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Bengals host open Mike as decision looms


Michael Johnson's free-agent visit to Cincinnati Saturday began like most of them do. A trip to the corner office to chat with Bengals president Mike Brown.

But for Johnson, like everything else about to transpire in the next few hours, it's a trip down memory lane for the man who played in stripes for the first five years of his career and he could make a decision as soon as Sunday.

Defensive line coach Jay Hayes picked him up at the airport. Hayes and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis took him to lunch and they then gathered two of his former mates and hopefully future mates Domata Peko and Rey Maualuga for dinner at Jeff Ruby's.

Johnson and his agent, former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton, are saying very little on what looks to be the last stop before deciding on a return with the Bengals or a reunion with former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer in Minnesota.

Now that Johnson is in town the Bengals can breathe a little easier after Johnson and Thornton arrived from Zimmer's recruiting invitation to the Twin Cities on Friday and Saturday morning.

There was a tremor when Johnson appeared on Twitter Friday in a Vikings uniform, but Thornton texted that he had not signed with the Vikes and was headed to Cincinnati Saturday afternoon. Thornton said there would be a resolution by Monday.

The trip back here doesn't necessarily mean Johnson is going to re-sign with the Bengals. But whenever a free agent leaves a visit and heads to another one without a contract, it's an opening for the next team in line.

Especially this one, since Johnson has never been bashful about professing to his ex-mates his desire to one day play again in Cincinnati with his old defensive line.

Thornton has been through this before as a player. It will be recalled when he was one of the most sought after free agents in the game back in 2003, he was in Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's office when he saw Lewis buzz in on his cell phone after he visited Cincinnati. Thornton eventually signed that six-year, $22.5 million deal with the Bengals.

Now Lewis is at it again, trying to lure Johnson back as his starting right defensive end. But the Vikings are very much in it since Zimmer oversaw the wining and dining of Johnson and Thornton Friday night in the Twin Cities. Thornton texted how impressively Zimmer handled it all and Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press reported that Zimmer even called Johnson at the airport Saturday morning and Johnson said, "He doesn't want me to get on the plane."

That's a surprise to no one in Bengaldom that saw Zimmer build one of the league's best defenses on sheer will, charisma, and brains and it resonated resoundingly with his players.

Johnson loves Zimmer. And back in Cincinnati, there's an entire locker room that loves Johnson and has lobbied for his return. Plus, it's the same scheme where Johnson had a career year in 2012 and is run by a guy he knows well, Paul Guenther, Zimmer's top lieutenant from those days.  And he'd have the same position coach, Hayes, the man that broke in "The Fisher Price Package," of 2010 with the sophomore Johnson and rookies Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins.

And since Johnson was deeply involved in the Cincinnati community, particularly in the schools, a lot of indicators point to the Bengals. But it looks to be a 50-50 matchup against Zimmer.

"No lie. Before it all started, I thought, 'OK, I'm probably going back to Cincinnati.' There's going to be some tears shed at the end of the day about my decision. It's going to be hard,'' Johnson told Tomasson.

Johnson looks to be the Bengals' last big free-agent target on the radar. They had interest in Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley. But given his injury history, off-field problems, and production of 13.5 sacks in four years, the Bengals were nowhere near the one-year $5 million deal the Rams gave him.

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