Patriots' Ochocinco finally hits big stage, but as bit player

INDIANAPOLIS -- Chad Ochocinco was the last player off the Patriots' plane when the team arrived Sunday in preparation for Super Bowl XLVI. The wide receiver was alone, well behind everyone else -- a snapshot of his pecking order on a team he's surprisingly failed to enhance.

The busted trial of Ochocinco in New England has resulted in almost everything Chad -- the Ochocinco, the Brand, the Endorser, the Dancer With The Stars, the Football Career -- suffering.

"He was someone who was perceived as a great player who went to a good team with more visibility and became lesser in every category," said Marc Ganis, owner of Sportscorp, a consulting firm that helps gauge economic impact and viability of sports businesses. "He went from being one of the most visible players to relatively invisible.

"Is he irrelevant? No. He can get a message out to 3 million people through Twitter. He has a great personality and a unique name that once he's done playing, will be attractive and could help him get into broadcasting and the media."

Ochocinco, 34, is not irrelevant. His disappearing act still prompts stories like this to be written. And it's very telling that of the 12 players the Patriots will have at the crowd-friendly podiums on Media Day, Ochocinco is not among them, instead relegated to roaming the field with the other players.

One of the more charismatic, generous and charming guys in the league -- also one who seems self-absorbed but simultaneously harmless in his behavior -- Ochocinco's marketing appeal has shriveled. He's not on commercials anymore. Since he's with the Patriots, who frown on players bringing attention to themselves, he's also off the reality television and public appearance grid.

His flow on Twitter is hilarious, deep, shallow -- quintessentially Chad. But without the football substance to accompany the persona, his last name might as well be Johnson again.

Before the season, the Patriots gave up two late draft picks over the next two years to get a six-time Pro Bowler. It was supposed to be a better version of the Randy Moss experiment. What they got was somebody who didn't fit.

A team in need of a vertical threat in the receiving game got a guy who started three games but barely played at the end of the season. Ochocinco's numbers: 15 catches, 276 yards, one touchdown. That's an afternoon for teammate Wes Welker. This is the worst season of Ochocinco's 11-year career.

Ochocinco told the Associated Press last week that this experience has been "humbling." Yet, he is here, poised to possibly get his first Super Bowl championship in his first appearance.

He's been to Super Bowls before, but as a fan or a reporter for the "OCNN Network" -- an Ochocinco media outlet that was somewhat legitimate when his brand was peaking.

In fact, Ochocinco created a mini-firestorm at Super Bowl XLIV in Miami when he asked NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, "On a scale of 1-10," how likely was it that the NFL owners would lock players out of work in a labor standoff. Smith's answer -- "14" -- made national news.

The way things appear, that could be his grandest Super Bowl moment.

Ochocinco was inactive for the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens. Part of the reason likely dealt with him traveling to Florida two days before the game to deal with the death of his father. But Ochocinco's absence didn't seem to matter. The Patriots have done just fine without him.

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Coach Bill Belichick said this week -- and current and former players co-sign -- that the secret to The Patriot Way is nobody is really treated differently. Regardless of who is drafted in what slot or what his salary is, the best players will play.

Belichick said players have asked him, "What do you want my role to be?" I tell them, 'Whatever you want it to be.' "

He added: "Whoever's doing it the best, plays."

That means guys with far less name recognition like Matthew Slater and Tiquan Underwood have outperformed Ochocinco. This is the same guy who, from 2003 to 2007, had at least 87 catches per season, exceeding 1,274 yards each time.

Ochocinco's fall has been something we see all the time in sports, where a guy is the leading scorer for one of the worst basketball teams in the NBA and he goes to a better team and becomes just another guy.

According to NFL sources, Ochocinco still has a lot to offer athletically. The 34-year-old hasn't had the physical fall-off that accompanies age and wear and tear. He simply has struggled to fit into what the Patriots do.

Even when he was playing well for the Bengals, team sources said he routinely ran wrong patterns, which led to incompletions and interceptions. It's just that the offset of big plays -- and not enough other options -- made him far more valuable to Cincinnati than he is to New England.

With all this, there is still some underlying speculation that Belichick and Ochocinco might actually have something in store during the Super Bowl. With tight end Rob Gronkowski nursing an ankle sprain, the Patriots could use some help. Ochocinco could provide that. There's not a ton of film of him in the Patriots' offense to be diagnosed, and he can still run.

It doesn't seem likely, but neither did so many things that have happened in Super Bowls. Should Ochocinco somehow emerge, everything that's taken place this season could be wiped out and everything Chad could be back in order.

Child, please.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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