Missing Chad Ochocinco

He's not Ochocinco anymore. He's become the Artist Formerly Known as Chad Ochocinco -- a ghost, a cipher, a six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver who seemed so pounded down Tuesday by having to answer waves of questions at Super Bowl XLVI media day about how irrelevant he's become to the New England Patriots that someone finally asked him, "Are you sad?" One of the few times he showed any spark at all was when it was pointed out he didn't get a podium like the Patriots' bigger stars.

"A podium? A podium?" Ochocinco repeated. "What do I need a podium for? I got 3 million people on Twitter. That's my podium."

Except if you went to Ochocinco's Twitter page Tuesday, his avatar was a cartoon portrait of him with two Band-Aids slapped over his mouth.

And he hasn't sent out a single tweet to his followers since Jan. 29, the day the Patriots left for the Super Bowl.

A lot of folks think this Ochocinco is an improvement. But I miss the old Chad. Not the man who wore out his Cincinnati Bengals teammates by the time he left last summer, but the harmless bon vivant who was once able to reconcile playing some terrific football with injecting some genuinely original humor into a league that can sure as hell use it.

Unlike his diva receiver pal Terrell Owens, who truly was an insufferable, mean-spirited teammate at times, Ochocinco was just a look-at-me goof. He proposed to a cheerleader on the sideline once, rode bulls and wrassled alligators in the offseason and putted the football with an end zone pylon and broke into a Riverdance after scoring a touchdown. And so what? It was good for an occasional laugh. The gags were a nice break from NFL teams that talk about precision and discipline with the self-seriousness of five-star generals planning naval exercises in the Gulf of Pontoon. And you didn't have to hide the kids like you do when Ray Lewis makes one of his snarling, almost orgiastic Scourge of the Universe entrances before games. (Ray? Try the decaf.)

The old Chad used to playfully bait the defensive backs he was going to face each week with the sort of fanciful barbs that left even them laughing -- then back up the talk by torching them on Sundays. He never won a playoff game with the Bengals, but once upon a time he really did seem interested in building his "brand" with yardage and catches, not just reality shows or stunts. He once made the two-hour trip from Cincinnati to Indianapolis with then-Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer to watch Peyton Manning and his receivers, just to see how the best got things done. He went the extra mile.

Now we're told the 34-year-old Ochocinco, comic genius, is an alleged slacker and a dim-bulb, slow learner to boot. He got called out shortly into the regular season in an extraordinarily harsh public scolding from Tedy Bruschi, the retired Pats linebacker-turned-ESPN analyst whom Patriots coach Bill Belichick once called "the perfect football player." When Ochocinco tweeted on Sept. 13 that he was in "awe" of how well the Pats' offense had just played, Bruschi fired back. His basic message was Ochocinco was an affront to "the Patriot way."

"It's 'amazing' to see because you don't understand it," Bruschi boomed during a WEEI radio appearance. "You still don't understand it and it's amazing to you because you can't get it. Stop tweeting and get in your playbook. Wake up!"

Former Pats offensive guard Damien Woody later backed up Bruschi. And retired New England safety Rodney Harrison did, too.

Ochocinco never rallied after that humiliating beatdown. He never made much of a murmur the rest of the season. But I don't buy the company line since then that it's as simple as Ochocinco being too lazy or incapable (both loaded stereotypes) of picking up the Patriots' playbook, even if given months.

Ochocinco was never the most disciplined route-runner with the Bengals, either. But do you think Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a man deified for exemplifying God is in the details, really didn't know that about Ochocinco when he traded two draft picks to Cincinnati last summer to pick the receiver up? Have you forgotten how New England quarterback Tom Brady has spun straw into gold with far less accomplished receivers than Ochocinco before? Ochocinco was brought in to be a deep threat the Pats haven't had since Randy Moss left. How hard is it to run a post pattern, or an up and out?

It's amazing that of all the reclamation projects the Pats' offense has had, from Corey Dillon to Moss and Jets castoff Danny Woodhead to the second coming of Deion Branch, Ochocinco is the one whose career pancaked within a month. Tiquan Underwood and former college quarterback Julian Edelman went on to catch passes and get snaps ahead of him.

The Patriots' receivers have reads and concepts they have to follow to determine what they do during a play, it's true. And Brady's impatience and refusal to pass to receivers he thinks he can't count on dates all the way back to his days as a backup at the University of Michigan. Even then he knew such receivers could be the death of him.

The most telling stat about Ochocinco this season isn't that he caught a mere 15 passes for 276 yards and a touchdown.

It's that he was only targeted 32 times all season.

At minimum that suggests that when the going got tough, Ochocinco never got going. If you think about it, he's never exhibited the edge that Owens showed during his rants and fights with the many organizations and quarterbacks he has played with. And what this New England season seems to have proven is Ochocinco doesn't have that kind of edge.

Ochocinco probably would disagree with that. On Tuesday, he invoked his tough upbringing to answer how he found the "strength" to never complain once things went bad for him this season. Eyeing his questioner, he said, "Do you know what I've been through just to get here? Huh? I came from Dade County [Fla.]. This place called Liberty City, where the odds were against me all through life, growing up."

But something else Ochocinco volunteered was far more revealing and contradicts that he doesn't "get" anything. He said he made this very conscious calculation as early as Week 3 or 4: "When you think of New England, you think of the elite of the elite when it comes to NFL teams. ... I act up on the biggest stage of them all, with New England, the elite of elite, where am I going after that?"

Ochocinco's silence has just been a shrewd business decision. He admittedly doesn't want to look like "a cancer" to the rest of the league if New England has no use for him. It's the same tack Owens took during his one-and-done year in Buffalo.

The difference is, unlike T.O. or Albert Haynesworth -- another experiment whom Belichick did jettison early on -- none of the Pats have called Ochocinco a jerk. Quite the opposite. Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien praised him Tuesday for doing everything he's been asked.

Nobody has charged the 34-year-old Ochocinco's ability or legs are shot, either.

At worst, Ochocinco just looks like a dilettante.

He's not dumb. It's just that when push came to shove and he had to choose between football as a sort of personal expression and football The Patriot Way, the choice was more conflicted for him than the other true believers who march lockstep in New England. As he told an Ohio reporter Tuesday, "You know me. All I ever wanted to do is have fun."

He seems to have been taken aback at the rancor this caused in New England. Or how much people have enjoyed seeing him get a comeuppance since then. Questions were put to Brady on Tuesday about whether Ochocinco can get a ball this Sunday. Just one crumb.

So if Ochocinco seems sad despite his repeated insistences that it's great to finally be in this Super Bowl -- a game he may not even play in -- here's a guess why.

He misses the Artist Formerly Known as Ochocinco, too.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.