Houshmandzadeh recalls rise with Bengals

September 16, 2010|By Ken Murray, The Baltimore Sun

T.J. Houshmandzadeh caught more than 500 passes for the Cincinnati Bengals. He played in the Pro Bowl and a playoff game there. On a team where Chad Ochocinco was clearly the squeaky wheel, Houshmandzadeh was often the voice of reason.

But until NFL Network did a fantasy-league-inspired commercial in which his name was mangled -- not once, but several times -- by an unknowing fan, Houshmandzadeh had not arrived on the national stage.

Now, he's all over it. The Ravens' newest receiver is recognized as one of the NFL's most productive playmakers as well as one of its most articulate. In the past four years, he has 373 catches, third most in the league.

An unrestricted free agent in 2009, Houshmandzadeh, then 32, was good enough to receive a $15million guarantee from the Seattle Seahawks, more than $6million due this season while the Ravens pay him just $855,000.

Slow to rise at first, Houshmandzadeh's star has ascended quickly after the commercial appeared. In a fantasy-league draft, the unknowing fan called him Houshmanzilly and Houzyurmomma, among other feeble attempts to pronounce his name.

The commercial could have been considered offensive, but "it didn't offend me," Houshmandzadeh said Thursday, smiling at the recollection.

But, yes, he said, it did make a major impact, and it did put him on national radar for the first time.

"Yes, because I would meet certain people that weren't hard-core football fans, and they would ask my name," Houshmandzadeh said.

"When I told them my name, they would say, 'Oh, I remember you from the commercial.' So I think, if they didn't know the face, they knew the name, and then, obviously, when they had seen me, they're not going to forget me."

Houshmandzadeh will not be forgotten soon, if at all, in Cincinnati. When he returns Sunday with the Ravens, it will be to equal parts curiosity, excitement and appreciation. He spent eight seasons with the Bengals, helping them rise from ashes to playoff prominence.

But the native Californian is uncertain what type of reception he will get at Paul Brown Stadium.

"Expect the worst, hope for the best," Houshmandzadeh said earlier in the week. "I don't know either way if it will bother me. … I started at the bottom, so maybe they have a little more [sympathy] toward me."

Drafted in the seventh round by the Bengals in 2001, Houshmandzadeh became a fan favorite in Cincinnati and a key player in the transformation under coach Marvin Lewis.

"I'm glad for T.J.," Lewis said. "T.J. had a lot to do with the success of things here and the way people feel about things here. He's obviously well-loved here. He's a great young man. … He's in a good place, and he'll make a difference there."

Houshmandzadeh already has. In Monday night's win over the New York Jets, he was the key player in the game's only touchdown drive. In the second quarter, he made a leaping 27-yard catch on third down to cross midfield, drew a holding penalty on the next play and a pass interference in the end zone on third-and-long soon after.

Although he caught only one pass in the sequence, he was the intended target five times, including three in a row from the Jets' 23. His effort set up a 1-yard touchdown run for Willis McGahee. Houshmandzadeh, playing in the three-wide-receiver package, did not see a pass in the second half.

The flurry of second-quarter passes resulted from the Jets' coverage, Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. When the Jets double-teamed either Anquan Boldin or Derrick Mason, Houshmandzadeh was singled up against Antonio Cromartie. And that was a mismatch.

It was even more impressive when you consider how limited Houshmandzadeh felt in the offense.

"It was kind of a whirlwind," he said. "When I was studying the playbook, I was like, 'No way I'm going to play,' because it was like Spanish, like Rosetta Stone. I was just learning. It was tough, and as the week progressed on, I started to kind of get a grasp of it."

Cameron said Thursday that Housmandzadeh was taking the appropriate steps.

"He's familiar with the concepts," Cameron said. "I think that's the important thing. I think [Wednesday] he looked like he'd been playing in the system for 10years. … I think he'll get a little bit better every minute of every day. But he had no mental errors the other night and impacted the game. … He's doing a great job."

Said quarterback Joe Flacco, "I'm sure he's going to become more comfortable, and we're going to become a little more fluent with each other, and it should help us."

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