Breakup to makeup

12-27-01, 7:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

After Jon Kitna gave him a piggyback ride in the locker room Thursday, Chad Johnson couldn't resist.

"I'm going to carry him Sunday the way he carried me today," said Johnson with the ear-to-ear smile he has been wearing since Wednesday's practice. "I have no choice. What Jon told me yesterday made me look at the bigger picture. No matter what the offense does in the passing game, the blame is always going to fall on the guy throwing it. I've got to make plays. I've got to watch his back."

They may not be going to the Prom, but Kitna and Johnson are steady after Sunday's sideline argument and season-long sniping between the veteran quarterback Kitna and some of his young receivers.

The Bengals have had few players with the rookie Johnson's passion and emotion, and on Thursday he was honest and reflective for a kid who turns 24 next week.

He said he cried Sunday night after the Bengals got back from Baltimore. The guy who is always talking about making big plays came up empty three times in a game that could have swung with any of them.

It had been a tough, draining game for Johnson, the second-round pick with first-round talent. He dropped two wide-open, big-play passes. He failed to turn an interception into a touchdown on a leaping fade route in the end zone.

Kitna chewed him out late in the game. Johnson fired back. And the cold war that had frozen during the seven-game losing streak turned hot.

At least, it seems, until late in Wednesday's practice. As the defense worked through its last series of plays, Kitna approached Johnson and the rookie felt a huge wave of relief when Kitna uttered the magic words for a playmaker-in-waiting.

Trust. Confidence. Downtown.

During the holiday, he sought cell phone counsel from the NFL veterans who are Johnson's Miami mainstays, the guys from his Florida hometown. Edgerrin James. Keyshawn Johnson. They told him to let it go and get open next Sunday like he did last Sunday.

He still worried; fretting Kitna would no longer throw to him. He felt more than Kitna and his teammates, the guy he really let down was the man who lobbied so hard to draft a so-called gamble, a one-year wonder named Chad Johnson, so high.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski.

"But (Kitna) told me, 'Keep on playing hard. I've still got confidence in you. I'm going to go downtown and I'm going to look for you,'" Johnson said. "I was smiling ear-to-ear. I couldn't believe it."

Kitna explained to Johnson why he fired on him in Baltimore. The kid had been doing a lot of talking in the media the week before about how he was always open and that he could

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make the big plays the team needed. And then the drops.

"I told him," Kitna said, "the
the reason I said the things I said to him is that he had gone public and said some things. He agreed. We talked about that. I told him he might have not even said that stuff in that context, but that's how it comes out."

Rewind to the fade in the end zone and how 5-10 Ravens cornerback Duane Starks outfoxed the 6-2 Johnson for the interception when the rookie ran not such a great route.

"Those are things he has to learn. Things he has been reluctant to heed the advice of the coordinator on how to run that route," Kitna said. "But sometimes you need something negative to happen for you to learn. Now he knows."

Bratkowksi hasn't been thrilled with the headline words, either, but he understands Johnson is learning as much off the field as he is on the field. Johnson may not be so free now with one of those Pro Bowl quotes from a rookie with none of his 24 catches longer than 20 yards.

"Jon told me about the way I approach the game," Johnson said. "I'm a talker. I talk the talk, but I also have to walk the walk. Everybody is expecting me to make a play that I've been saying I can make. Bombs. Running by people for a touchdown. On Sunday, I didn't do it.

"You know who I really felt bad about letting down?" Johnson asked. "There was the quarterback and my teammates, but the guy lingering in the back of my mind? Coach Brat. He's the main reason I'm here. The guy who believed in me. I felt bad about that."

What pleased Kitna is Johnson brought up the issue of everyone rallying around the quarterback.

It's kind of hard for me to say it," Kitna said. "But on offense, whoever it is, those 10 guys have to be working for the quarterback for the thing to work. That's how it has to work. When you have guys out there doing their own thing, it doesn't work. Chad brought that up to me."

Which is why Johnson figures he has to let Kitna climb on his back Sunday instead of them climbing over each other.

"I'm glad he had that talk with me," Johnson said. "We talked about next year. There's only two games, left, but we can start getting better for next year. It's never too late to start preparing and he's got me thinking about that extra stuff. The stuff that gives you an edge."

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