Updated: 10:15 p.m.
This one is going to be debated hotly through the hills and valleys of Bengaldom.
Locker room gamble? Or bold move to secure a playoff spot?
Barely 24 hours after sweeping the Steelers with their blood-and-guts victory at Heinz Field to scale to the second seed in the AFC playoff picture at 7-2, the Bengals raised eyebrows around the NFL with the impending signing of controversial former Chiefs running back Larry Johnson to what amounts to a seven-game deal.
There was no news from the team or agent Peter Schaffer on Monday night, but the handwriting was on the wall when head coach Marvin Lewis addressed Johnson in his Monday news conference.
Two team leaders on Monday endorsed the move with right guard Bobbie Williams and left tackle Andrew Whitworth saying Johnson is an exciting player that can help the Bengals if injuries arise in what is now a playoff stretch and that the revamped locker-room chemistry is strong enough to absorb new personalities at this late date.
"We're loading up," Williams said.
With Cedric Benson hampered by a sore abductor muscle that has made him iffy for Sunday's game in Oakland and maybe beyond and Johnson looking impressive in a Paul Brown Stadium workout Monday, the Bengals appear to be opting to bring the 6-1, 230-pound former two-time Pro Bowler into the mix as bell cow insurance and not a threat to Benson's No. 1 status.
"He reaggravated it early in the (Pittsburgh) game, and we were able to get him shut down," said Lewis of Benson's half of play. "He really doesn't feel much worse for the wear. He has an opportunity this week. We'll be real cautious with him as we approach the game. If he's not healthy, he would not go. Well see how he is as he goes through the week. Hopefully, he can make a comeback on this."
Some will view it as a curious move that threatens to destroy the good vibes of a feel-good locker room with a guy whose latest transgression got him cut as recently as last week as Kansas City fans petitioned for his ouster following some embarrassing tweets ripping his coach and slurring homosexuals.
Others see it as a gutsy-all-out-future-is-now move by a franchise that usually cautiously plans for the future. Johnson is truly a rent-a-player (about $300,000 at about half the minimum) for this November, December and January for a team intent on keeping the same formula that has staked it to its first-ever 5-0 division start. Protect quarterback Carson Palmer with a punishing ground game.
Rookie Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard have served as good complementary backs, but the running game is centered on 20 to 30 carries from Benson per game and the Bengals can't get that from the other two guys. Or, for the matter, practice squadder James Johnson, who they like. If Benson's hip-groin problem is going to be nagging for a couple of games, Larry Johnson is used to toting the ball and offers a downhill style that netted him back-to-back 1,700-yard seasons in 2005 and 2006.
And if there are problems, the price is right for a quick cut.
Lewis said he sees Benson as his top back all the way and that Johnson is the fourth back if everybody is healthy and a backup player who won't be game day active early on. Lewis did say Monday he thought Benson could go Sunday in Oakland, but the club wants to handle him conservatively and that could mean he sits out.
"An insurance policy," Lewis called Johnson.
But it comes with risks, although Johnson fits right in with a dog-eared resume on a team that doesn't play with shoulder pads but the rejected-chip on their shoulders.
Johnson turns 30 on Thursday and lugs a lot of baggage. According to the New York Times, last year Johnson was benched for three games by former Chiefs coach Herman Edwards and suspended for an additional game by the NFL following two nightclub incidents.
According to ESPN, Johnson was sentenced to two years probation after pleading guilty to two counts of disturbing the peace. One woman accused him of throwing a drink on her and another said he had pushed her head at a Kansas City nightspot.
But before ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski went on the air to work Monday night's Baltimore-Cleveland game, he praised the move by the Bengals, saying they made a statement on the field Sunday and made a statement off it Monday.
"I think it's a move that solidifies us," said Whitworth, who has helped Benson to the NFL's sixth-best rushing total. "The way (Johnson) runs fits us and I think this locker room is so strong and our leaders so good that this isn't going to be an issue. This team has a way of going about things now. We're a family and he'll realize that when he sees that there is a way we like to do it."
During Johnson's visit to PBS, the sense was he would have "to win over some people" if the Bengals agreed to sign him. It's believed a good workout for the coaches was a selling point with the only question now why would he take such a backup role.
The 6-1, 230-pound Johnson, a first-round pick in 2003 out of Penn State, hasn't done much since the '05-'06 Pro Bowls. He had a foot injury that cost him seven games in 2007 and last year he had a 4.5-yard average on 193 carries in 12 games.
Along with Benson's injury, there is some concern about Scott's sore knee and Leonard is pretty much a third-down back. So there is no backup bell cow back. One non-Johnson option is to sign James Johnson from the practice squad and go back-by-committee. DeDe Dorsey is with the UFL, a season that goes until the end of the month.
