Houshmandzadeh: 'It'll be different'

OWINGS MILLS – For eight years, T.J. Houshmandzadeh was one of the most popular Cincinnati Bengals. He embodied their underdog mentality as a gritty, unheralded seventh-round draft pick. And he built a sterling career as a steady, productive downfield target, climbing to third on the Bengals' all-time receptions charts and ranking fifth in touchdowns and seventh in receiving yards.

Now, the former Pro Bowl wide receiver is bracing for the unusual feeling of returning to Cincinnati as a member of the Baltimore Ravens and occupying the visitors' sideline and locker room.

"It'll be different," said Houshmandzadeh, who caught 507 passes for 5,782 yards and 37 touchdowns for the Bengals. "Kind of eager to see how the locker room looks, see if it's nice for whatever. I don't know how it's going to feel. Emotions just kind of come to you however they may. You know you can't really control them. It'll be very different, to say the least."

Houshmandzadeh said he doesn't harbor any ill will toward the Bengals organization. As one of coach Marvin Lewis' key leaders, Houshmandzadeh was a major part of their transformation from one of the worst teams in the league with a reputation for creating more trouble off the field than touchdowns into a viable squad vying for playoff berths.

"The memories were for me not playing initially, being hurt a lot, Marvin coming there and giving me a chance to play," Houshmandzadeh said. "Had I been on another team I probably would have been released and I'd be at home now doing lord knows what. Marvin stuck by me when I was hurt.

"Team wise, the reputation of the Bengals, the stigma around them nationally that basically when I was there we sucked, and we got better and we were a good team, good offensively. We were going to make it fun. We were going to make it TV-friendly, regardless if we won or lost. It was always TV-friendly because we were putting up points."

Houshmandzadeh wound up leaving town to join the Seattle Seahawks when they gave him a five-year, $40 million contract. The Bengals didn't do much to compete financially to hold onto Houshmandzadeh, sticking with flamboyant wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and going with Laveranues Coles, who was a flop in his one season in Cincinnati.

"People were always telling me, ‘Wow, you want to stay? You need to get up out of here,' but I don't really like change a lot and I wanted to stay just because I felt comfortable there," Houshmandzadeh said. "I would say it wasn't because I wanted to stay and I didn't like the way they approached things. Thinking back on it and having been through the situation, they were just doing what any other team would do. I didn't approach it like that. ..

"I think the way they went about it initially put it in my mind that I don't need to stay. You know you want to do something, but you know it's not the best thing for you. Kind of like you have a woman and you really like here, but she doesn't really like you and you don't want to leave her alone."

Houshmandzadeh said he always had a good relationship with Bengals owner Mike Brown. "I thought me and Mike were cool, to be honest with you," he said. "Mike is really quiet. From the time I got to Cincinnati, me and Mr. Brown we always talked. Guys on the team that had been there for years were like, "Bro, I've never talked to Mike Brown,' but he talked to me. I actually would go out with his wife to lunch sometimes.'

The 32-year-old caught 79 passes last season in Seattle, but was cut by new coach Pete Carroll as he instituted a youth movement. Other than a supportive text message from Lewis, there was no movement from the Bengals to bring him back onto the roster since they had already signed Terrell Owens during the preseason. "I never really talked to anybody,"

Houshmandzadeh said. "They had T.O. and Chad. I didn't think all three of us would be a good fit." In Baltimore, though, Houshmandzadeh is already meshing well with his new teammates. He caught one pass for 27 yards in the Ravens' 10-9 victory over the New York Jets to open the season and he drew a pass interference penalty on rookie cornerback Kyle Wilson in the end zone to set up a touchdown.

"I thought he did a great job," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "Obviously, he made a few big plays for us. The biggest thing for us was to get him lined up, get him running the right routes and I think everything else from there was going to take care of itself."

Houshmandzadeh is familiar with the Ravens' schemes, but is still involved in a crash course to assimilate the terminology. "When I was studying the playbook, I was like, ‘It's no way I'm going to play,' because it was like Spanish, like Rosetta Stone," Houshmandzadeh said. "I was just learning. It was tough. As the week progressed, I started to kind of get a grasp of it. Even in the game, though, I was kind of stuck in the middle like, ‘Where do I go? OK, I go over here. So, things weren't really clicking naturally."

In the past four years, only three players (Wes Welker, Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne) have caught more passes than Houshmandzadeh's 372 receptions. "He's obviously well-loved here, he's a great young man," Lewis said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "He's always on my mind. He's a good guy. I'm glad he's in a good spot. He's in a good place, and he'll make a difference there."

Once a fan favorite in Cincinnati, Houshmandzadeh remains uncertain what it's going to feel like to return there as part of the enemy instead of the Bengals' trademark stripes. How will the receiver be received Sunday afternoon?

"Man, I don't know," Houshmandzadeh. "Expect the worst, hope for the best. I don't know either way if it will bother me. I started at the bottom, so maybe they have a little more empathy for me because I was a guy that started at the bottom. I was always supposed to get cut every year, so maybe they feel like I was a guy that always had to earn his keep."


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