More than just a sidekick

Joe Kay and Joe Kay

CINCINNATI – T.J. Houshmandzadeh beamed as he reached out and accepted the scuffed white cleats with black trim and purple padding.

An attendant was delivering the gift he had requested from Deion Sanders.

“Deion’s my favorite player of all time,” the Cincinnati Bengals receiver said. “He started all the flamboyancy in football. He brought charisma to the game. He set the trends that guys do now.”

While Houshmandzadeh turned the cleats upside down, examining the gift from his famous friend in detail, receiver Chad Johnson dressed quietly at a neighboring locker. Together, they had just played the biggest role in sending Deion’s Baltimore Ravens to a 42-29 loss.

They couldn’t be more different – T.J. and Chad, that is.

Johnson makes the national highlights with his bold statements, big touchdowns and choreographed celebrations that would do Deion proud. Houshmandzadeh makes his big catches without fanfare, the way players did before Deion came along.

Different, yet indispensable.

The Bengals (8-3) are in first place in the AFC North because opponents haven’t been able to stop both of them. Johnson has 66 catches for 1,085 yards, hurting defenses with his speed and athleticism. Houshmandzadeh has 51 catches for 655 yards, making the tough catches with his sure hands.

“They’re both unique,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “They do completely different things well and complement each other perfectly. T.J.’s a physical guy, a physical blocker, physical when he gets the ball. He’s like Hines Ward. And Chad, he’s just physically a freak. He’s so much faster than anybody else and so much quicker and explosive.”

Their temperaments are very different, too.

Earlier this season, Johnson tried to get Houshmandzadeh to join him in having fun talking to the media about upcoming games. Houshmandzadeh politely declined – he’s not into shtick.

“That’s not me,” he said.

At one time, it was. As a player at Cerritos junior college in California, he was as much of a showoff as any of them.

“I’d be outrageous, going up into the stands, going to the concession stand and getting a hot dog,” he said.

The coaches told him to stop, so he did. He stayed low-key when he moved to Oregon State, where he first became Johnson’s teammate. Both came to Cincinnati in the 2001 draft – Johnson in the second round, Houshmandzadeh in the seventh.

When Peter Warrick got hurt last season, Houshmandzadeh got his chance and again formed a tandem with Johnson. Suddenly, Houshmandzadeh was known for more than his long last name and his long, curly mane.

He’s a proven No. 2 receiver who considers himself much more. In his opinion, he’s just as good as his college buddy, and maybe better.

“If you think any other way, you have a problem,” Houshmandzadeh said. “It’s a competition with each other on the team. He knows how I feel about his game, how I respect his game. But for me to say he’s better than me. …”

He stopped without saying it.

“They compete over who’s going to have a better game,” Palmer said. “You can’t ask for more than that as a quarterback. You’ve got one guy who wants to play better than the best receiver in the league. That’s a tough combination to defend.”

When defenses double- and triple-team Johnson, Palmer looks to Houshmandzadeh. That’s what happened Sunday, when Sanders and the other Ravens defensive backs made sure Johnson wouldn’t have a sensational game.

“He started talking trash and that got me into the game,” Houshmandzadeh said, getting animated as he remembered the moment. “I was ready to go. They’ve got all the high-priced corners there, so let ’em (line) up and let’s go.”

Chad and Deion would be proud.