Scott is wrapped up in his own deal. It is pretty clear he's the new kick returner and he thinks he showed enough against the Steelers that he'll be able to get some more snaps on third down.
"That's the business part of it," he said of the possible move with Johnson. "I can't let that affect how I'm getting myself ready. I have to continue to do what I do. People are pretty happy in (the locker room). I think it will be OK."
Schaffer, who said Johnson was unavailable Monday, said that his client understands Lewis' plan and "He's looking to go to a good team, a team that has a chance to go to the Super Bowl."
The Bengals are known for giving players second chances and given their experience with Benson they are hesitant to go off past reports because Benson has worked out so well after the Bears cut him following two alcohol-related incidents in which he was later absolved. But asked about brining such a volatile personality into the chemistry of a team that is purring at 7-2 above the AFC North, Lewis was careful to say he would not eclipse anyone on the roster and that he met with Benson to discuss the possible move.
"The one thing I told Larry is that we would judge him on his future and not his past," Lewis said. "I told Ced, 'You could help him with that. You can validate that.' "
"I think with Marvin on this. An insurance policy. Everyone knows Ced is our guy," Williams said. "I just think (Johnson) felt he needed a change of scenery from Kansas City. If he's willing to play hard and contribute to the game, I'm really excited to have him. I don't see him in that light by the media. We have guys who were supposed to be like that, but we don't have problems. This seems to be a team where guys come to get their career back and have a renewal."
Whitworth agrees that the three backs already here aren't going to be affected. "They don't have to worry. They're all good players," he said. "This gives us depth."
It's not all that of a surprising move. If Bengals president Mike Brown is known for giving second chances to guys like Benson and Chris Henry, he's also known for stockpiling big backs he calls "bell cows."
In 1995 he picked up former Steeler Barry Foster in mid-October in a move that didn't pan out when Foster retired after one practice. In 1996, he plucked a very surprised Garrison Hearst off the waiver wire even though the Bengals already had Ki-Jana Carter.
But the move also conjures up the memory of the Bengals trade of their disgruntled 30-year-old franchise back, Corey Dillon, to a New England team looking for a final piece of the puzzle.
"It seems pretty clear that if there were an opportunity here, it would have zero effect on Cedric Benson, Bernard Scott or Brian Leonard," Lewis said. "I'm very happy right now with what they're doing and their roles and I want to see Bernard's role continue to expand, as it did yesterday. If indeed we chose to bring Larry in here to visit, and spend some time with him, we'd judge him on the field and see what he can do. If we did decide to go forward, his role would be as a fourth running back, and as a backup player on this team, doing all the things backup players do, and that's work their tails off in the kicking game and showing looks and so forth.
"He would be an insurance policy if something would happen to our guys, where he would have a chance to be active. I can't foresee him being active when he was initially here, if this happens. That's what I told him. I had an opportunity to visit with Cedric, and it doesn't affect him, zero. Obviously this was already underway last week, so Ced coming out of the (Pittsburgh) game had no affect on this thing."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Lewis has a shirt for every reason and a slogan for every part of the season. When the players showed up Monday there were black long-sleeved T-shirts hanging in their lockers with the orange initials N.D.C.Q. It stands for "Not dead, can't quit," one of the rallying cries of this surprising season.
» Lewis has no doubt reminded his team, even though the 7-2 Bengals have the AFC North tiebreaker and a game lead over the 6-3 Steelers, they still have to win as many games as Pittsburgh to claim their second division title in five years.
With seven games left, the remaining Bengals foes are 24-38 compared to the Steelers' 22-38 with the major difference being what the clubs have left on the road. The Steelers face no winning teams on the road and travel to teams that are 12-23 while the Bengals head to division leaders Minnesota (8-1) and San Diego (6-3).
The two AFC teams that have the edge on the Bengals in playoff tiebreakers by virtue of head-to-head wins, Denver and Houston, have a little bit of a tougher road. Each face teams with combined records of 31-32. The Broncos, a game behind Cincinnati, have to go to teams that are 16-11, including the unbeaten Colts. Houston, two games back of the Bengals, are looking at 10-17 teams on the road. But the Texans also host the Patriots and Colts.
The Bengals are in second place overall in the AFC, two in back of the Colts and one up on the Pats. New England has to play at unbeaten New Orleans and is looking at finishing against teams with a 34-29 record.
» For just the seventh time in the 102 games he's played for head coach Marvin Lewis, Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco had just one or two catches Sunday with two for 29 yards. The Bengals are 4-3 with the last time coming in last year's opener in Baltimore. He had one catch for 22 yards in a 17-10 loss.
» The Bengals are optimistic they will sell out the Nov. 29 game against the Browns, but the two remaining games, Dec. 6 against 1-8 Detroit and Dec. 27 against 2-7 Kansas City, are far away from the mark, said ticket sales manager Andrew Brown.