Chad Johnson and the Cincinnati Bengals square off this afternoon against the Steelers of Pittsburgh, in what is probably the most fascinating of the weekend's wild-card playoff matchups. Now, I could have easily said, "Coach Marvin Lewis and the Cincinnati Bengals" or "Quarterback Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati Bengals", but I feel like Chad Johnson is the real standard-bearer for this Bengals team. This is their first appearance in the playoffs since 1990, and while Palmer, Rudi Johnson, interception machine Deltha O'Neal and rookie of the year Odell Thurman are big parts of the team's success, Chad Johnson is the proverbial straw that stirs the literal drink that is Bengals football.
Mr. Johnson is an excellent receiver, but where he has truly excelled is in elevating the theatrical, performative side of professional football-playing. Johnson makes lists of opposing cornerbacks, and decides who has and has not covered him adequately. He will occasionally guarantee a victory against a noteworthy opponent, which is at its core a wholly meaningless gesture, yet there's bravado to it. In 2003 he did this against the unbeaten Chiefs, and then he backed it up with a win. He has concluded that stopping Chad Johnson is impossible, saying, "If I had to stop myself, I probably wouldn't be able to do it, either."
Wide receiver is a unique position in the NFL, because it is completely at the mercy of other players in order to make an impact. Even if a receiver runs perfect routes and consistently beats his defender, his success is predicated on the coach calling his number on a play, the offensive line delaying the pass rush so he has time to break free, the quarterback spotting him and delivering the ball. And yet, when a wide receiver is truly on his game, there is really no more devastating weapon, as any 49ers fan weaned on the exploits of Jerry Rice can attest. Such is the paradox and tenuousness of the NFL wide receiver. It may be why wide receivers often seem so volatile: the conflict between their potential impact on a game and their accompanying lack of control over same.
For some reason, Chad Johnson is in some circles a polarizing, controversial player. Observers will lump him in with Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, the former who criticizes every quarterback, coach, and team he plays for, and the latter who is rightly known for giving minimal effort when a play does not concern him directly. Chad Johnson is quite serious, supports his teammates, and works hard, to the point of sleeping at the team's practice facility so he can watch game film longer. So why is he considered a cancer by some?
It's the same reason that he should be celebrated. Chad Johnson has taken touchdown celebrations to a new pinnacle this season. Many touchdown celebrations seem self-glorifying, but Chad Johnson tailors his for geographic regions. He includes props and cinematic allusions. The difference between his stuff and that of Terrell Owens is that Johnson doesn't seem to be mugging for attention, or showing up the opponents, like Owens. Instead, his routines are basically just goofy, with their sole purpose being to entertain the fans, home or away. He clearly loves playing football and he's a happy guy.
And unlike Owens, Chad Johnson is legitimately funny. Against the Chicago Bears this year, Johnson scored and did an Irish jig in the end zone, which was either a reference to Bruce Willis's similar dance in The Last Boy Scout or a subtle dig at Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, who recently fathered a child with a woman who had previously sued Lord of the Dance Michael Flatley. He threw autographed gifts to the crowd in a game against Buffalo. Against Baltimore, he picked up the end zone pylon and putted the football like Tiger Woods. He proposed marriage to a cheerleader. He even claimed to be keeping a deer in his garage at home, to be used in a touchdown celebration later, and reporters dutifully reported it as fact.
So, Chad Johnson is really good, and he makes the game more entertaining. If the Bengals pull off the victory today, Zembla will feature its own victory celebration, with a look at some other notable sports displays in past years.
[NOTE: A few hours before the game, Johnson spent time with tailgaters in the parking lot, thanking them for their support. Even though the Bengals fell short today, dude, the starting QB tore his ACL on the first pass of the game. Hard to come back from that. Chad Johnson still played like a winner today.]