Playing With a Chip On His Shoulder

New England Patriots wide receiver Bethel Johnson has had time to improve his game and learn the offense. What he hasn't had is a chance to crack the starting lineup as the No. 2 receiver. Johnson yearns for the opportunity to prove his critics wrong, and to become the receiver the Patriots thought they were getting when they drafted him. But will Patriots give him a chance to prove he belongs?

Patriots wide receiver Bethel Johnson's three-year NFL career has been a complete disappointment. As harsh as it might sound, it's the truth.

In 39 career games the former second-round pick out of Texas A&M has just seven starts with 30 receptions for 450 yards and four touchdowns as nothing much more than a fourth or fifth wideout in New England. His greatest contributions have come as a kick returner, with a 25.1-yard average and two scores over three seasons, though even his production in that role has decreased each year since his AFC-leading 28.2-yard average as a rookie in 2003.

Those aren't the sort of numbers the Patriots were looking for when they made Johnson a somewhat surprising second-round pick after a career at A&M in which he set a school career records with 117 receptions for 1,740 yards with 11 touchdowns. And the pro production certainly doesn't fall in line with his 4.3-second 40-yard dash speed, which makes him one of the fastest players in the game.

Disappointment is the word to attach to Johnson right now and he knows it. In fact, he's worried that the opportunities to make a name for himself in the NFL may be passing him by.

"I have been totally disappointed because I know what type of player that I am," the confident Johnson said of his first three seasons. "For me to be in the situation that I have been in, it's disappointing because I know what I can do. And me being such a competitor, it's hard for me to sit and watch. I hate it. I hate it with a passion. I want to be to be able to do this, that and whatever. But the opportunity just passes you by. And I never wanted to be one of those people where people don't know I've done something -- like you don't know that Bethel Johnson played in the NFL after it's all said and done. I don't want the years to keep passing me by and not be doing anything."

Johnson claims that he's worked as hard as anyone to crack the regular offensive rotation in New England and that he knows the offense as well as can be expected, but that things just haven't worked out. Injuries, including a variety of different leg problems and a pelvis injury late last season, have limited him. But it would seem that there has to be more to it than that, especially for a team that's had to use a variety of fill-in wideouts at times in recent years ahead of a player with such raw speed and potential.

What's to blame for the lack of playing time and production? What does Johnson have to do to become a more productive force and not let the opportunities continue to pass him by?

"I do everything that I have to do every single year to make it happen. But it's not up to me," Johnson said. "I've asked that question for the last three years, really. But apparently it's not getting ... what they asked me to do -- catch the ball better -- I stay and catch the ball. Run routes better. I run my routes the way they ask me to do. I do what I have to do. I just feel something is not there."

And with the team's signing of Reche Caldwell and drafting Chad Jackson, there might not be much more time for that "something" to arrive for Johnson in New England. Johnson knows he could be coming to the end of his opportunities with the Patriots, but is still quite determined to revive what's been a dead career to date.

"I always like when people have the chips stacked against me and tell me what I can't do," Johnson said. "I've been spending 27 years proving people wrong. Keep it coming. Keep it coming, because it just motivates me."

That motivation, coupled with good health and an opening in the hole left by the departure of David Givens, could make training camp 2006 Johnson's best, last chance to prove himself to Belichick.

"I don't think they have written me off because if they wrote me off I'd have been gone by now," Johnson said. "I think they know what I can do, really. I always say that I didn't have a fair chance at proving it.

"I have a lot on my shoulders -- big chip."

Now the only question is whether that chip will lead to big production, something that everyone's been waiting for from Johnson for years, or if his career in New England finally come crashing down under its weight.

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