All about timing

5-12-04, 2:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Rudi Johnson showed up this week about three months before he had to. But in his mind, he had to.

He knows he went from "Rudi," to "Rudi, Rudi," last year because of all those repetitions behind his blockers.

"That's one of his strong points, I think," says Eric Steinbach, who pulled from left guard to lead Johnson's signature "Power," run last year in helping him amass many of his 957 yards. "Following his linemen and reading his keys and blocks."

Timing. That's why he has picked this time to be here.

"Maybe they should," said Johnson Wednesday when asked if the Bengals should take note of his voluntary services. "But that's not why I'm here, so they can notice. That's on them.

"(The running game is) is why I'm here," he said. "We've got to start fast, man. Trying to start fast this year. I'm trying to start fast. We're all trying to start fast, so in order to do that, you've got to be here at some point in time to get that done."

Johnson is here now because he signed his one-year deal for $1.8 million Tuesday so he could be on the field for the first series of on-field coaching sessions next week. Because he was a restricted free agent, he could have conceivably sat out until the eve of the second pre-season game, which is what Corey Dillon did four years ago in order to be eligible for the regular-season opener.

But even as Dillon once said, "Rudi ain't no CD." Dillon meant only to say they have different styles.

And, he's right.

"That's the good thing about my situation. I've got a lot to prove and this team also has a lot to prove," Johnson said. "We're trying to prove ourselves as a team, and I'm trying to prove myself as an individual. At the same time, it all works together. But I've got a lot to prove. I'm looking forward to going out and proving it."

Johnson knows there might be a whiff of one-year wonderment around his three 150-yard efforts last season in place of the injured Dillon. Fine, he said Wednesday. Whether they want him to start or platoon with a rookie in No. 1 pick Chris Perry, Johnson is prepared to prove he's a legitimate 1,200-1,300-yard NFL back.

"Nothing is going to change from last year on my side," Johnson said. "I'm going to continue to do what I have to do, just like I did last year. Hopefully everything will work out the same as last year."

Last year, insiders and outsiders felt that the running game clicked better with Johnson than the three-time Pro Bowl Dillon. Because of his injured groin, Dillon simply wasn't able to get any timing down with the offensive line and, at times, tried to make things happen on his own while Johnson stuck to the scheme.

"Corey is a great back and I only got to play with him last year," Steinbach said. "He was hurt and he might have never been 100 percent and Rudi was. If the running game was better because of that, it was because of injuries."

Steinbach showed how much his athleticism means to an offensive line with the "Power," play in which Johnson follows the pulling Steinbach and fullback Jeremi Johnson. That was pretty much the play that Johnson ran 14 times in the second half for 165 of his 174 yards in the win over San Francisco.

"It was one of our most popular plays," Steinbach said. "Rudi did a great of following the block. He knew when to wait for me to get around and he would read me, see where I'm going, and then go. And he'd also read Jeremi. It's an important play."

Tight end Tony Stewart also opened up some holes for Johnson out of formations with two tight ends, particularly in the red zone.

"With Rudi, I don't have to guess where he's going to cut," Stewart said. "If I can get my guy, even if I don't do my job 100 percent, I know he's going to make it work even if he gets a little slice. Maybe to my left side, maybe on my right side by cutting it back. I think he's just got good vision. He knows where the holes are hid, and if not, he knows where else to go. He's a big guy. But he always keeps his feet moving.

"He's an easy-going guy, but he gets his work in," said Stewart of Johnson in practice. "You have to have a perfect practice, not just practice, but a repetitious practice, a perfect practice, to do well. I think he's kind of got a feel for the linemen and the tight end corps by working together, and I think everything went pretty well. Hopefully we can get that rolling again."

Agent Peter Schaffer expressed frustration and disappointment Tuesday that after making re-signing Johnson to a long-term contract a top off-season priority, the Bengals have yet to send him a concrete proposal and have only sent concepts.

"Here's a guy that doesn't have to show up until Sept. 1. There have been guys there who have said they'd rather flip burgers than go back there," said Schaffer, alluding to Dillon's comments when he went into restricted free agency. "But he's committed to what the Bengals are doing. He loves the coaches and management, but at some point they have to know his price is just going to go out of the roof once he hits the market.

"I don't like artificial deadlines," said Schaffer, who indicated he'll talk during the season. "But obviously, as each day goes by, the price is changing. What we think might have been a good deal in February won't necessarily be one in September."

But welcome to the Marvin Lewis Era, which treats any hint of controversy like toxic waste. Controversy used to be the life blood of the Bengals' locker room. But the only controversy the media could scrounge out of Johnson Wednesday was his Cleveland Indians ball cap.

They asked him if the Bengals had leveraged him with Perry, if the talks will become a distraction the longer the stalemate goes, if one feature back is better than two, if he can see himself playing somewhere else next year, if. . .

"I'm not confident, but I'm hopeful something can get worked out," he said. (If there's no deal) I'm able to become a free agent. I just have to take my chances. But hopefully, it will get done. I'm not even thinking about it right now. I signed a one-year deal and I'm going to play to the best of my ability."

Schaffer, who represents Hall-of-Fame running back Barry Sanders, is pounding the fact that Johnson doesn't turn 25 until October and that no back that young with two big years has ever gone into free agency. He thinks it would net a huge windfall.

Johnson shrugged, took his cap off, prepared to report to strength and conditioning coaches Chip Morton and Ray Oliver, and remembered the days he was fourth on the depth chart.

"I'm excited," he said. "I'm more excited than I have been in the past. I'm looking forward to doing big things."

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