
No player has used Twitter better than Ochocinco. The former Cincinnati Bengals star will admit in a private moment that he went from a player known for trashing his team (as he did on radio row before Super Bowl XLII in Arizona) to a fan favorite. It's all because of Twitter. He laughs, he jokes, he uses profanity, and he engages fans in his quest for the best lunch spot. He has created an image. He seems easygoing and open to public scrutiny.
But know this: He reveals only what he wants in a carefully manipulated stream on Twitter. That's how savvy he is. He makes it seem like he is an open book, though he opens it merely to the first page. Do not expect him to do countless interviews, to be accessible, to provide substance. He's more comfortable tweeting snippets about his life than he is answering in-person questions about it. That's just not who he is. Get comfortable reading the table of contents knowing you won't reach Page 113.
Return to the old Chad Johnson? Hold that thought
There is a line of thinking that Ochocinco needs to return to the player he was before. He's added to that by talking about changing his name back to Chad Johnson. This is bolstered by the fact that he averaged 79.9 receptions a season with seven touchdowns as Johnson, but just 51.8 receptions per year and 4.5 TDs as Ochocinco.
The problem is he isn't the same player now. He's slower, less explosive, older. No shame in that. Players age. It happens.
A name change or any other superficial alteration won't put him in a DeLorean going 88 miles per hour. Last season, before the Super Bowl XLVI loss to the New York Giants, Ochocinco dawned gold shoes and put in his gold teeth. As if he could suddenly morph into his old, brash, celebrating, fine-drawing self.
It didn't happen. He had just one catch for 21 yards in the Super Bowl, his only playoff production. Gold teeth or not, he is who he is. If he suddenly looks fast again and is dominating defensive backs, that's more important than what you call him.
Words are mostly meaningless
Ochocinco wants criticism. Just ask him. He said so Aug. 31.
"I want you guys to critique the hell out of me, as I can also do to you," Ochocinco said back then. "I hold no grudges."
Actually, completely untrue. Not only did he not want criticism, he shrunk from it. When he dropped a sure touchdown pass in Buffalo -- becoming talk radio fodder for a week -- he disappeared in plain sight. He gave few or no interviews and barely tweeted. He didn't lash out on the field in a flurry of production. He merely did nothing. Instead of drawing fire from it, it continued his downward spiral.
Ochocinco was a good teammate. He just wasn't good. The chorus was loud and proud and full of praise. It will be that way with the Dolphins, including from young players who grew up idolizing him. In the end in New England, it all meant nothing. He wasn't a player who helped the team.
Hold Ochocinco to the same standard as everyone else
Ochocinco once gathered media around in Foxboro, promised an on-the-record dinner with local reporters, kissed a male TV anchor on the cheek and walked out without another word. Dinner never happened, by the way, and neither did the interview we were seeking.
He once took this reporter to lunch early in his time with the Patriots, offering insight into his mind as a football player and how he would fit in. It was a nice afternoon. He gave a $100 bill to the waitress as a tip, a generous touch. The insight stopped when he struggled.
He claimed in an interview that he'd like to live with a fan in Foxboro, perhaps holding a contest. That sparked a lovefest about how much fun he would bring to Foxboro. By the time the season started, there was no talk of the contest or anything else besides his woeful camp.
Back in 2009, he claimed he bought up all of the remaining tickets for a game against the Texans to avoid a blackout. The reality was, Motorola bought the tickets. By the time the truth came out, perceptions were shaped.
I say all this to point out that Ochocinco fooled us all. He has a reputation as a fun, refreshing character, full of promise and hijinks. That delayed what we all should have seen last August -- that he couldn't contribute on the field.
He might contribute in Miami. I hope he does. If he gets his legs back and shows up in shape, he could be a force. But when trying to figure out if Ochocinco will help the Dolphins, use your eyes and ignore the noise.
Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @rapsheet