12-6-02, 7:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Since that day in Indianapolis when he dropped the ball on fourth down in crunch time eight games ago, Chad Johnson has become the Bengals' big-play receiver of the future today and he dreams of the day he can set a goal for 2,000 yards in a season instead of 1,000 yards.
"The reason I didn't make (the catch) is being lazy in practice, not going hard all the time, taking plays off," said Johnson Thursday in a sit down with bengals.com on audio.
"After that, I really focused my energy on doing it the right way," Johnson said. "Going hard, running the route at the right distance. The little stuff means the difference."
Bessie Flowers, who raised her grandson from the day he was three days old in the tough part of Miami called Liberty City, has a sixth sense that he is becoming a bit more focused lately.
"He called me every day until this year," Ms. Flowers said. "Now he calls me once a week. He's busy this year. He'll tell me something like, 'Mummy, I have to go to a meeting.' I think he's shedding his skin."
But make no mistake. When Bessie Flowers read of her grandson's guarantee that the Bengals would win, she found herself doing what she did when Chad was 16 years old. When he missed class while he helped the painters outside paint the building, talking their ears off.
"I called him and told him, 'Chaddie, you've got to be quiet. You
can't say that. You have to think about the other team," Ms. Flowers recalled of last month's phone conversation.
"But that's Chad. He said, 'Mummy, I'm just trying to motivate my teammates.' And I said, 'Don't do it like that.' He thinks everybody likes him and he is a people person. I tell him, 'Not everybody is going to like you.'"
Everybody loves him now. The second-round pick from 2001 is on pace to become the Bengals' first 1,000 yard receiver of the century despite catching just 78 yards in the first four games. Criticized for being talented but unreliable, Johnson has started to focus and his grandmother recognizes the pattern.
"He didn't give me any trouble. Just the normal teenager things," Ms. Flowers said. "I did have trouble with him when he would goof off in school and I went and told the coach, 'When he goofs off, bench him.' And he said, 'Oh no, Ms. Flowers, I can't do that.' And I said, 'You most certainly can.'
"And I'd be at the game looking down from the stands and he'd be on the bench staring up at me, 'Why?'"
But she knew how to get him. He loved football too much, and he'd get his mind back in class.
Still, she would get the phone calls over at the middle school where she was a counselor. Chad, somehow, was late for class, and he would explain that he had to stop and talk to the principal, or he saw one of his teachers in the hall, or he was charming the girls, or. . .
"Talk? Oh my, how he could talk," Ms. Flowers said. "I told his teachers to put tape over his mouth if they had to. I told him, 'Chaddie, how do you think I feel about being a counselor at that school and they're calling me? Be quiet and don't do it. Concentrate on the school work."'
But there was always the energy. From the time he was eight years old, he was into sports. She signed him up for Pop Warner football when he was eight. Then he went to baseball. Then to track. She asked him, "When are you going to get your rest?" Some people ask that of him now because he takes virtually every snap in practice, running for the first team, second team, scout team, who ever is in a huddle.
"He always seems so busy. He doesn't call as much," Ms. Flowers said. "I guess that means he's growing up and that's what happens."
Bessie Flowers did a fine job raising someone about 45 years younger than herself ("I must have driven him to every field in the state of Florida,"), but it was time to move on after high school. He ended up near his mother in California at Santa Monica Junior College, and remains close to this day to Charles Collins, his offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach there. They speak several times a week and Johnson attends his camps in the offseason.
"I wore a lot of hats with Chad," Collins said. "I feel like I was the father figure for him. He liked sports, he never got to the point where he got into drugs. He never had a lot, but he's got a good spirit and he loves football. It's been a matter of becoming more responsible and being accountable for his actions."
There were rocky moments with Johnson. He had some off-field problems in California and Collins admits, "I didn't like him when I first met him. There was too much talk and he didn't back it up. I still don't like the gold tooth and the hip-hop clothes, because that's not really his personality. I've told him you're a professional and you are what you look like because that's how people see you. But he's got such a good spirit.
"His problem is that he's almost too accessible to people," Collins said. "He was a little bit naïve in that he was hanging around people who weren't good for him, but he didn't realize they could take him down with them."
Collins saw the spirit when he missed a season at Santa Monica because of academics. "He was so distraught, I decided to work with him in my spare time and out of 365 days that year, we worked every day except for about two weeks."
From the tape, Collins sees a player who is more attentive to detail and technique and is now getting the ball up field after he makes the catch. Despite the guarantee ("I've told him to be a silent assassin"), Collins sees a kid not talking as much before he thinks.
"He's become a more critical thinker," Collins said. "Every day, he's taking steps and becoming older."
He turns 25 next month and he understands the battle. He keeps saying, "I'm staying humble," and it's easy with Ms. Flowers down in Miami.
"He's always been respectful of his elders," she said. "And he's mannerly. It's always 'please,' and 'thank you.' I just want him to stop this guaranteeing business."
Now, he is into goals.
"A thousand yards is just average," Johnson said. "Are you putting up like 1,400, 1,500? Shooting for over 2,000. It might sound ridiculous. It's one of Terrell Owens' goals. If you can take yourself to that level with that type of expectation, that's when you know you're the man. With a couple of years of maturity under my belt, I would see setting the same type of goals."
For more of Johnson's interview,
The Bengals have allowed seven touchdown catches by tight ends this season and Bengals SS JoJuan Armour faces one of the all-time leaders in Panthers TE Wesley Walls. The Bengals' defensive line faces two guys they once considered in free agency with Bengals DT Glen Steele against Panthers C Jeff Mitchell and Bengals DE Justin Smith vs. Panthers LT Todd Steussie.
