DAVIE, Fla. — Chad Johnson understands many were writing him off after his forgettable 2011 season with the New England Patriots. He even acknowledged questioning himself.
But less than a week into training camp with the Miami Dolphins, Johnson said he has no doubt he can recapture the form that made him a six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver with the Cincinnati Bengals.
“Why? Because I’m good," Johnson said Wednesday. “I’m really good. The odds have been stacked against me since 1978. I had a bad year. Finally. I handled my business for a decade straight. I hit an obstacle. I didn’t complain. I didn’t become a distraction. I took a bullet, worked this offseason, I’m here, still working. I’m not complaining. I’ll be back to normal. I don’t have a choice."
Johnson, signed by the Dolphins in June four days after he was released by New England, spoke to reporters for the first time since the start of training camp.
But Johnson, with painted black fingernails minus the gold shoes he had worn at practice, made it worth the wait.
“I’ve always been humble, but when it’s time to play the game and I cross the line, I’ve got to be me," Johnson said. “That’s what made me, me. I’m not a bad guy at all. I have fun. I give you guys things to write about and I’ll do the same this year also. I’ve got to make up a year’s worth of work, so you guys are going to be working double time."
It’s an entirely different atmosphere for Johnson this summer, who has been allowed to be his outlandish self.
That wasn’t the case last year in New England.
“It feels good to be able to breathe again," Johnson said. “Without getting into it, you should know what I mean. It feels good to be able to breathe. What you’re seeing now, what you’re hearing as far as how I’m doing in camp, that’s the way it used to be for 10 years straight. That’s me. That’s always been me, keeping everybody loose, including in the locker room, outside, bringing a different type of energy. But when it’s time to play, I always show up and I play."
After averaging 76 catches the previous nine years, Johnson caught only 15 passes in 15 games in 2011 after the Patriots acquired him in a trade with Cincinnati for a pair of draft picks.
Johnson, though, said he didn’t regret his one season in New England.
He said he learned a lot, including discipline, and how to shut up for an entire year.
“I never thought I could do it, but I did it," Johnson said. “I didn’t do one interview that entire season. Even though I wasn’t able to produce, wasn’t able to play like I wanted to, I learned a lot of things there. It’s made me a better player."
Needing help at wide receiver after trading talented yet controversial Brandon Marshall to Chicago in the offseason, the Dolphins signed Johnson after giving him a workout.
First-year coach Joe Philbin said no promises were made to Johnson, only that he’d be given the opportunity to compete.
Philbin said Johnson has caught the ball well in training camp so far and also has impressed with his work ethic.
“This guy likes football a lot," Philbin said. “He comes up to our meetings sometimes and just wants to hang around. He’s a little bit of a gym rat in that regard, which is good. You like players that like the game and he wants to know. He’s not afraid of being coached."
Even though his 766 career receptions are 276 more than the other 11 wide receivers on the Miami roster combined, Johnson isn’t taking anything for granted.
He said he is approaching camp with the mindset he has to earn a spot and prove himself after last year.
“That was horrible," Johnson said. “I mean, 15 catches? Come on.
“I’m working. I’m working like a rookie again. I’m flying around. I’m running around like a young dude, just having fun, being detailed, being consistent and working on my one weakness, which has always been blocking. It’s no secret. Getting open, never been a problem."
Johnson has never been shy about talking to his quarterbacks, and that clearly hasn’t changed.
“The other night we were walking out, we had the (next) day off and I said, ‘Chad, what are you going to do on your break?’ “ Matt Moore recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll probably be open.’
“I love it. That’s the kind of guy he is. He keeps everything light. He’s been a pleasure to work with so far."
Johnson, who recently changed his name back from Ochocinco after his Fourth of July wedding to reality television star Evelyn Lozada, is serious when it comes to re-establishing himself as an elite wide receiver.
Especially now that he’s playing in his hometown.
“Being here is awesome," Johnson said. “I’m home. It’s good to be home and I don’t have a choice but succeed. There are a lot of eyes watching in general, but being here, I’ve got to, bro. Really. Can’t fail. Not home."
So you win the Super Bowl and still get no respect.
When New York Giants players look at the first-ever AP Pro32 rankings released by The Associated Press this week, they will have more ammunition for their inferiority complex. For those wondering why the NFL champions would feel that way, simply check out the poll, which has the Giants third behind Green Bay and New England.
We know, the Giants knocked off both teams on their way to the title. But if there ever was a strong indication that this is a new season, with all new considerations, the rankings are it.
“Until you lose, you’ve got to be called the best, right?" Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said. “I mean, it’s a new year, it’s a new season, but we have the crown and we’ve got that target on our back and we know it. That’s why we’re going to look at it that way. Not to put ourselves above anybody, but just to remember that when we play a team, we’re going to get their best game, we’re going to get their best shot."
The Giants are not on top in great part because several of the 12 voters look at New York’s 9-7 regular-season record in 2011 and don’t see a powerhouse. Plus, the Giants’ preseason has not gotten off to a great start, with injuries (CB Terrell Thomas) and suspensions (S Tyler Sash) raising further questions.
Two voters had them as low as sixth.
“It’s easy to forget G-Men almost didn’t make playoffs last season until late push," said AP Pro32 voter Alex Marvez of Foxsports.com. “Let’s see if being defending NFL champions provides early-season motivation."
Voter Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News also saw early-season challenges for the Giants.
“September, October, November and December don’t seem to matter to Giants. January and February do," Gosselin said.
Still, the Giants did get five first-place votes, as many as Green Bay managed. Voter Clifton Brown of Sporting News summed up why very succinctly:
“Great clutch quarterback, superb pass rush, and motivated to prove they are better than last year’s 9-7 regular season."
They’d better be or making the playoffs becomes problematic.
That doesn’t figure to be the case for the Packers with their nearly unstoppable offense anchored by several players in their primes: Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley. Not to mention a defense that should be much stingier and features Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and B.J. Raji.
Even in such a tough division, where both the Bears and Lions — tied for No. 11 in the AP Pro32 — will challenge for the playoffs, Green Bay is the class.
“Pack went 15-1 last year and averaged 40 points a game at home," said voter Pat Kirwan of SiriusXM NFL Radio and CBSSports.com. “They got better on defense in the offseason."
So did New England, which received only two first-place selections but wound up just five points behind the Packers in the power rankings that will be updated weekly beginning on Sept. 4. And the Patriots hardly have the difficult chore the Packers or Giants will face to win their divisions.
It wouldn’t be a shock for New England to run away with the AFC East — that Thanksgiving night game at the Jets could turn into a Patriots party to clinch the division.
Like the Patriots, New England’s offense has the ability to dominate.
“If Patriots improve on D they’ll be back in Super Bowl," said 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon of CBS Sports/SiriusXM NFL Radio.
Not headed for the Super Bowl, but in contention for the top overall draft choice next April, will be six teams who sit at the bottom of the AP Pro32 rankings. The panel chose Indianapolis as the league’s worst, but the voters easily could have gone with Jacksonville, Cleveland, Minnesota, St. Louis, or Miami.