Where Did It All Go Wrong for Chad Johnson?

Ty SchalterNFL National Lead WriterJune 10, 2013

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - JUNE 10: In this handout image provided by Broward County Sheriff's Office, former NFL athlete Chad Johnson poses in a booking photo on June 10, 2013 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Johnson was sentenced to 30 days in jail after a plea deal in his domestic violence case was rejected by the judge after Johnson slapped his attorney on the backside. (Photo by Broward County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images)
Handout/Getty Images

When Chad Johnson, one of the NFL's premier receivers, took the field for the first game of the 2007 campaign, he had one mission: to top himself.

It wasn't an easy task.

Johnson was coming off of four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, and two straight first-team All Pro nominations. In 2006, he led the NFL in receiving with 1,369 yards and seven touchdowns on 87 receptions.

Johnson's undeniable skill and chemistry with quarterback Carson Palmer were overshadowed by his larger-than-life personality—on and off the field. Besides being—by several objective standards—the best receiver in the NFL, he was also its foremost touchdown celebrator.

Against the division-rival Baltimore Ravens, though, Johnson was at the peak of his powers. Following a sack-fumble that gave the Bengals the ball on the Baltimore 39-yard line, Palmer immediately called Johnson's number. His quick feet and crisp route-running got him wide open, and Palmer dropped it right in his breadbasket:

Johnson electrified the crowd with his play, then stunned them silent with his celebration. Donning a mock Pro Football Hall of Fame jacket declaring his induction class as "20??" on the sideline was a shocking act of hubris.

Still, there's nothing in sports more intoxicating—or infuriating—than an athlete who talks, and then backs it up. That season, Johnson went on to set a career high in yardage (1,440 yards) with eight touchdowns and 93 catches—and yes, he made the Pro Bowl for a fifth straight time.

As galling and presumptuous as his display was, it certainly wasn't out of line with his production at the time. In fact, even given his eventual fall from grace, Johnson's season-by-season production stands with the greatest of his peers:

It's hard to connect that larger-than-life Chad Johnson with the man just sentenced to 30 days in jail, per TMZ.

Johnson has always been a mix of sweet and sour; you can't separate his touchdowns from his touchdown celebrations. When he was in the midst of a first-team All Pro season, he angered opponents, teammates and coaches alike with his "Who Covered Chad 85 in '05?" checklist.

When Johnson, who'd already nicknamed himself "Ocho Cinco," actually changed his legal name to "Chad Javon Ochocinco" in 2008, it was on the eve of his worst season as a professional. With Palmer out due to injury, Johnson only mustered 53 catches for a paltry 540 yards.

That didn't stop Johnson from throwing himself into his Twitter account in 2009, or from immediately bouncing back to Pro Bowl form. Still, even as his professional career seemed to be back on track, distractions continued to weigh him down.

Johnson released a book, "Ocho Cinco: What Football and Life Have Thrown My Way," which was duly ripped to shreds by pro sportswriters like ESPN's Rick Reilly. There was the lawsuit from a car dealer after, Johnson claimed, he co-signed on a loan for a relative who failed to make the payments. Just days later, teammate and friend Chris Henry died tragically after a falling-out with his fiancée.

Johnson was visibly shaken by the loss:

In 2010, Johnson and fellow controversialist Terrell Owens fulfilled their mutual dream of starring in their own reality show, but The T.Ocho Show was a massive bust. As NESN's Michael Hurley explained, the estimated crowd of 112,000 represented less than 10 percent of Johnson's Twitter followers.

Worse yet, as Johnson spent more time working on his stardom, his on-field game suffered. His once-tight bond with Palmer had been publicly unraveling since 2007 when the two had a visible on-field disagreement over a critical interception. Johnson, not for the first or last time, ran a poor (or wrong) route and was slow to take responsibility.

During the NFL lockout, Johnson ventured to the Great Plains, where he attempted to turn his quick feet and lifelong love of the beautiful game into a trial with MLS franchise Sporting Kansas City:

Though his performance wasn't worthy of a contract, Johnson was named an "honorary" member of the squad, per Randy Covitz of The Kansas City Star. Turns out Johnson wouldn't be a real Cincinnati Bengal for long, either.

Finally, in the summer of 2011, Johnson's volatile persona wasn't worth his slipping production. The Bengals traded Johnson to the Patriots, where he completely failed to catch on. After a season where he was all but invisible, Johnson was cut.

Per Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe, Johnson made a sincere effort to focus on football and impress teammates and head coach Bill Belichick, but he couldn't grasp the playbook. Johnson, per an anonymous source of The Boston Globe's Greg Bedard, admitted his roadblock was mental, not physical.

After that, even the sweet notes of Johnson's personality—like his habit of treating Twitter followers to fancy meals—couldn't wash out the sour experience of his romance with reality star Evelyn Lozada. After flurries of updates about their dating, changing his name back to "Johnson," an unorthodox proposal and whirlwind Fourth of July wedding, it all came crashing to a halt.

An alleged dispute over a box of condoms ended with Johnson headbutting Lozada, per Sydney Lupkin of ABC News.

Johnson, trying to catch on with the Miami Dolphins, was immediately released. The Dolphins, then the subject of HBO's Hard Knocks series, had new head coach Joe Philbin give Johnson the boot in one of the hardest-to-watch segments of NFL TV programming of all time:

Johnson's ill-fated marriage to Lozada was officially over just 41 days after it started. Months later, Johnson pleaded poor in response to a child-support lawsuit from one of his children's mothers, according to TMZ. Without an NFL income, Johnson simply didn't have the money to pay the $5,420 per month he owed in child support.

Finally, it appeared as though Johnson was able to put his legal troubles behind him. Appearing in court to accept a plea deal that would save him from probation-violation charges, Johnson gratefully smacked his lawyer on the butt to show his appreciation for a clutch performance, per TMZ.

Unappreciative of Johnson's levity, Broward County Circuit Judge Kathleen McHugh revoked the plea deal and sentenced Johnson to 30 days in jail.

One last time, Johnson's charm and personality endeared him to fans and spectators alike—but his inability to keep his life and career in perspective cost him dearly.

Who knows how Johnson's story will end? He now has a closet full of skeletons and a driveway empty of Rolls-Royces. His pure physical talent is gone—either that, or what's left of it is obscured by his inability to grasp today's complex passing systems.

Can he overcome his personal and legal troubles without NFL money or NFL fame? As always, it's up to Johnson to re-prioritize and do the work it takes to make it right. He has the intelligence and charisma to do almost anything he wants—he just has to want it badly enough to toe the line.