Anyone notice that Jon Kitna's eight starts coincide with the first eight NFL starts of rookie Bengals LT Levi Jones and he gets another tough call this week against Panthers DE Mike Rucker. The Bengals' offensive line needs a big effort against the NFL sack leaders, notably Bengals C Rich Braham and his questionable ankle vs. Panthers DT Kris Jenkins.
Bengals PR T.J. Houshmandzadeh matches with a NFL leader in Panthers P Todd Sauerbrun.
ARMOUR VS. WALLS:** Armour is trying to get rid of the "run-only," label he thinks he has been tagged with since he came into the league: "I've got to get them out of that type of thinking because it limits you. I consider myself a safety, period, who can contribute in both."
This matchup is a test for him even though Walls is 36 and griping this season about not getting the ball enough. He's got just three touchdown catches this year, but 52 in a career he has 427 receptions. His next catch moves him past Mike Ditka on the all-time tight ends list into No. 11.
Armour is getting a good scouting report from safeties coach Darren Perry, since Perry covered Walls some when the Saints played the Panthers two years ago.
"He's not going to run by you, but he's a crafty guy who will use your coverage against you," Perry said. "He's like Brent Jones when he played with the 49ers, a guy you have to patient with. When they get in the red zone, you have to be aware of him because you know they're looking for him no matter what his numbers are."
Perry's group, like the rest of the defense, has had problems. With the defense not being able to put teams in passing situations, the safeties have been vulnerable to play-action passes.
"We've gotten a little nosy in the running game because we're trying to stop it," Perry said. "That puts a lot of pressure on them. But the safeties have to be more disciplined, we have to read our keys because that's how we're giving up big plays."
Rookie free safety Lamont Thompson, a second-round pick who was supposed to generate interceptions, has been affected by the lack of passing situations with just one interception.
The Bengals have toyed with putting Thompson on a guy like Walls, but Thompson's ball-hawking skills are attractive in the middle of zones in centerfield. The problem is, they have rarely been in those situations _ because of the score or down and distance_ where a team is forced to pass.
STEELE VS. MITCHELL: Steele has been solid the past three games playing in place of the injured :Oliver Gibson, showing that he can be a durable, every down player. Mitchell has been the Panthers' most consistent lineman after the Bengals looked at him a few offseasons ago and weren't sure about his durability.
SMITH VS. STEUSSIE: In March of 2001, Steussie opted for the Panthers over the Bengals in a move that nearly forced the Bengals to bypass Smith in the first round and draft a left tackle. It didn't work out that way, so the two meet Sunday. Smith has just four games to get 4.5 sacks and tie last year's output. Steussie, who turned 32 this week, has been consistent in the running game, but he's also had some problems with penalties. The Panthers have allowed 32 sacks, the sixth most in the league.
JONES VS. RUCKER: With leading sacker Julius Peppers sidelined, Jones faces the Panthers next best pass rusher off the perimeter in Rucker, whose seven sacks contributed to his NFC Defensive Player of the Month Award for September. The Bengals continue to be energized by Jones' improvement. In two games against him, the Ravens' Peter Boulware, last year's AFC sack king, didn't touch Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna.
BRAHAM VS. JENKINS: After watching the Panthers on tape, Braham deduced, "Not many teams run the ball on these guys," and the numbers back him up. The Panthers have held eight teams to 100 yards or less rushing. Jenkins, like Rucker, a second-year player, also has seven sacks, behind only Warren Sapp among NFL tackles.
"They remind me of Cleveland the way they line up and play. They're pretty much in a 4-3," Braham said. "They're quick with good leverage and have good discipline. They control their gaps and if they have to get somewhere, they get there.": **
HOUSHMANDZADEH VS. SAUERBRUN:** Sauerbrun leads the NFL in gross average with 46.9 yards and a net average of 39.5, and is fifth with 21 shots inside the 20. Houshmandzadeh caught the ball Sunday, but he's still looking to pop some returns. The Bengals are last in the NFL with a punt return average of 4.1, last in the league.
NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for this Sunday's game in Carolina, including 52 and 47. The first is the number of career touchdown catches by the Panthers' Wesley Walls, tied with Dave Casper for third most by a tight . end in NFL history. The second is the number of TD catches Bengals' tight ends have since Walls came into the league in 1989.
32 _ Sacks generated by Carolina defensive line this season.
72.5 _ Career sacks by Bengals defensive line expected to be active Sunday.
0 _ 100-yard rushers allowed by Carolina defense this season.
5 _ 100-yard rushers allowed by Bengals defense this season.
4 _ 100-yard rushing games by Bengals running back Corey Dillon this season, one from club record.
48 _ Yards Dillon needs to pass Cleveland's Leroy Kelly into 32nd place on the NFL's all-time rushing list.
122 _ Yards gained by Panthers running back Dee Brown last week.
119 _ Yards gained by Brown in previous 11 games.
17 _ Touchdowns scored by the Panthers this season.
25 _ Touchdowns scored by the Bengals this season.
28 _ Turnovers committed by Panthers this season, third most in the NFL.
12 _ NFL-low turnovers generated by the Bengals.
72.1 _ Opposing quarterbacks' passer rating against the Panthers this season, fourth best in the NFL.
88.6 _ Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna's passer rating in his eight starts, which would be eighth in the AFC for a full season.
350 _ Yards Bengals have at least gained in last six games, longest streak since they racked up 350 or more in 10 straight games in 1986.
295 _ Average total yards Panthers giving up this season, sixth best in NFL.
179 _ Number of Panthers' receptions this season by 12 players.
119 _ Number of catches by Bengals from their first three wide receivers.