Backs to the future?

Posted: 6:30 p.m.

Chris Perry came off his stool and Rudi Johnson bounced off the ropes Tuesday like boxers answering a bell for the 15th and final round when the Bengals opened their voluntary camp sessions.

With Perry finally overcoming an onslaught of injuries to appear on the field in May for the first time since his rookie year, Johnson checked in at a fighting weight of about 225 pounds in the revamped Bengals backfield. Or about 10-15 more pounds than last season.

"He's training his legs consistently. He's thick in a good way," said Chip Morton, and Ray Oliver invoked the image of a brawling heavyweight champ with, "He's back to being Joe Frazier. He got too cute. Now he's back to brass knuckles."

Morton and Oliver are the Bengals strength coaches that have help sculpt Johnson's body back to what it was a few years ago, when Johnson and Perry were two of the bigger reasons for the 2005 AFC North title.

Along with the training staff and rehab director Nick Cosgray, they also helped guide Perry back from a devastating dislocated ankle that has kept him out of the last 21 games.

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Perry

Given that he's only played in 22 games since the Bengals made Perry their No. 1 pick in 2004, Tuesday turned into a mixture of what could have been and what could be.

The kind of day where offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski simply walked over to Perry during practice and told him how good it was to see him on the field.

The kind of day where there wasn't a whole lot of talk about Shaun Alexander, the former Seattle running back and NFL MVP who visited the Bengals last week.

When asked if he could beat out Alexander, Johnson said, "I'm not worried about that. I'm already in right now and I'm just trying to get better."

Perry shrugged when asked if the Bengals needed Alexander, saying only, "It's up to them," but given the talks with Alexander's agent seemed to have gone dark, the Bengals appear to be waiting on how Johnson and Perry respond to their injuries.

So far, so good.

"We have to see how it comes out over time, day after day, but he got off to a great start," Bratkowski said of Perry. "It's been a while since he played. That takes time. Getting back to the sudden change of direction, the different angles to take in the routes you run. To a good athlete, they come (back) pretty quick."

And this is why the Bengals have kept Perry around since his one healthy season of 2005, when he would have broken the team record for catches by a back if he didn't miss two games because of an ankle injury in a season he also averaged 4.6 yards per his 61 carries.

"He's such a threat out of the backfield. I compare him to LaDainian Tomlinson or Larry Johnson running screen routes and stuff like that," said quarterback Carson Palmer. "You don't know what we've been missing. We've seen flashes of brilliance. You think back to that game at home against Indy a couple of years ago. Ripping up the middle, running draws and running screens. You don't really know how good he can be because he's never gone through a whole year healthy."

That night against the Colts in '05 he racked up 123 yards from scrimmage on 10.3 yards per his eight runs and added an acrobatic 28-yard sideline catch. Perry admits he's rusty and he's not sure if everything is back the way it once was, but he looked good enough that when asked how he can keep doing it, he jokingly wrote it off to "genes ... my Uncle Earl. Whatever."

There has never been any doubt about Perry's hands, and they were clearly on display Tuesday when the backs ran one-on-one rotes against the linebackers. He easily separated from coverage and Bratkowski noted some one-handed catches.

This is why the Bengals haven't cut him yet:

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Bratkowski

"He had (51) receptions for us, his average per carry was real high. He was a nice change-of-pace for Rudi," Bratkowski said. "He was a very important part of it. He made some big plays for us. If we get that back it's certainly going to make us a better offense."

But the real test is going to be how the ankle feels Wednesday.

While many observers thought Perry's quickness and cutting looked intact (Palmer says his feet are as quick as when he showed up for training camp as a rookie), he seemed more thankful just to be out there. He missed the camaraderie as much, if not more, than the game.

"When you're hurt, you feel isolated from the rest of the team," said Perry of the missed meals and road trips and games. "You're still part of the team in theory, but you're not. ... It was just good to get out there and joke around and still be able to practice."

Palmer says he feels good for Perry because he stayed a good teammate and stayed around the guys. Perry admits the injuries have matured him.

"I'm more appreciative of the things I have," he said. "I'm more humble. I probably would have given you a different answer my second year."

Johnson looks different with all the extra weight seemingly in his chest and shoulders. But this is the same-old-head-down-no-frills-four-yards-per-pop Rudi. But he knows it wasn't 4.0 per pop last year. It was 2.9 and he says it's not because he's washed up at 28 but because of the hamstring he pulled.

"I got (118) yards the game before I was hurt," Johnson said.

A painting of him running through a hole stood in front of his locker in classic Rudi Realism. Running backs coach Jim Anderson noted he was breaking a tackle and Johnson insists he still can.

No one doubts he has devoted the offseason to silencing the whispers:

Morton: "He's worked very hard. He never liked to work the legs, but he's been doing a great job with them."

Bratkowski: "Rudi's really worked hard this offseason. He's got a great attitude, he's really approached it as a professional and that's a real positive sign."

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Johnson

Palmer: "He's unfazed. Rudi's not one to get jealous or worry what other people think. He comes in every day, he works extremely hard. He's a big, physical football player that plays physical. Other than last year, he stays healthy. He stays in the weight room; he keeps running wind sprints to keep his wind up.

"Then they talk about drafting a first-round running back and Shaun Alexander. That's the great thing about Rudi. I'm sure he wants another running back to make us better, just as much as he wants his yardage because he wants to win. That's why he's been such a good teammate."

But Johnson clearly has confidence in his abilities. When it comes to Alexander, he says, "When yards are there to be made, No. 32 is going to make them."

Yet he doesn't mind sharing with Perry ("He takes the pressure off," he says) or the other backs in what Bratkowski has described as a semi-rotation with Johnson still being the lead guy.

"We have plays designed for other guys," Johnson said. "Specialty plays to give the offense different looks. At the same time, we know the bread-and-butter is to be physical. I'm sure we're going to get into a rhythm first. Find a rhythm in the game. Getting it right off the bat."

Johnson, the painting providing a nice backdrop, nodded and said what he's been saying all offseason in the weight room:

"We'll make it work."

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