Bengals Mourn Passing Of The Essex Express

Essex Johnson averaged 5.1 per in '73.
Essex Johnson averaged 5.1 per in '73.

Right after he said, "Oh no," when he heard that No. 19 had passed, Ken Anderson couldn't help but think of two passes he threw to Essex Johnson 47 years ago on one of those gorgeous greenhouse Sundays in San Diego they both helped grow the pro passing game into the 21st century.

Same play.

 Thanks to the "Essex Express," Anderson wonders if the two throws on 86 Half Back Curls went even 10 yards through the air on two touchdowns that Johnson took 78 and 38 yards past a flustered linebacker long before those network match-up telestrators.

"I got about 120 yards passing," said Anderson Wednesday, the Bengals all-time passing leader as he recalled how Johnson helped get him there. "When you think of the great Bengals running backs and No. 19 was one of them. A tough, stocky guy that could run."

The 5-9, 201-pound Johnson, one of the club's original draft picks who became a keystone of Paul Brown's cutting-edge AFC Central champ Baby Bengals, died last week at 74 and left a legacy you can see whenever Bengals running back Giovani Bernard catches a ball out of the backfield or lines up in the slot. And it's just not at Paul Brown Stadium these days. Switch the channel and check out Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers' dual 1,000-yard running back.

 "Fast as hell. He could go from zero to eighty in three full steps," said Bengals Radio Network analyst Dave Lapham, who didn't block for Johnson until his seventh and eighth seasons that were post-knee injury.

 "I'm not saying he was McCaffrey, but a much earlier version of a back that could catch coming out of the backfield … He could have played slot receiver. He had that kind of talent."

Just check out the quotes after the Bengals finished off the Chargers, 20-13, on Sept. 30, 1973, led by Johnson catching those two touchdowns for 116 yards and rushing for 121 more on 21 carries with his low-slung running style skimming the sod.

"He's the second best runner in football," said Deacon Jones, the Chargers' future Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end. "I'd say O.J. is the best, but he's a tough kid .We really laid some leather to him, but he kept on plugging."

Johnson's teammates weren't having that. Especially Bengals Pro Bowl defensive tackle Mike Reid, who insisted the Bills' O.J. Simpson couldn't catch the Essex Express.

"He's the best. The very best," Reid said that day in San Diego. "Larry Brown can do nothing that Essex can't do. And I don't think O.J. is as fast as Essex."

That day began a heck of a run for Anderson, Johnson and a Bengals offense that won the AFC Central. Teaming with bruising rookie fullback Boobie Clark in a Fast-and-Furious backfield that took advantage of Anderson's accuracy and the advent of the watershed West Coast offense devised by Brown and assistant coach Bill Walsh, Johnson was a first down waiting to happen with 5.1 yards per carry and more than a dozen yards per catch.

That's what numbers Anderson could dial up for 86 Half Back Curl.

"Read the middle linebacker, go away from the middle linebacker and the middle backer went toward Trumpy," said Anderson, who can still see Johnson and tight end Bob Trumpy deployed in the route. Not once. But twice.

"And I threw it to him one-on-one with the weak linebacker," Anderson said. "Same play."

Johnson and Clark could have each had 1,000-yard seasons. Johnson hit the milestone three times during the season finale in Houston. He lost it on two penalties and a five-yard loss on his final carry to finish with a career-best 997 yards while Clark finished with 988 as the NFL's fifth-ranked offense rolled into the playoffs against head coach Don Shula's Dolphins.

But  Johnson could only touch it twice during that AFC divisional in Miami with 14 of his 17 yards coming on one carry before he ripped up his knee in a game the Bengals lost, 34-16.

"That was one of the critical things in our play-off game with the Dolphins," Anderson said. "When he got hurt in the first quarter that really took away a lot of our stuff."

Johnson, a sixth-round pick out of Grambling in that first Bengals draft of 1968, is one of seven starters in the '73 play-off game that the Bengals drafted out of historically black colleges. Wide receiver Charlie Joiner, acquired in a trade the season before, played with Johnson at Grambling.

Bengals president Mike Brown, then the club's assistant general manager, recalled Grambling head coach Eddie Robinson visiting the Bengals' practice facility at Spinney Field.

"My father knew the coaches," Mike Brown said of Paul's knowledge of the game at the black colleges. "He knew Eddie Robinson and they respected each other. They were guys with similar backgrounds.

"He wasn't a polished player when he got here," Mike Brown said of The Express. "A lot stuff was new to him. He caught up quickly enough and became our bell-cow running back. Really, probably the star of the team. He had exceptional speed, good quickness and he could catch the ball. Kenny can attest to that."

Lapham had just arrived from Syracuse as Johnson was coming back from that knee injury. He can still remember Johnson hiding behind his linemen as he took the handoff and then popping out at the last minute to befuddle defenders.

But he was never a mystery to his teammates.

"One of those good guys. Great guy. A welcoming sort of guy," Lapham said, remembering the day he made the team in a season Johnson would only play five games and not recalling any bitterness.

"He wouldn't shun a rookie. When I made the team, he was all about it. He told me, 'Glad you made the team,' 'Help us win.' It was easy to like Essex Johnson."

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